Foreigners on our soil: Day when Libya would have bombed Kenya

The late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. [Reuters]

Of late, there has been controversy about 2,000 or so Pakistanis allegedly stranded in Kenya and loitering all over the place. The story told is that they were headed to Saudi Arabia as casual labourers. Maybe.

But most intriguing is that the government had feigned ignorance on the matter until the media reported it. The foreigners were rounded up at night for screening to establish how they got into the country and whether they had requisite travel papers.

But wait a minute, can two thousand - 2,000? – foreign nationals enter the country and loiter all over the place and authorities not know about it until after it has been reported in the media? In military terms two thousand soldiers constitute two battalions. Essentially it means two enemy battalions invaded the country, so to speak, and the government only learned about it from the media. Talk of a banana republic!

This has even spun conspiracy theories: Could the so-called Pakistanis be some evacuees from Afghanistan who fled the troubled Asian country when the Taliban overran Kabul, and Kenya voluntarily or otherwise took as refugees and now does not know what to do with them?

Muammar Gaddafi was the unelected Libyan leader who seized power and stayed put for over 33 years when his countrymen forcibly chased him out of town and executed him. They captured him hiding in a tunnel, did to him satanic things then shot him dead in cold blood.

When in power, there was no love lost between Gaddafi and our leadership. Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi specifically loathed him with a passion. I remember my former senator, the late G G Kariuki telling me that when he was Internal Security minister and the African Union (then called Organisation of African Unity - OAU) annual summit was held in Nairobi, the United States’ CIA Nairobi station chief sought to have the agency allowed to wiretap the hotel rooms where Libyan delegation would be staying.

The Kenyan minister thought it a bit immoral to do that, but the American snapped without batting an eyelid: “Look Mr Minister, espionage is the second oldest profession but with even fewer morals than the first one!” When the minister sought the views of his superiors on the matter, he got the go-ahead to spy on the Libyans.

Later President Moi’s government, as Kenya held the OAU chairmanship, worked with the Americans and next meeting of the organisation that was scheduled to be held in Tripoli, Libya, which effectively would have meant Gaddafi assumed the reigns of the continental body after Moi, never took place.

Former President Daniel Arap Moi. [Reuters]

But one incident so incensed Gaddafi that he seriously contemplated a military strike on Kenya from a neighbouring country whose leader and President Moi had mutual dislike.

Over 600 Libyan rebels had been fighting Gaddafi’s government from neigbouring Chad. Fearing reprisals from the Libyan leader, Chad had ordered the Libyans to immediately leave the country. The US government hurriedly made arrangements with DR Congo (then called Zaire) to house the Libyans at a camp in Lubumbashi in southern province of Shaba.

But American intelligence soon learned that the Libyan leader had opened a channel of communication with Zaire’s leader, President Mobutu Sese Seko, on how to lay his hands on the Libya rebels. Gaddafi planned to offer a big incentive to Mobutu to hand over the rebels. Alternatively, he threatened to use force and bomb the camp in Zaire where they were staying.

Once again, the CIA had to hurriedly secure a safe haven for the rebels. They struck a deal with Moi. The Libyans would quietly be relocated to Kenya for 90 days as the CIA made arrangements to move them to a safe haven away from Gaddafi’s reach.

The operation would be as secretive as it would get, and known only to those who had to, which is a few top officials in the Foreign Affairs ministry and select officers in the intelligence and in the military.

The Libyans were airlifted to Nairobi using two US Air Force C-141 jets. The two jets landed at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in the dead of night when the apron was clear of all traffic. The US jets taxied to the far end of the apron where military buses were waiting in the cover of darkness.

The Libyans and their few world possessions were quickly tucked into the buses and hurriedly driven away as Nairobi slept. Their destination was a camp on Thika-Garissa Road which had hurriedly been put up in the middle of nowhere and painted in the colours of the National Youth Service (NYS).

But unlike the Pakistanis who have been hovering all over the place and being a nuisance to Kenyans, the Libyans would strictly be confined to the camp. In any case, their camp was deep in the uninhabited interior. Their only neighbours were dangerous snakes and looming hyenas yearning to feast on the intruders from northern Africa.

Muammar Gaddafi. [Reuters]

To keep the Libyans busy, the UNHCR and Red Cross sent instructors to give them lessons in English language. Sports facilities were also provided to keep the refugees busy. But soon, the CIA learnt that Libyan intelligence had got wind of the presence of the rebels in Kenya. Gaddafi’s agents operating from a neighbouring country began working on a plan to either stage an overland commando attack on Kenya and capture, if not kill the Libyans on the spot. Alternatively, Gaddafi’s men would stage an air strike and bomb the camp.

The only hitch was that the Libyans had no clue where Kenya was hiding the rebels. American and Kenyan intelligence got to know that Gaddafi had zeroed in on three different locations, all of which were far off the mark.

Not willing to risk anything that would harm innocent Kenyans, President Moi insisted that the CIA get the Libyans out of Kenyan soil as soon as possible.

No African country was willing to take the Libyans and risk Gaddafi’s wrath. The Arab countries, including those unfriendly to Libya, too, did not want to touch the rebels. Neither did Australia and Canada, the two countries well known for baby-sitting dissidents from all corners of the world. The US was forced to fly all the Libyan rebels to America.

But Gaddafi made two last-minute efforts to lay hands on the rebels. This time, he tried a friendly approach. First, he got Egypt to persuade Moi to hand over the rebels in exchange of a deal to sell Kenya oil at a generous discount. Moi agreed, much as he suspected Gaddafi wouldn’t keep his part of the bargain. It turned out Moi, too, was playing Gaddafi knowing too well that the Americans would never let Gaddafi lay hands on the rebels. By then, the rebels had been issued with US Green cards which effectively meant they were now US citizens so Kenyans couldn’t hand them over to Gaddafi even if there was such a deal.

Still not aware of the latest development, Gaddafi dispatched a personal emissary to Nairobi. He was received by President Moi’s Mr Fix-it, the late Mark Too. Gaddafi promised a generous monetary “gift” to Kenya and “something small” for Moi in exchange for the rebels. But the condition was, first give us the rebels then we release the money. Moi told Gaddafi to keep his money. In any case, it was too late because the Libyan rebels had long left for the United States.

Now you understand why President Moi and the Libyan leader would never be locked in the same room and not have the other for dinner!

By Brian Ngugi 54 mins ago
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