Transitioning from politics to diplomacy

Josephine Ojiambo
Ambassador Josephine Ojiambo. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU 

Ambassador Josephine Ojiambo has been globetrotting ever since she was a month-old tot. That was when she got airlifted to the UK with her parents who were travelling on Commonwealth scholarships. It was the early 1960s and Kenya was on the verge of Independence. Her mother, Julia was on her way for further studies at the Royal College of Nursing while her father was travelling on from London to Scotland where he would study cardiology at University of Edinburgh. MARGARETTA WA GACHERU sat down for a chat with Josephine.

How have your parents’ experiences influenced your life?

In many ways. They were among the first generation of public servants in Kenya, along with couples including Kenneth Matiba and his wife Edith who were in the UK on scholarships at the same time as my parents. My father became Kenya’s first Cardiologist and my mother the first woman leader to become a Cabinet Minister. And I too have committed my life to public service.

In what ways have you illustrated that commitment to public service?

Where do I begin? I was appointed by President Mwai Kibaki to serve as Kenya’s Ambassador to the United Nations in 2010. Prior to that, I worked with women leaders and Madam Graca Machel to assist in unifying the country during post-election violence period. We developed a social cohesion strategy during that period of political transition. We also proposed the formation of a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission. We were also part of the constitution-making process. And with the churches, we also were involved in airlifting IDPs and bringing them food and other essentials when they were getting them out of the Rift Valley.


Do you consider yourself a politician?

Not really although I grew up in a political family. My mother was an active member of KANU and for a time, I was elected Gender Secretary of the party. Briefly, I was even the Secretary General, but then when PNU was formed, I joined it. But actually, my background is in Public Health, initially from University of Nairobi and then my Master’s is from Hebrew University.

How did you use your background in Public Health?

In many ways, first with organisations such as UNICEF, the Aga Khan Foundation and American Refugee Service where I was involved in Immunisation campaigns including a campaign to eradicate polio. I also became President of the Kenya Medical Women’s Association where we worked to ratify the Children’s Act among other national, African and global concerns. We also liaised with a number of international women’s organisations including one at the Commonwealth Secretariat.

So it wasn’t only your parents who had links with the Commonwealth?

Oh no, for three years [from 2015-2018] I served as the Deputy Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Secretariat. And before that, I was special advisor to the president and executive director of the Commonwealth Business Women’s Association.

Was it a challenge having to move to London when you became Deputy Secretary-General?

Not really since my children were grown up by then and remember, I had lived in New York when I served as the Kenyan Ambassador to the UN. Before that, I was frequently traveling around East Africa assisting in refugee relief with the groups I already mentioned. Besides that, I had been well-trained in diplomacy by Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs prior to my work as Ambassador to the UN.

Did you find the work at the Commonwealth Secretariat very different from working in New York at the UN?

Yes, there was a big difference. For one thing, as Kenya’s Ambassador, my main concern was serving my country’s interests while at the Secretariat, my work related to the Commonwealth’s 54 member-states which stretched across five regions and included more than 2.4 million people. I was responsible for managing a 30 million Pound core budget as well as a team of professionals working worldwide. I also oversaw the direction of the Secretariat’s Human Rights Unit and led the Directorate of [economic and social] Sustainable Development.

How did you manage all that?

It was a challenge but I had a lot of support. One work programme that I set up within the Secretariat was related to women and girls. One aspect of it was concerned with strengthening women’s political participation, another with bringing an end to early and forced marriage.

I gather you just recently returned from Chicago in the US. What were you doing there?

I was visiting the headquarters of Rotary International where I was officially inducted as RI’s representative to UNICEF and UNEP. I had been nominated in 2018 while I was president of the Rotary Club of Westminster [in London]. In part I think that was because I had made a point during my time at the Commonwealth to invite many ambassadors to visit our Rotary Club. I had also established a peace-building committee that linked our Club and the Commonwealth. Rotary is a volunteer service club that initiates numerous social service projects but it is also a club committed to fellowship which the ambassadors as well as our members.

Does that mean you will be spending more time with UNICEF and UNEP locally while serving in your new role with Rotary International?

Yes, but as my job is newly established I’ll keep an open mind to see how RI can strengthen its ties to both UNEP and UNICEF.