CIA documents offer insights into how the Cold War shaped politics in Kenya

What you need to know:

  • The overwhelming interest and involvement of the American spy agency in Kenya’s internal politics can finally be revealed. Declassified CIA documents seen by the SUNDAY NATION show that the spy agency has closely followed activities of Kenyan politicians and produced detailed reports on them. The memos sent regularly to Washington advised the US Government on the best way to keep Kenya as an ally. These activities persist today with a new focus on retaining a valuable ally in the war against Islamic extremism

The 2012 General Election is shaping up as a contest between Raila Odinga and a loose coalition with one objective: stopping Mr Odinga from becoming president.

Declassified Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) documents indicate the politics of the 1960s were similarly shaped by the efforts of Jaramogi Odinga, Raila’s father, to succeed Jomo Kenyatta and the determined campaign of a loose coalition of rivals to stop him.

The documents record strategies used by the anti-Odinga camp and offer profiles of the key players involved.

The 1960s tactics, including efforts to whittle down the elder Odinga’s allies in Parliament, constitutional changes aimed at weakening the opposition and dirty tricks including the planting of a consignment of arms in Mr Odinga’s office, are almost exactly the same those animating the political scene today.

The CIA recorded that the anti-Odinga alliance was unlikely to survive because it did not have a solid ideological base.

“Because the moderate alliance is inter-tribal, it would have a hard time uniting behind one candidate unless it was simply a compromise to block Odinga. The longer Odinga remains outside government, however, without the prestige and patronage of office, the dimmer his threat will appear,” the dispatches say.

The CIA carefully monitored the succession battle because the agency shared an interest in keeping Jaramogi from the presidency because of his links with Communist countries.

In its memos to Washington spread over several months in 1966, the CIA recorded the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various candidates in the battle to take the reins of power in the post-Kenyatta era.

Mr Odinga is consistently cast in negative light in the reports. This is not surprising because the CIA believed Mr Odinga was receiving financial support from the Soviet Union and China, two of America’s great rivals at the time.

The reports concede that he had a “strong popular following” but insist that Mr Odinga drew the bulk of the financial muscle that helped him put together a formidable political machine from the Soviet Union and China.

The dispatches to Washington form an important historical record due to their efforts to explain the divisions in Cabinet which contributed to the ethnic polarisation which remains a challenge to Kenya today.

Mr Kenyatta used Tom Mboya, Mr Odinga’s Luo rival, because he recognised his brilliance as a political tactician despite the fact that Mr Kenyatta did not trust Mr Mboya.

The papers also offer insights into a little-known alliance formed to manage the Kenyatta succession.

Called the Kenya Group, the alliance brought together Kenyatta’s inner circle under Mr Mboya’s leadership. It successfully marginalised Mr Odinga and his allies in an attempt to clear the way for one of the group to take power.

Mr Mboya is cast in the memos as intelligent and popular due to his background in trade unionism, but he is also described as having “driving ambition and an arrogant manner,” traits that had “earned him many personal enemies”.

The declassified documents offer never-before-published insights into how the Cold War shaped internal politics in Kenya and ultimately decided the Kenyatta succession.

They also reveal the extent to which the CIA monitored the activities of the key leaders in Mr Kenyatta’s government. Here are excerpts from the memoranda that are housed at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Texas.

Kenyatta vs Odinga

“(In 1963), Kenyatta’s reputation as leader of the Mau Mau insurgency a decade earlier, the consideration he earned during nine years of detention by the British, and his role in presiding over the final steps to freedom, lent him a status unmatched among most Africans, but contributed to the unease of the economically important European and Asian communities. His ability to manage the day-to-day problems of an independent government remained to be tested.

Odinga, the leader of the Luo, was the only other figure with a strong popular following. Apart from his tribal position, he had established a power base largely through astute dispensation of Communist funds supplied by both Moscow and Peking (Beijing).

An estimated 1,000 or more men in reasonably important positions in the government, civil service and trade unions owed personal allegiance to Odinga, who either had sent them to study in Communist countries or supplied them with regular financial aid. Several key Members of Parliament owed their positions to him.

Move against Odinga

For a long time, Kenyatta tried to remain above the factional and tribal disputes within his government. Even after his “kitchen Cabinet,” loyalists with whom he had associated since Mau Mau days convinced him that Odinga was becoming a threat to Central Kenya hegemony, Kenyatta refrained from direct action for fear of losing the support of the Luo and precipitating a tribal struggle.

