Congo crisis that had tempers boiling over as Kenya mediated

Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta reads out a statement at his residence in Gatundu, Kiambu, after chairing a meeting of the ad hoc committee formed to mediate ceasefire in the Congo in 1960. Among those who attended the meeting were the US ambassador to Kenya William Attwood (right) and OAU secretary-general Diallo Telli (third left). PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Kenyatta deeply regretted that matters should get to that and insisted that the ambassador assure him that use of force would only come as a last resort. He got the assurance, but too late.
  • By nightfall, the paratroopers had their orders; dropping into rebel bastions and rescuing all but 27 hostages who the rebels massacred as they fled.
  • In Nairobi, Kenyatta called a meeting at his Harambee House office to review the latest development. He was upset that the US envoy had been economical with the truth.

For the third time since independence, this week Kenya was elected to serve in the 15-member United Nations Security Council. It was a reaffirmation of the significant role the country has played on the global stage right from independence when the UN appointed Kenya the mediator after newly independent Congo almost went up in flames. KAMAU NGOTHO revisits the aborted peace talks at Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s private residence in Gatundu, where things almost got out of hand.

After independence in 1960, the Congo – later Zaire and now the Democratic Republic of Congo – erupted like an active political volcano, thanks to multiple civil wars and jostling for power that spilled steaming lava into the neighbouring countries.

Kenya, hardly a year into independence, was sucked into the crises, when the United Nations (UN) tasked Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta to chair the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) – now the African Union – ad hoc commission to mediate ceasefire in the Congo.

The conflict took a turn for the worse when rebels in the eastern Congo, who had declared secession, took hostage foreign nationals in the regional capital of Lubumbashi and threatened to execute them unless their demands were met.

Among the captives were 31 Americans and 280 Belgians. The key demand by the rebels was that the US and Belgium, who were helping the Kinshasa-based government fight the rebels, withdraw their support and enforce a ceasefire. To rub salt into the wound, the rebels declared that in the absence of ceasefire, “we shall make fetishes with the hearts of the Americans and Belgian captives... and shall dress ourselves in their skins.”

Alarmed, US Secretary of State Dean Rusk sent an urgent message to Prime Minister Kenyatta urging him to use his influence to have the hostages released to the OAU and flown out of Congo by the International Red Cross, since they were innocent non-combatants protected under the Geneva Convention. The rebels would hear none of it, insisting on ceasefire or they would massacre the hostages.

Meanwhile, even as they pursued the diplomatic line, the US and Belgium secretly put in place a Plan “B” where paratroopers would be dropped in Lubumbashi to forcibly rescue and fly away the captives.

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On Kenyatta’s intervention, the rebels promised not to harm the hostages but gave a deadline for negotiations – with a caveat that their demands must be met. The US and Belgium read blackmail in it but decided to play along by lying to the rebels that they were entirely for a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

The talks opened in Nairobi under Kenyatta’s chairmanship. The rebels would be represented by one Thomas Kanza, while the US, Belgium and 13 countries whose nationals were among the hostages would be jointly represented at the talks by the US ambassador to Kenya, William Attwood. The OAU would attend as an observer,  represented by Secretary-General Telli Diallo.

The US ambassador immediately got in touch with Kenya’s Foreign Affairs minister Joseph Murumbi, with whom he agreed that, under rules of the Geneva Convention, evacuation of the hostages would take priority over a ceasefire, a position they put in writing. But the rebels in Congo weren’t used to the language of playing by the rules. They dismissed the Geneva Convention and declared they would kill any Red Cross staff showing up in their territory. “It is either ceasefire or we devour and burn the hostages,” they announced on their radio.

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At the first session of the talks held at Kenyatta’s Gatundu private residence, but skipped by the rebels’ representative, it was agreed that getting the hostages out be separated from negotiations on ceasefire, and a joint press statement written to that effect. But as the US ambassador and Kenyatta’s private secretary Eliud Mathu walked out to read it to the waiting journalists, the OAU representative requested they hold it a bit as he privately consulted with Kenyatta.

A few minutes later, the OAU secretary-general came out with the same statement but with an added line calling on all the parties in the conflict to cease hostilities. Smelling a rat, the US ambassador waited for Kenyatta’s private secretary to finish reading the reworked statement, only to snatch the microphone and tell the media that the statement read out was Kenyatta’s and not a joint one by all parties. The faultlines had been  drawn and the daggers were out.

Meanwhile, the secret rescue team was put on high alert.

Near fisticuffs at Gatundu

But just before attack orders came, the rebel representative showed up in Nairobi and another meeting was scheduled for Gatundu the following morning.

The US ambassador arrived to find representative of the rebels already in session with Kenyatta and playing him an audio tape on alleged atrocities by US-backed government forces in the Congo. The recording was meant to poison Kenyatta ahead of the session and the US ambassador only got to know about it by eavesdropping while on the verandah waiting to be ushered in.

