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How Kenyatta took advantage of Israeli-Arab conflict

Posted by African Press International on July 5, 2016

KAMAU -1 | Jumanne, Julai 5, 2016

Just metres from the official residence of the British defence attaché in Spring Valley, Nairobi, the Yasser Arafat-led Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was allowed to open a secret office in 1974 or thereabouts.

“Only a few people knew about this house,” recalls a former deputy commissioner of police in the President Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi administrations. “It was well protected by plainclothes police.”

Inside the house, PLO officials went about their activities incognito and with little interruption. They had been invited to Kenya after the country broke ties with Israel following the 1973-1974 Yom Kippur war, fought by a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria – in the Sinai Desert and the Golan Heights – against Israel, occupiers since the Six-Day War of 1967.

The war had triggered an oil crisis after the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (Oapec) proclaimed an oil embargo that saw prices shoot from $3 per barrel to $12 and ended Kenya’s economic boom and a deterioration of balance of payments.

Kenya had hoped that by opening a PLO office and severing diplomatic ties with Israel it would get some economic mileage from the Arab world, but in vain.

The Nairobi office worked with another in Tanzania. It occasionally published a bulletin with another group known as Solidarity with Palestinian that was based in Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania, known for hosting liberation groups.

Even with the Israeli Embassy in Nairobi’s Lower Hill closed, a select group of Kenyatta ministers continued to engage with Tel Aviv against an Organisation of African Union (OAU) resolution to end diplomatic dealings with Israel.

Kenya would soon pay for that dalliance with PLO after it became the target of its extremist supporters.

In October 1975, Foreign Minister Munyua Waiyaki wrote a secret letter to his Israeli counterpart Yigal Allon asking him to convince the United States to sell some combat jets to Kenya in order to stop Uganda’s President Idi Amin from threatening to annex the territory west of Naivasha — formerly part of Uganda.

Kenyatta was worried that with the country’s ageing Air Force jets, he might not match Amin.

Waiyaki turned to the Jewish state, which had trained some senior Kenyan intelligence officers and elite guards.

In public, Kenya was critical of Israel, but Kenyatta enjoyed a personal friendship with Mrs Golda Meir, the fourth Israeli premier.

This clandestine diplomatic relationship with Tel Aviv was not restricted to Kenya; several African nations did the same.

Sudan’s President Jaafer Nimeiry had surprised many when he became the only Arab leader to stand by Anwar Sadat after Egypt’s Camp David accords with Israel in 1978, which laid the ground for a permanent peace agreement after three decades of hostilities.

Failure by Arab nations to stand by Kenya amid the hostilities by Amin — and Somalia — saw Kenya turn to Israel to help in lobbying the US.

In July 1974, a telegram from Nairobi’s US Embassy to the US State Department indicated that Kenya would request Washington for arms to defend itself from Uganda and Somalia.

But in a reply dated July 24, 1974, Ambassador Marshall was told to inform Kenyatta about “congressional and fiscal restraints on US ability to provide arms to Kenya”.

Kenya’s quest for grant aid some five months later via the ambassador was well received at the embassy, which wrote to Washington in support, citing “US interest … in an area of increasingly Soviet and Chinese influence”.

While US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had asked President Gerald Ford to make available some military credits and guarantees since Kenya was facing a threat from Soviet arms in Uganda and Somalia, there was still no word on the Northrup F-5E, a lightweight tactical aircraft.

Kenya turned to Israel for help, hoping that President Ford’s military assistance and grant would include the jet fighters.

Waiyaki wrote to Tel Aviv after he met with Kissinger in New York and the US agreed to look into the status of the arms package, declassified letters show.

Kissinger agreed to Kenyatta’s request for an additional $20 million in FMS credits (to the $45 million already “approved”) to purchase a squadron of F-5Es.

Kenyatta wanted the F-5Es immediately. The continued threats by Amin shook Kenyatta, although in public he exhibited bravado with public demonstrations led by his ministers.

Kissinger had immediately agreed to have Kenya Air Force purchase F-5As until the F-5Es were available for delivery.

“Our neighbours are armed to the teeth,” Kenyatta had told a US delegation. As he explained his case, he had made sure that only a few people were in these meetings.

Back home, the Americans said as much: “The number and persons were limited without prior notice by President Kenyatta as he wanted to keep the subject matter of the discussion restricted only to those who attended.”

For sentimental reasons, Kenyatta said he wanted the planes even before the pilots were trained and Kissinger remarked in his secret notes that he wanted them delivered for “symbolic reasons” first.

After that meeting, Kissinger consulted with his deputy secretary of Defence, a Mr Clements, during lunch and later told Kenyatta that the US would “let Kenya have” some F-5As until the F-5Es “are ready”.

Kenyatta then said he also needed attack planes, recalling that the US had said it could not sell him one. Kissinger said he did not agree that attack aircraft should not be sold to Kenya and would like to look into the matter.

“I recognise the equipment your neighbours have,” he said.

At a briefing to the National Security Council, Kissinger said of his meeting with Kenyatta: “They would like attack aircraft. We had only agreed to give them F-5Es. Also, Kenyatta asked that we speed up delivery of these.