When Kenya became a Republic in December 1964, however, Kenyatta as new president took his first move against Odinga. He moved Odinga up to the new vice-presidency where he enjoyed less real authority and no right of automatic succession. At the same time, Kenyatta moved his fellow Kikuyu into key Cabinet posts.

Mr Odinga’s influence nevertheless spread, his organisation grew and he was widely regarded as Kenyatta’s heir apparent. By exploiting the discontent of the masses and the frustration of the backbenchers in Parliament, Odinga lieutenants had built a sizeable following by early 1965 among the dominant Kamba tribe which dominated the military and, even a faction of the Kikuyu in addition to the Luo.

They appeared to have substantial support in Parliament and although they were a minority in the Cabinet, they were setting the pace there.

While Kenyatta and his senior ministers remained silent and inactive in the face of the government growing unrest and disunity in the country and increasing opposition to the government, a number of second and third-echelon leaders began to coalesce into what eventually became known as the Kenya Group.

Anti-Odinga alliance

These younger, progressive leaders were disturbed by the effectiveness of Communist propaganda and the failure of the country’s leadership to present any effective resistance to Odinga’s bid for power. Many of them were being undermined in their own constituencies and feared that Odinga would pick them off one by one.

They felt that the apathy and divisiveness of the older ministers were permitting Odinga to capture the party by default. Their initial discussions were limited to plans for working together and supporting each other in their own constituencies against Odinga’s attacks.

As the discussions continued, the group began to assume shape and direction, attracting other energetic, constructive elements of varying tribes, all anxious to unite against the common danger – Odinga.

The Pinto assassination

In late February 1965 while the KG (Kenya Group) was still in early gestation, the Odinga political forces received a crippling blow – the assassination of Pio Gama Pinto, a dedicated Communist, and their principal brain and paymaster. It has never been determined who was responsible for his liquidation but, following this loss, Odinga’s power eroded steadily.

Two months later, in April 1965, the KG moved into action. Parliament’s defeat of two Odinga-backed candidates for legislative offices impressed Kenyatta with the opposition to Odinga.

A parliamentary debate on arms smuggling from Communist countries further revealed the pent-up resentment toward the extremists.

When the army seized a cache of Communist-supplied arms in the basement of Odinga’s office, Kenyatta finally seemed to realise the seriousness of Odinga’s threat.

As coup rumours swirled around Nairobi, and British troops stood by at his request, Kenyatta for the first time openly attacked an Odinga lieutenant – as it happened a Kikuyu whose disloyalty challenged Kenyatta’s authority in tribe as well as government (Bildad Kaggia, a freedom fighter who was an ally of Jaramogi Odinga).

In a rapid succession of events, Kenyatta sent back a shipment of arms supplied by Moscow under terms humiliating to Kenya, and Parliament approved government take-over of the new Soviet-supported Lumumba Institute (now named the Pan African Christian College) which Odinga had helped establish as a political training centre for Kanu cadres of his own selection.

A Kanu party convention at which the KG hoped to force a direct confrontation was postponed for nearly a year, however, as Kenyatta gradually restricted the extremists while trying to preserve tribal balance and unity. When the convention was finally held in March (1966), the victory was sealed.

Steamroller tactics planned and executed by Mboya and a few KG members removed all the extremists from party office.

Odinga, who had been the single party vice-president, refused to run for one of seven regional vice-presidencies established under a revised party constitution.

A month later, on April 14, Odinga resigned from both government and Kanu to form an open opposition party. Following his course were some 30 MPs, including the minister for Information (Achieng Oneko) and two assistant ministers.

Kenyatta moved forcefully to prevent Odinga’s new Kenya People’s Union from gaining momentum. Police kept Odinga’s men under surveillance and seized the passports of many.

Warnings to diplomats

Kenyatta also acted to cut off Odinga’s external financial support. Eleven communist diplomats and newspapermen known to have channelled funds to Odinga were expelled.

Kenyatta warned the Soviet and Chinese ambassadors that he would sever diplomatic relations with their countries if further assistance were provided to Odinga. The Soviet ambassador was told he would be held responsible for such activity by the Eastern European embassies.

CIA conclusion

“Kenyatta and his moderate alliance will remain under constant pressure, however well they have used their prestige and authority against Odinga. They will hear continuing charges that they have made Kenya a stooge of the US and Britain, and may find attention turning increasingly to the country’s economic and social problems. Young Kanu leaders, in particular, unless they see greater astuteness among government officials than they have seen in the past, will be vulnerable to the lures of an Odinga by another name.”