President Jomo Kenyatta

President Jomo Kenyatta leads the traditional dancing during to welcome US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at State House, Nakuru, on April 25, 1976.

| File | Nation Media Group

Jomo Kenyatta, Henry Kissinger and scaring of Idi Amin

It was at State House, Nakuru, on April 25, 1976. President Jomo Kenyatta and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were having their first meeting. Kenyatta feared threats from Ugandan president Idi Amin, and Kissinger worried about the Soviet’s influence in East Africa. Two bothered souls had met at State House, Nakuru.

As the meeting was going on, the Uganda Radio ran a commentary charging that Kissinger was “seeking to confuse Africa.” It also accused Kenyatta of seeking American arms against the neighbours.

When Kissinger died last week (November 29), the international media published images of this meeting with Kenyatta – but no context was given. Reading through Kissinger’s secret papers shows that Kenyatta worried that Amin, with Soviet backing, could easily overpower Kenya.

It was Uganda, more than any other country, that made Kenyatta desire to strengthen his military.

“I don’t know what this man (President Idi) Amin may decide to do,” said Kenyatta during the follow-up lunchtime meeting with Marshall in July 1976. The July meeting took place a few weeks after the Entebbe raid when Israeli soldiers stopped over Nairobi as they went to rescue Air France jetliner hostages held in Uganda. Kenya was accused (it denied) of being used by the Jewish state to attack an Organisation of African Unity (OAU) member. Thus, the Amin scare was real.

The Americans were also concerned about the post-Kenyatta era and how Cold War politics would play out. They wanted to be prepared on the Kenyatta successor since Mzee was already 84.

“We should not put all our eggs in Vice President Moi’s basket. There are other potential candidates and so far, Kenyatta has not named anyone,” suggested the US Ambassador Anthony Marshall during a meeting with President Ford’s National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft. It was also noted during that meeting there were “indications Kenyatta does not favour Moi.”

On the worry that Kenyatta was not, perhaps, in good health, the US ambassador, Marshall, reported that the president was ‘in good health for a man of 84.” (However), “Kenyatta has a blood clot which occasionally causes total unconsciousness for up to one and a half days. This has occurred three times in the past year,” reported Marshall.

For a post-Kenyatta era government, Marshall reported that there would still be a civilian government “slightly to the left of the current government.” That prediction was not to be.

But it was Idi Amin and the Soviets’ fear that took centre stage in US relations with Kenyatta. They wanted him in their corner, and the best way to do it was to scare Idi Amin for him.

Previously, in February 1976, Amin had claimed that parts of the Kenyan territory belonged to Uganda. By then, Kenya was struggling to get military aid from Britain and the US, having turned down some Russian arms. Interestingly, Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet administration had become Amin’s leading supplier of military arms, and he had received a squadron of MiG21 jet fighters, a squadron of MiG17s, more than 100 T54 amphibious tanks, and six ground-to-air missiles. Besides that, Uganda had invited Soviet military advisers and doctors to Kampala.

Thus, Kissinger would play a major role in scaring Idi Amin for Kenya; he, in return, wanted Kenyatta to play a moderate role on Rhodesia and South Africa.

Kissinger was on an African tour to promote a new US policy towards South Africa and (then) Rhodesia. Previously, Kissinger had convinced former President Nixon to adopt what was known as “Tar Baby Option” – a thought that whites were in Africa to stay and “the only way constructive change can come about is through them.” It was also premised on the thinking that the strong US ties with these countries could improve the plight of black workers in Rhodesia and South Africa. Critics had dismissed the US policy as politically hypocritical since Washington’s desire was to sustain and retain the racist regimes. But due to pressure, Kissinger had revised this policy and was now on a 13-day Africa tour to promote the “commitment of the US to majority rule in black African countries.”

“The Salisbury regime (of Ian Smith in Rhodesia) will face our unrelenting opposition until a negotiated settlement is achieved,” he warned in Zambia. But at the same time, he said that the US would not give aid to nationalist movements in Africa.


To show that Kenyatta was on their side, the US was pushing him to accept a November 10, 1976, invitation to the White House and Kissinger had asked him to consider. President Ford had also written an invitation letter ahead of Kissinger’s meeting. But he was surprised that Kenyatta had not informed his inner circle. They heard it for the first time when Kissinger inquired about the date.

At the White House, President Ford called for a bipartisan Congressional meeting on May 12, 1976, in the Cabinet Room. The agenda was to discuss Kissinger’s Africa trip, whose aim was to prevent “Soviet/Cuban meddling in Southern Africa.”

President Ford told the meeting: “Some have claimed that the timing was wrong for me politically. But I had to do what I felt was right. It was amply apparent that Africa was sliding towards radicalism…the opportunity for Soviet/Cuban subversion and overt intervention was increasing. As President I could not wait or be influenced by politics in this country.”

Kenyatta used the Kissinger meeting to ask for more military support and aid from the US. Kissinger also followed it up with more letters to Kenyatta, who was still pursuing the US to tackle Idi Amin at the UN.

“If there is a way in which the US could raise this matter in the UN, then this fellow (Amin) here will know that we have some important and powerful friends. To some it might look like political propaganda, but it would be a great help to us,” said Kenyatta.

The Entebbe raid had raised political temperatures in East Africa, and Kenyatta’s fears were heightened. A day after the raid, the US reported Kenyatta slept at 2.30 am while being briefed on the implications. A day later, after meeting with the US diplomat, he was reported to be jolly.

Ambassador Marshall wrote: “On July 4, when we met shortly before 10am, Kenyatta was exhausted, having been up with 2.30 am talking with his advisers regarding hijacking and Israeli rescue operation in Uganda, plus his concern that Amin might retaliate against Kenya. However, at 9 am on July 5 Kenyatta was relaxed, the magnetism had returned to his eyes; he was talkative, alert. He wore an open-neck, bright red and white designed sports shirt, and tweedy jacket which matched his mood.”

National security

On October 13, 1976, archival records show that Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to President Ford, met to discuss the Kenyan situation. Ambassador Marshall and Robert Smith, a staff at the National Security Council, attended it. Scowcroft was once described by the New York Times as a ‘traditionalist who believed that the nation should work with allies and international organizations.”

“Kenyatta is very pleased to be receiving our arms even though we are one of several suppliers,” the meeting was told. “Ambassador Marshall believes that our interests in Kenya are to see the country remain stable. Military and economic aid and political reassurances from us can help.”

Kenyatta had also asked for a fly-past of US military planes to send a false message to Uganda that Kenya had acquired some US jets. Kenyatta was also looking for the F-5, which the US regarded as a “defensive weapons system” to “enhance Kenyan security.”

Following Scowcroft’s meeting in Kenya, President Ford wrote a letter to Kenyatta dated October 20, 1976. “We are pursuing arrangements to fulfil your request for a fly-past on Jamhuri Day, December 12. We will be communicating further with you on this matter shortly.”

“I am also pleased that we have been able to assist you in your efforts to upgrade your defence capability and thereby ease somewhat the burdens imposed by your difficult decision in this regard …a decision the necessity of which we fully understand.”

The difficult decision was Kenyatta’s assistance to Israelis.

While Kenyans believed that the scare “brought the Ugandans to the conference table,” the Americans were “pessimistic about Uganda’s capacity for destabilizing Kenya.”

Their fear was elsewhere:  Somalia, which had received more Soviet support and pursued some nationalist goals.

[email protected]  @johnkamau1