US diplomatic intrigues as Jaramogi, Matiba, Kibaki burnt fingers in ‘92 race

Martin Shikuku, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Kenneth Matiba, and Mwai Kibaki

From left: Opposition leaders Martin Shikuku, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Kenneth Matiba, and Mwai Kibaki chat over tea at Parliament.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The general feeling was that the Opposition had lost a winnable election in 1992.
  • The US embassy had tried to get Mwai Kibaki, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Kenneth Matiba to support one candidate against President Daniel Moi.

On the night of December 22, 1992, Mwai Kibaki was driven to the residence of US Ambassador Smith Hempstone, a few minutes’ drive from his Chui Road in the posh Muthaiga suburb of Nairobi.

For several days, the US embassy had been trying to get Mwai Kibaki, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Kenneth Matiba to support one candidate against President Daniel Moi in the landmark elections that year.

At the time, no agreement had been reached.

Food and drinks were served. Both Kibaki and Hempstone loved their Kenyan beers.

Hempstone was, perhaps, on Tusker, his favourite, while Kibaki was, as usual, on White Cap.

A few drinks later, Kibaki opened up: “It is too late, Ambassador.” Hempstone understood.

It was not about the long night, but about the ambassador’s bid to unite Kenya’s opposition.

How the US tried to unite the opponents while at the same time trying to soften President Moi is a remarkable story of diplomacy.

When he arrived in Nairobi, Hempstone thought he had a dream: “It was my intention to try to co-opt Moi.”

To win his cooperation, he wanted to either get him a bull or an aircraft, even a painted junk, according to Hempstone.

It is an intriguing story of what was happening behind the scenes as Kenya went through its first multi-party elections.

Bull gift

As a start, Hempstone had organised to airlift a Black Angus bull calf from a West Virginia ranch in the USA to Moi’s Kabarak farm.

The CIA station in Nairobi had approved the ‘gift’ – part of the various bribes, and freebies, that Western diplomats always gave to African dictators.

The embassy had also reached out to James Kanyotu, the head of the Special Branch, and he had approved the bull gift.

President Daniel Moi at State House, Nairobi with the United States Ambassador to Kenya Mr Smith Hempstone

President Daniel Moi at State House, Nairobi when he received the United States Ambassador to Kenya Mr Smith Hempstone during a courtesy call.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Their only fear was that Kanyotu might share details of “Operation Bullship” with the American press and that would scuttle the effort. 

In Nairobi, Kanyotu had agreed to have his boys meet the bull, named Uhuru, at the airport and take it to Kabarak.

Herman Jay “Hank” Cohen, the US Assistant Secretary of the State for African Affairs had not been told about the plan.

It was after Hempstone told Cohen about the gift that American bureaucracy reared its ugly head.

“The whole scheme would have to be checked by the policy wonks, by state’s lawyers, and ethics people,” Hempstone was told.

He would later be taken through a rat chase, as the calf got older.

Finally, he admits, “As time passed, I finally lost my temper … I cabled Cohen that the operation was cancelled.”

Moi got a separate bull, a Friesland cow and calf — according to Hempstone — from the German ambassador. 

Aircraft gift

After the failure of the bull project, there was another attempt to give Moi a Lockheed C-130 Hercules for personal use.

That also flopped, and he at one time raised the matter with Hempstone. 

“You know the Americans promised me a C-130 for my personal use,” he reminded Hempstone during a meeting at State House.

“I was not aware,” replied Hempstone before Moi started complaining: “Yes, they did. I was the first in Africa to fight Communism. But now the Cold War is over, and you have no use of your old friends and allies. Mobutu got one,” said Moi in reference to Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko.

In 1977, the US had provided Mobutu with seven C-130 transport aircraft — one for Mobutu’s personal use, which was fitted with a special “executive capsule permanently installed at the president’s own expense.” 

By 1982, when a US Committee on Foreign Relations visited Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) they found that only two of the C-130s were operating.

One of them was Mobutu’s C-130 and the other had been converted to carry cattle for Mobutu’s ranches.

So when Moi asked for a C-130, the Americans had a history informing their decisions.

After meeting Moi, Hempstone spoke to his military advisers about the C-130 and he was curtly told: “The Kenyans can’t afford a C-130, and they need one like they need a space shuttle. They can’t even keep their F-5s and Huey choppers flying.”

Unsatisfied, Hempstone then called Cohen: “They can’t afford it. A C-130 with a full package of parts and spares, and instructions for the pilots, costs close to $20 million …tell him it is negative.”

Hempstone pushed on: “Come on, Hank. You could pick up a clapped-out C-130 from the Air National Guard for a couple of million, slap a fresh coat of paint on it, install a luxury pod, and Moi would be pleased as punch.” He was told no, with finality.

