Uhuru Kenyatta to take up DR Congo conflict mediator role just like Mzee Jomo did

President Uhuru Kenyatta with his Congolese counterpart Felix Tshisekedi at the Palais de la Nation in Kinshasa during his State Visit to the country. [PSCU, Standard]

Outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta has a tough assignment to keep him busy in the coming days. East African Community member states have appointed him to mediate between the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the assorted factions opposed to it.

Incidentally, that was the same role the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) - now African Union (AU) - assigned Mzee Jomo Kenyatta only three months after he became Prime Minister and soon after First President of Kenya.

Mediating conflicts in the DRC - in those days known simply as the Congo - was, and has never been, a walk in the park. DRC is a curious and peculiar place in many ways. It is the largest country in Africa and the only one with two time zones.

Eastern DRC is one hour ahead of the Western side of the country. It is one of the world's best-endowed countries in terms of natural resources. It has the largest deposits of uranium, cobalt and high-grade gold and copper. It also has the largest of the world's tropical forests and the world's second largest river which can supply hydropower to the entire African continent.

Despite the estimated 50 trillion dollars' worth of mineral wealth, the DRC is one of the five poorest countries in the world with over three-quarters of the population living on less than two dollars a day. It also has gone through one of the bloodiest conflicts since Second World War.

The DRC is a country of more than 200 ethnic communities with about 1000 dialects, but have less appetite to like one another. A few years ago while lodging at a hotel on the DRC side of the border with Rwanda, I was scared stiff by commotion in the parking lot only for a hotel worker to tell me to take it easy because that is how Congolese go about their lives - screaming and trading punches and kicks.

Central authority

In early 1960s, as is same today, the core of conflict in DRC is that the eastern part of the country has never agreed to cede to the central authority in Kinshasa. The epicentre of Congo conflict is the eastern capital of Kisangani - in the early days known as Stanleyville.

This is how Kenya first got involved in the Congo bedlam. That country's first Prime Minister was a hard-drinking radical called Patrice Lumumba. He didn't last long - felled by a bullet. In came Joseph Kasavubu who 'elected' and declared himself President of the Congo. Then things began falling apart.

The eastern province of Katanga declared 'independence' under one Moise Tshombe. The international community intervened and crushed the rebellion. The western part of the Congo too took its turn and declared secession under one Pierre Mulele. That too was nipped in the bud.

Third powder keg exploded in the eastern side and for which Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was called upon to mediate. Kisangani was captured by a rogue 'army' calling itself the Simbas. Their first target was the 1300-odd foreign nationals in Kisangani.

The prime catch was the Americans and Belgians who were taken hostage. It was a calculated move to use them as human shield to deter attack from Kinshasa authorities who - with backing of Belgium and the US - were advancing to crash Katanga secession.

Ordinary tourist

The OAU moved into action and requested Mzee Jomo Kenyatta to mediate in the conflict. It was in September 1963 only three months after he had been sworn Prime Minister and three months to be sworn the First President of Kenya.

OAU envoy, one Thomas Kanza, was dispatched to Nairobi to request Mzee Kenyatta to chair the OAU commission and grant permission for its sittings in Nairobi.

Meanwhile, the US and Belgium - eager to secure safety of their citizens held captive in Kisangani and suspicious the OAU effort would either delay or get hijacked by then prevailing Cold War politics, worked on Plan B. Special squad of paratroopers was secretly put in place to storm Kinshasa and fly out the hostages.

Congo Prime Minister and the OAU envoy landed in Nairobi. Kenyatta hosted them for dinner ahead of the conference but the Prime Minister declined to attend the conference and flew out of Nairobi the next morning.

Nevertheless, the OAU Commission met and resolved to send a delegation to Washington to persuade then US President Lyndon Johnson to stop military aid to Congo government as a condition to free the foreign hostages in Kisangani.

Kenya's Foreign minister Joseph Murumbi would head the delegation to Washington. He passed by the US Embassy to brief the US ambassador on his mission. The ambassador sarcastically told him: "Wish you all the luck!"

In Washington, Kenya's Foreign minister never got anywhere near the Oval Office or the State Department!

In the morning, Washington instructed the US ambassador to inform Mzee Kenyatta that neither the US President nor the State Department would receive the OAU resolutions on the Congo conflict in absence of all parties, but that as courtesy to Mzee Kenyatta, his Foreign Affairs minister message would be received and acknowledged as "friendly" one from Kenyan Prime Minister to US President. Mzee Kenyatta agreed and said they review the situation next day.

Best in the world

At nine in the morning, the US ambassador met Mzee Kenyatta at Harambee House. Kenyan Foreign Minister was already in Washington but was received as ordinary tourist.

Meanwhile, the US ambassador travelled to Gatundu and told Mzee Kenyatta there was no personal embarrassment meant to him but that his Foreign Affairs minister and the OAU should have abided by protocols governing such engagements.

Mzee Kenyatta told the ambassador to be at his Gatundu home where all parties would be and thrash out the matter. The ambassador was at Gatundu early morning. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Mbiyu Koinange received him and asked him to wait for a short moment at the veranda as he was served a cup of coffee. The ambassador appreciated and said Kenya cappuccino was best in the world.

When ushered in, Mzee Kenyatta said he was glad that all parties in the Congo conflict were at Gatundu and said he trusted a solution would be found. In the meantime, Mama Ngina and a house-help walked in carrying a bowl of soup and tray full of roasted goat meet. Mzee Kenyatta told his guests that what was served was the "African breakfast" and they all applauded and partook with relish.

The OAU representative demanded that the issue of foreign hostages in Kinshasa be discussed in the broader context of foreigners held hostage. US ambassador sharply differed and demanded the release and evacuation of the hostages.

In the heated stalemate, the ambassador walked out, but outside he requested an aide to Mzee Kenyatta to ask for a private session with the old man, which was granted.

The ambassador confided in Mzee Kenyatta that US government had no trust in OAU negotiations based on intelligence gathered and that a decision had been made for a forceful rescue mission. Mzee Kenyatta was saddened by such eventuality and urged the ambassador to ask his government to give negotiations a chance.

The ambassador concurred and delivered a personal letter from Mzee Kenyatta to US President. But too late. American paratroopers descended on Kisangani and took away the hostages.

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