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Kenya high commissioner: Tourism fights terrorism

By Marie-Danielle Smith      

New envoy says travel advisories warning tourists away from certain areas 'can be counter-productive.'

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The new Kenyan High Commissioner said he thinks Canadians are friendly and warm. They’ve shown immense support and solidarity after an al-Shabaab attack at a Kenyan university killed 147 in early April, not long after his arrival in Canada, he said.

But John Lepi Lanyasunya, sitting down with Embassy at the Kenya High Commission, said he hopes Canadians won’t be afraid to travel to Kenya, despite the threat of terrorism. Despite, too, the memory of other incidents such as the Westgate Mall attack that killed a Canadian citizen in 2013.

Tourism is one of Kenya’s biggest industries, said Mr. Lanyasunya, along with agriculture. And it helps to keep youth out of trouble.

Canada’s travel advisories page currently advises Canadians to exercise a high degree of caution when travelling to Kenya “due to the increasing number of terrorist attacks and incidents of crime.” It tells Canadians to avoid, in particular, the Eastleigh neighbourhood of Nairobi, the city of Mombasa and areas bordering Somalia, South Sudan and Ethiopia.

“These advisories can be counter-productive,” said Mr. Lanyasunya. He said that especially in places like Mombasa, which is located in an Islamic area of Kenya, unemployment and poverty caused by the shutting down of tourist facilities makes young people susceptible to being taken advantage of by terrorist groups.

“If we say to people, ‘do not travel and go there and enjoy those facilities’…The hotels are closing, people are being laid off,” he said. With no way to provide for their families, youth “will become easy targets for recruitment…We have people becoming hopeless.”

“It’s not my business to tell countries what to do, or how to address their people,” said Mr. Lanyasunya. “It’s to see how we can do that, so carefully, so we don’t undermine or play into the hands of these terrorists.”

He said he hopes to see the international community pull together and not allow terrorist groups to divide people on ethnic or religious lines.

“All of us have suffered terrorism. It was just the other day in France, the other time in Tunis, in the museum, another day here in Ottawa. We are all victims of this and terrorism doesn’t come from one country. They’re not of one nationality,” he said.

Aside from hoping to co-operate with Canada and other Western states more closely on counter-terrorism, Mr. Lanyasunya said the number one priority with his posting in Canada is trade.

He spoke at length about foreign investment opportunities in Kenya, especially in the energy sector. Oil. Natural gas. Geothermal. Wind. Solar. You name it.

He plans to spend a lot of time in Toronto, not only because many Canadian companies are headquartered there, but also because most of Kenya’s some 5,000-strong diaspora community live there.

Mr. Lanyasunya is a career foreign affairs man. He got into the field after rising to the rank of deputy principal at Kenya Utalii College, where he had studied German. Having worked on translations for foreign affairs officials, Mr. Lanyasunya was seen as an excellent candidate when Kenya needed to install a German-speaking ambassador in Bonn.

He was there when Germany’s capital became Berlin after reunification. After coming back, Mr. Lanyasunya became the key administrator working on the Intergovernmental Authority on Development’s Somali Peace Process.

“When your neighbour’s house is burning you feel the heat,” he said.

Though establishing peace and democratic government in Somalia has been a long road, he said one of his biggest accomplishments was to help bring Somalia to the world’s attention.

“We became like the voice to explain what’s happening and what needs to be done,” said Mr. Lanyasunya. “I think as a result of that, many countries came to support Somalia, its reconstruction.”

His most recent posting, before arriving in Ottawa, was in Canberra, Australia.

“I found a lot of similarities between Australia and Kenya. Because of the colonial history we have, all of us,” Mr. Lanyasunya said. “Canada, from what I have seen, I think my experience will be almost the same.”

Except for the French. Mr. Lanyasunya said he’s thinking seriously about taking classes to get beyond the “bonjour, ça va” small talk in his arsenal.

And, of course—as so many new diplomats find out—except for the weather.


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