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Kiplagat: Deal maker and astute diplomat

By Barrack Muluka | Jul 16th 2017 | 4 min read
(Photo: Courtesy)

Many remember him as the Chairman of the turbulent Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) whose final report is still gathering dust in Parliament. Yet Bethuel Kiplagat, who died on Friday, had had a full tour of duty by the time President Kibaki picked him to head TJRC in 2009. Those of us who were of age when President Jomo Kenyatta died in August 1978 recall the emergence of the three Kiplagats from the woodwork about this time.

There was Hosea Kiplagat, Lawi Kigen Kiplagat and Bethuel Kiplagat. The trio distinguished themselves as some of President Moi's closest associates. Hosea Kiplagat was of those people who would be wherever the president was, without clear knowledge of what his role was. Even more mysterious was the role of Lawi Kiplagat.

It was understood, however, that they were part of the informal government and the innermost sanctum of the real Moi Cabinet. Then there was Bethuel Kiplagat – erudite, eloquent and polished, every inch the consummate gentleman. He was a diplomat who cut deals both above the table and under the table.

Having had a career in the United Nations, by the time Moi came to power, Kiplagat was natural for the delicate circuit that is international relations and diplomacy. It would prove to be quite a chequered career as any chequered mission could ever be on a fast-changing international circuit. There were many high and low moments.

The start of his tour of duty in France and subsequent move to the UK came when Kenya was the blue-eyed boy of the Western world. We were diplomatic brats, spoiled by Cold War politics, then in the homestretch. Ambassador Kiplagat and Kenya often found themselves in the cross-hairs of the war, doing the bidding of the West.

If Ambassador Kiplagat's foreign initial outing for his country was a matter of baptism by fire in the Cold War arena, his exit in 1991 as Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs would also come in most trying times, both as factors of the Cold War. The tensions between the Eastern Communist and Western Capitalist blocs came to a head in 1989, when Kiplagat was Kenya's Foreign PS.

Troubled season

A most troubled season set in for Kenya's relations with the Western world, under the watch of Kiplagat in the Foreign Ministry. Although the end of the Cold War did not happen until 1991, the attitude of the Western donor community towards its African partners changed suddenly and drastically.

They were abruptly embracing the opening up countries of Eastern Europe at the expense of their poor former friends in the Third World, Kenya among them. They asked for reforms in governance and in management of economies. They wanted expanded space for expression, democracy and human rights. Kenya scored very poorly in all these.

It was within this context that the Paris Club – a basket of Western donors – suspended aid and borrowing by Kenya, under Ambassador Kiplagat's guard.

Back home, almost everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. The Wagalla Massacre of 1984 had happened, with the Ambassador's name being dragged into the bloody mess. The country's human rights record had fallen to an all time low, with arbitrary arrests and jailing of Mwakenya suspects.

Disappearances of people and extra judicial killings were normal. It was strange how numerous suicide cases by jumping from Nyayo House had become common.

Put together, these happenings clouded what should have been a brilliant diplomatic career by one of Kenya's most outstanding brains. His boss, Dr Robert Ouko, was killed at the apogee of these troubled times, following a futile mission to beg for funds from Washington and from the Paris Club.

The names of many prominent personalities around President Moi were sucked into the controversy, including Ambassador Kiplagat's and that of Nicholas Biwott – who also died this week. This controversy will also remain a slur on the reputation of a brilliant diplomat who tried to do a good job in very troubled times.

Below the table, Kiplagat is reputed to have been Lonrho's hatchet man when the British multilateral staged a boardroom coup to throw out Mzee Kenyatta's son in law, Udi Gechaga, and bring in the Nyayo Era's Mark Too as Tiny Rowland's deputy.

He was also mentioned in fixing deals between Nyayo political giants and Bob Denard, a French soldier and mercenary who was associated with destabilising African governments in Eastern and Southern Africa, and all the way to Congo, Angola and Gabon. The ambassador takes with him to the grave the truth about these narratives, for they were neither denied nor confirmed.

Among the more illustrious highlights of Ambassador Kiplagat's diplomatic service was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's visit to Kenya in 1988. Earlier, in 1985, Kiplagat spearheaded the Uganda Peace Talks in Nairobi between rebel leader Yoweri Museveni and President Tito Okelo.

Kiplagat also represented President Moi in the Mozambican peace process between Frelimo and Renamo. He was also instrumental in peace initiatives in Ethiopia, leading to the referendum that created the independent Republic of Eritrea and in the Sudan peace process, too. Others were negotiations in the Great Lakes Region and the Somalia process.

- Mr Muluka is a publishing editor and special consultant. [email protected]

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