Lack of loyal Somalis frustrated Kenya's efforts to counter Mogadishu

By Boniface Ongeri and Adow Jubat

With casualties on both sides of the shifta war rising and with neither party backing down, bringing the conflict to an end would demand more than using firepower on the part of the Government.

While President Jomo Kenyatta publicly exuded confidence saying the Government was in control, the situation on the ground was different.

In 1965, for instance, during the celebration of Kenyatta Day, the late president told the crowd the Government had sufficient forces to neutralise the insurgents.

However, he was contradicted by ministers Dr Njoroge Mungai (Defence), Daniel Moi (Home Affairs) and Achieng’ Oneko (Information and Broadcasting) who said military solution was not working, during a Cabinet meeting.

Cabinet minutes

The three proposed use of broadcasting services, arguing it could do a great deal to bring the shifta campaign to an end. The cabinet adopted the idea and set up a propaganda radio station in the province.

Kenya's forces on patrol during the Shifta war

The Eastern Service of the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (then Voice of Kenya) went on air to counter Radio Mogadishu that used to relay secession propaganda to the Kenyan Somali community.

But it was not smooth sailing. Declassified information and cabinet minutes show that the Government was concerned that there might be no loyal Somalis inside the Government to carry out the propaganda and out it started training a Kikuyu to learn the Somali language.

A letter from FK Mbugua of the Ministry of Defence addressed to Information PS Peter Gachathi said: “Going by experience we have not succeeded in putting propaganda through the VoK to contradict those peddled by Radio Mogadishu and convince Kenyan Somalis into accepting Kenya status.”

The then Director of Intelligence James Kanyotu was asked to launch investigations on the source of the news.

An imposter was to be used after the meeting of heads of States of East and Central Africa that agreed no country was to use its radio system for propaganda activities against another country.

Home Affairs PS relayed the message to Leonard Kibinge (PS, Foreign Affairs), Gachathi and Danson Mlamba (Defence) and waited for the Somali Government reaction.

In a letter dated June 18, 1966, Gachathi wrote to Kanyotu: “We shall counterattack by exploring weaknesses in the internal situation in Somali. Our attacks must be factual, calm and objective.” The letter outlined how the propaganda machine that was being built would work.

Collecting intelligence

Commentaries were to show the inability of the Somalia to provide social services to her citizens and portray the Somali economy as controlled by foreigners. The radio was to stress on the ‘rigged elections and nepotism’, while the other broadcasts were to portray Kenya as a ‘civilised country fully aware of national and international obligations and completely capable of meeting them in a mature fashion’.

The aim of this was to show Kenya is on the right and Somali on the wrong, Gachathi wrote to PS in the Office of President, Geofrey Kariithi telling him the aim must be to demoralise the shifta bandits and to maintain the morale of the Kenyan forces at all times.

Since there was no Somali willing to carry out the job, Ethiopia promised to dispatch two reliable Somalis to help in broadcasting and monitoring. The station opened in March 1967. In a letter to Matere Keriri, then Financial Secretary, the Defence Ministry PS admitted once more the shifta war could not be won by bullets alone. The letter by HD Dent asked Keriri to approve the hiring of a psychological warfare expert, saying the mounting cost of the campaign justified using every available method to break to win.

VoK therefore embarked on recruitment of staff into the propaganda machine. Mutu wa Gethoi, a former university professor, was suggested as head of news while SN Githegi was to be the news editor, responsible for propaganda section.

Before the station opened, Kanyotu hit the ground running collecting intelligence on all Somalis working as announcers in VoK. In a letter to Duncan Ndegwa, PS Office of President, Kanyotu through Gachathi recommended the Somali presenters be replaced immediately because they were disloyal to the Government.

Due to lack of a loyal Somali producer, Gachathi asked for the transfer of a district cashier in Embu, George Mahinda to VoK as a producer. Mahinda, a Kikuyu, had smattering of Somali language and Gachahi wanted him trained.

As Radio Mogadishu continued propaganda war, VoK was forced to use the Somalis employed at the station against the warnings by Kanyotu about their lack of loyalty. It proved costly.

Defence PS Mlamba lamented to Gachathi that VoK could not conduct the propaganda war successfully after it emerged that there was a serious leakage of information to Radio Mogadishu.

In August 1967, Omanga wrote to Gachathi proposing time had come to take three people to University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies to learn Somali language. But Ithau, on behalf of Gachathi, said VoK would utilise the services of Somalis in Voice of America until other people could be trained to take over from them.

It is not known whether those recommended ever underwent any training because a tug of war between Government heads over whether they should be trained abroad or in the country, ensued. The war ended in 1968, a year after Eastern Service of the Vok went on air.