Though Moi later bought a Fokker for Sh2.3 billion, the US attempt to play soft games with him was in line with Western interests to retain him.

That was until they realised that Moi was a terror too.

In February 1990, just as the clamour for multi-party democracy was gaining momentum, Moi was invited to attend the annual Congressional Prayer Breakfast meeting in Washington DC.

Cohen was the highest-ranking official the Kenyan delegation was to meet.

Then, it is claimed, that Cohen decided to have a side chat with Foreign Minister Robert Ouko.

The rest is history and, to cut a long story short, Dr Ouko was dead by February 13, maimed, shot, and burnt. The US trip is often cited as the fallout site.

Level playing field

Fast forward to March 1992, Hempstone – now identified as a supporter of the emerging opposition – met with the leading young Turks: Paul Muite, Raila Odinga and Gitobu Imanyara and urged them not to provoke Moi to an extent where he could call off elections and declare the State of Emergency.

While the opposition was calling for a level playing field (Moi had appointed the electoral commissioners).

Cohen did not seem to fully appreciate the level of deceit — an indicator of the disconnect between Nairobi and Washington.

Hempstone’s fear was on what Moi could do — and he was frightened at the thought that an election boycott would plunge the country into a civil war.

While the State Department had mandated the Kenyan Embassy to keep putting pressure on Moi to level the playing field, it was also prodding the Opposition to fully participate in the electoral process, and urge their supporters to vote and take their seats in Parliament.

Democracy, they reasoned, was a process and not an event. Thus, Moi was being given leeway to offer piecemeal reforms.

Ford Asili Chairman Kenneth Matiba with Democratic Party Chairman Mwai Kibaki

Ford Asili Chairman Kenneth Matiba with Democratic Party Chairman Mwai Kibaki during the requiem of Eliud Mathu. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

In the end, the quest for opposition unity failed and as Hempstone would later write in his book Rogue Ambassador, “Ego, venality, tribalism and blind ambition continued to prevent this from happening.”

On the day of voting, the CIA chief in Nairobi decided that the ’92 elections were not worth watching.

“No CIA guys went because the acting station chief didn't think it was what she wanted them doing,” Hempstone later told the Library of Congress Oral History Project. Why? nobody knows.

A day after the December 29, 1992, General Election, a meeting was called in Bruce House headquarters of Mwai Kibaki’s Democratic Party.

Attended by Matiba and Jaramogi, they demanded that President Moi and the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) should address some anomalies in 65 constituencies — or they would pull out of the process.

Winnable election

Two days later, the three met at the Intercontinental Hotel in Nairobi and rejected the election results in which President Moi was declared the winner by polling 1,962,866 against Matiba’s 1,404,266, and Jaramogi’s 944,197.

Other aspirants in the race were the usual election outliers John Harun Mwau (8,118), David Mukaru Ng’ang’a (5,766), George Anyona (14,273) and Chibule wa Tsuma (10,221).

The general feeling was that the opposition had lost a winnable election.

“I told them publicly to stop whining and fight their battle in the legislature and the courts,” recalled Hempstone.

“Had any two of the three opposition candidates presented a single candidate, that candidate would have beaten Moi by more than a million votes. But they did not do so, and they paid the price.”

Western nations did not mind working with Moi. For Britain, they were happy that Moi had beaten (some say rigged) Matiba for obvious reasons.

“Had the Opposition come to power, Britain’s relations might not have been quite so warm and cosy in Kenya,” Hempstone later said.

Matiba had threatened to deport the Asians from Kenya if elected and this had scared London, which had coped with the Asian crisis in the 1960s when they left Kenya and in 1973 after Idi Amin threw them out of Uganda.

“They did not want 40,000 Indians dumped on them if things went as they did in Uganda ... I happen to believe now, as I did then and I told them so that I could not understand their position,” said Hempstone after he left Kenya.

What worried Britain, and it quietly said as much, was that it had large investments in Kenya and its trade with Nairobi was much larger than that of the US, and it feared that a Matiba victory would alter the politics.

Though the Opposition had managed to humiliate most of Moi’s Cabinet ministers and voted in some of the most brilliant debaters — Anyang’ Nyong’o, Paul Muite, Imanyara, Kiraitu Murungi, James Orengo, and Mukhisa Kituyi – it had lost on the presidency where power was concentrated.

It was a lesson for opposition leaders.

“Many Kenyan democrats feel that we betrayed them and unnecessarily prolonged Moi’s rule. In so doing, they overlook the fact that, had the opposition presented a united front, Moi and Kanu would have lost the election, despite the flaws in the process,” Hempstone later wrote.

That scenario was repeated in 1997 – until a winning formula was found in 2002 when Moi was finally kicked out.

[email protected]. Twitter: @johnkamau1