They were aid [Photo: Courtesy]

Russia, hosts of the 2018 World Cup which has confounded fans and most sports gamblers with endless surprises, was a cog in the wheel of the Cold War of which Kenya was part.

Kenya’s entanglement in Cold War politics was the beginning of accumulating foreign debt which we’re still paying through a running nose.

Let us start from the beginning.

The Cold War started after the defeat of Germany in World War II in 1945, creating a vacuum in global power relations.  Power abhors a vacuum. As part of the defeat, Germany gave up its colonies, including neighbouring Tanzania.

The only two powerful nations that remained standing after World War II were the US and the then USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) as part of its “aggressive expansionist power” inherited the vacuum left by Germany.

The USA and USSR (which Russia was part of) thus emerged as the only two super powers. But there was a problem. They had diametrically opposite political ideologies: America was capitalist democracy, while USSR (which was mostly known as Russia because it was the largest, most populous and most economically developed union republic of the Soviet Union) was a communist dictatorship. It was the flexing of their ideological muscles that created frosty diplomatic relations labelled the Cold War.

African countries on the cusp of independence in the 1960s did not have money to run newly-elected governments. They had negligible manpower as many colonialists didn’t bother educating Africans. So, what to do?

The USA and Russia had solutions: Give foreign aid to those who took your political pills. Africa was open shop, since both Russia and the USA had no colonies here. They thus lured governments with foreign aid in form of trade agreements, diplomatic relations, technical assistance, scholarships, credit and grants.

Some swallowed the bait and are still paying the price. Think Tanzania and its socialist experiment with Ujamaa (communal cooperation) which later came to grief.  

It was this battle of outdoing each other, dishing out goodies that resulted in many African countries accumulating foreign debt, Kenya included. 

The Cold War also birthed the political bile between President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, a capitalist and his vice president, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, a communist sympathiser. The USA and Russia found them a perfect political canvas to play out supremacy battles.

 The Cold War also exposed Russia’s frozen view of the world, if what it gave as foreign assistance was any yardstick: It once donated over 100,000 toilet seat covers to an African country, where citizens mostly rushed to the bush or pit latrines when bowels threatened to explode, as Graham Hancock notes in Lords of Poverty, adding that at the height of the Ethiopian famine with Mengistu Haile Mariam at the helm in 1974, Russia donated tanks and other forms of “military assistance” when citizens were dying in their millions.

Russia was so adept at dishing out useless “foreign aid,” it gave Kenya tanks, artillery, mortars and ammunition- which were useless without Soviet training.

Jaramogi, who was once quoted by Time magazine as saying “communism was like food to me,” was instrumental in Russia’s “foreign aid” game when they donated outdated World War II tanks as “military assistance.” They were out rightly rejected as the tanks were so wide, there were no bridges here where they could have passed, let alone withstand the weight!

Foreign Affairs minister Dr Njoroge Mungai and Attorney General Charles Njonjo got one look at the tanks and without military expertise, and thumbed their noses at the “military assistance,” which was later interpreted as possible indicators of overthrowing the government with “foreign assistance.”

Americans, wary of Jaramogi’s dalliance with Russia, sponsored a Kanu conference in Limuru in March 1966, where he was ousted as party vice president in an “internal coup.” Oginga resigned and went into opposition politics, a mantle that he handed over to his son, Raila.