He said that even if they didn’t have pilots trained to fly them, it would be useful for his neighbours to see the F-5Es parked on his airfields.”

For the US, this was a chance to reduce Soviet influence in southern Africa and break the penetration of Africa by the Soviets, the Chinese, Algerians and Libyans.

But the delivery of the F-5A also faced a handicap since the Shah of Iran — from where the US was to get them — had committed the ones he had to Jordan, according to a recorded conversation between Waiyaki, Kissinger and Wendell Coote, the director, Office of Eastern and Southern African Affairs, Bureau of African Affairs, Department of State.

“I find it hard to believe that 10 F-5As are not available. I will look into this when I get back. Have you found any helicopters which can be sent quickly to Kenya?” Kissinger asked Coote.

“I think there are some helicopters which can be made available right away,” Coote replied.

“However, Ambassador Marshall has discussed the general subject of military assistance with Finance Minister Mwai Kibaki in Nairobi. We are also looking at the F-5Es here.”

The F-5Es were to cost around $60 million and the US was concerned that it had more capabilities than Kenya needed.

“They are very modern, multipurpose and efficient aircraft containing the latest equipment. This is why they are so costly,” Coote told Waiyaki.

To resolve the problem, Kissinger told Waiyaki that Kenya would get the F-5As from the Pentagon, which “has more weapons than it is willing to admit”.

But it was the Entebbe Raid that gave Kenyatta a chance to show the US that the threat by Amin was real and it also gave the Americans a chance to play geo-politics.

By the time Kissinger returned home after his April 1976 Kenyan tour, Kenyatta had allowed Kenya to be used as the fuelling station by Israeli commandos who were going to rescue passengers aboard an Air France jetliner seized by Idi Amin.

Kissinger wrote a telegraph to the US ambassador in Kenya that was delivered to Kenyatta in State House, Nakuru.

The ambassador found Kenyatta heavy on medication. “He asked me to read it twice,” said the diplomat in his briefing notes.

In the note, Kissinger had told Kenyatta that Washington did not know the intention of President Amin.

Actually, the CIA, in its July 3 brief, indicated that although the Entebbe raid could increase the hostilities, the Ugandan Army was both incapable and unreliable.

Also, it said, the reported plan to enlist the Somalis in a simultaneous attack was likely to be rejected by President Siad Barre.

A National Security Council report dated July 3, 1976 reported Kenya’s fears that Amin and Barre could launch ground attacks into Kenya.

There was also intelligence that Amin was furious that he had been denied a chance to be the negotiator for the release of the airliner and had “been made to appear rather foolish”.

Because of these fears, Kissinger had agreed to help Kenya by demonstrating “our interest in your independence”.

While he had also suggested that Kenyatta contacts the OAU to help, Kenyatta was less interested to follow that line, according to Mr Marshall.

To intimidate Amin, Kissinger agreed to send to Nairobi a Lockheed P-3 Orion, a special surveillance aircraft to monitor Uganda and a frigate stationed in Mombasa “if you believe it will be helpful”, as he told Kenyatta in a letter.

The ambassador, though less committal, also told Kenyatta they could “possibly position ships off Kenyan shores”.

He asked Kenyatta if he believed Amin might be so annoyed at Kenya’s cooperation with Israel to attack Kenya.

“Maybe,” Kenyatta replied. “It is quite possible. If there is a way which an outsider (meaning the US) could raise the matter in the UN, then this fellow here will know we have some important and powerful friends.”

The envoy wrote home: “Kenyatta indicated he wishes discussions of entire subject be very closely held in Kenya.” He was quoted as saying: “Matters get whispered about and then misunderstood.”

Kenyatta told the diplomat he would command his Permanent Secretary Geoffrey Kariithi and Defence Permanent Secretary Jeremiah Kiereini “to hold this matter and any discussions with me in utmost confidentiality”.

Part of the Americans’ worry was on Kenyatta’s health that July 4, 1976 meeting. Actually, the ambassador was worried that Kenyatta might not have been informed of the larger picture and suggested whether they should involve Minister of State Mbiyu Koinange and Attorney-General Charles Njonjo.

But Kenyatta said he would handle the matter personally and would reply to Kissinger through the ambassador or directly.

The Americans had come to love Kenyatta after the role Kenya played in taming Amin during the Entebbe raid.

The letter from Kissinger dated on July 3, 1976 said as much: “I have just learned with satisfaction of the rescue of passengers on the Air France flight hijacked earlier this week. I wanted you to know, Mr President, that should Kenya be in the need of support in the days ahead, the United States stands ready to cooperate fully.”

On July 9, 1976, Kissinger followed with another letter to Kenyatta, informing him that they were going to deploy the P-3 aircraft in Nairobi and that a frigate, the USS Beary, would arrive in Mombasa on July 12 and remain for a minimum of three days.

To show Amin that Kenya was fully armed, the US agreed that during the Jamhuri Day celebrations in 1976 they would make a show of might.

In an October 20, 1976 letter, President Ford wrote to Kenyatta: “We are pursuing arrangements to fulfill your request for a fly-past on Jamhuri Day, December 12. We will be communicating further with you on this matter shortly.”

By this time, Kenya’s intelligence were watching the PLO in Nairobi — as untrusted guests.

End / nation news Kenya

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