The tape switched off, the ambassador got in and took a seat right opposite the rebel’s representative. There was no love lost and no mincing of words as the ambassador and the rebel representative banged the table and threatened to physically tear down the other right there in Kenyatta’s presence.

The US envoy put his foot down that he was only there to discuss the release of the hostages and no more. The rebel representative, too, dug in – saying no ceasefire, no freeing of hostages. Kenyatta urged a middle ground where there would be ceasefire to facilitate airlifting of the hostages, reasoning it couldn’t be done while shooting was going on.

With neither of the parties about to cede ground and adrenaline levels shooting, the US envoy picked up his papers to go, but Kenyatta convinced him a walk-out wasn’t the best way to conclude the matter. The American cooled his temper but asked to have a private session with Kenyatta, which was granted.

With just the two of them in the room, he told Kenyatta that while they had been negotiating, him as representative of the hostages and Kenyatta as chair of the OAU ad hoc committee, now he would address him as the Prime Minister of Kenya and he in his capacity as the US ambassador in Nairobi. He disclosed to Kenyatta that in light of the hardening of positions, it was inevitable that the matter be resolved in a different manner – which was use of force to rescue the hostages. Kenyatta deeply regretted that matters should get to that and insisted that the ambassador assure him that use of force would only come as a last resort. He got the assurance, but too late.


By nightfall, the paratroopers had their orders; dropping into rebel bastions and rescuing all but 27 hostages who the rebels massacred as they fled.


In Nairobi, Kenyatta called a meeting at his Harambee House office to review the latest development. He was upset that the US envoy had been economical with the truth. He had not told him that an irreversible decision had been made to use force. With not much else to discuss in the poisoned atmosphere, the two parted as the ambassador said: “Mr Prime Minister, I just want you to know that I’ve always been frank with you and that I intend to be in the future. I hope we’re still friends.”

They shook hands as Kenyatta gruffly muttered: “We can be friends only if you stop being friends with Tshombe.” (Moise Tshombe was the US-backed rogue leader in Kinshasa).

On the way out, the ambassador met with the rebels’ representative as he stepped in. Once more, it was near fisticuffs as they shouted at each other in French, to the bewilderment of their English-speaking hosts.

“I have nothing more to say to you,” the ambassador howled at his nemesis, who screamed back: “You have made a great mistake. You will regret it.”

“We shall see,” replied the ambassador.


Meanwhile, the events in Congo divided Kenyatta’s Cabinet down the middle; Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s left wingers throwing their lot with the rebels and the right wing standing with the Americans.

Fearing that Kenyatta, still in a foul mood, might be persuaded to publicly denounce the Americans on their handling of the crisis, the US ambassador secretly sought the intervention of the departing British Governor Malcolm MacDonald, who had good personal chemistry with Kenyatta, and the Kenyan leader kept his cool.

But Jaramogi’s faction wouldn’t let the chance go away without draining it dry for all it was worth. Violent anti-US demonstrations were staged outside the US and Belgian embassies. With protesters targeting any car with diplomatic plates, a petrol bomb was tossed towards a vehicle carrying the Indian High Commissioner, but narrowly missed him.

In the diplomatic furore that followed, Kenyatta demanded an explanation from his security men how ordinary Kenyans had come to be in possession of a home-made bomb. He got a brief that the improvised device was a Molotov cocktail and the technology was Russian. That didn’t play well on the Jaramogi camp, who Kenyatta felt were taking advantage of the bedlam in Congo to foment trouble at home.

Friends again

A plenary session of the OAU came to Nairobi for a review on the goings-on in the Congo. The US secretary of state made sure to send Kenyatta a message asking him to restrain from language that may hurt US-Kenya relations. At the opening session where non-African diplomats were invited, the US ambassador had instructions to position himself strategically such that should Kenyatta go ballistic on his country, the envoy would walk out in protest. Kenyatta stuck to diplomatic language and the US envoy stayed.

Later at a reception for delegates in the evening, Jaramogi – a great actor with no hard personal feelings – pulled the US ambassador aside and addressed him like an old friend: “What you Americans must understand is this: we have nothing against you. It is only that we don’t like the people you’re associating with in the Congo!”


Kenyatta and the US ambassador, too, reached out to one another and buried the hatchet. When the ambassador went to officially present his credentials to Kenyatta, now no longer Prime Minister but President of the new republic – he carried a book on agriculture as a present to Kenyatta. He said as he handed the book over: “I am giving you this book, Mr President, so that next time I come to Gatundu, we’ll remember to talk about important things like farming instead of Congo.”

Kenyatta laughed and said: “Very good, let us do that. No more Congo, only Kenya... Now we are friends again.”