At least six years before Jomo Kenyatta died, America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had prepared a thorough assessment of the political succession in Kenya, complete with possible successors, their chances and competence, and how they would affect the country’s relations with the United States.
The spy agency, in an intelligence memorandum dated May 30, 1972, said Kenya’s then Vice President Daniel Moi was unlikely to last beyond the 90-day acting period. In their view, Moi was politically ill-equipped for the top job and did not have the confidence of the powerbrokers in the government of Kenyatta.
The memo completely writes off Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s chances as “improbable”. Jaramogi, the father of the current Opposition leader Raila Odinga, was then a political pariah, and according to the CIA, he was being isolated by the “Kikuyu establishment”.
The frontrunners, the spy agency said, were Njoroge Mungai, then foreign minister, a darling of the President’s inner circle, JM Kariuki, a popular and populist politician, whose daughter Rosemary works for Raila’s party ODM; and Mwai Kibaki, whom according to the CIA, was “gaining ground as a compromise candidate”. Kibaki finally ruled Kenya for a decade until 2013.
JM Kariuki was the CIA’s pick. “In a free election for the presidency, Kariuki would give Moi a good fight and probably outdistance Mungai,” the CIA said in the memo.
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If the worst came to the worst, the CIA predicted a military coup, and even says it would work because “Kenyatta and his associates” had packed the military with “fellow tribesmen”.
“If the succession is marked by prolonged political squabbling and unrest, the chances for military intervention will increase markedly,” the American spies reported to their boss. Titled ‘The Post-Kenyatta Conundrum’ the intelligence memo is just one of the dozens of documents that lift the veil on how the US viewed Kenya and its leaders just nine years after independence. The worry of the American spies, in that memo, was that if Kenyatta’s successor did not come from his inner circle, Kenya was likely to vote with the communists in international fora, and that was a big headache for the US. In their predictions, Moi was going to be a puppet of the cabal around Kenyatta, and within the 90 days, a suitable candidate would have been found to take over. In their books, they had Mungai, whom they describe as “Kenyatta’s personal physician, nephew and close advisor”. CIA’s only problem was that Mungai was only popular in Gatundu.
“He enjoys little popularity outside his own constituency,” the memo to the Director of Central Intelligence, stamped ‘secret’ says.
But Moi’s chances were dismissed. “Moi as President might be little more than a figurehead, with real power resting in the Kikuyu inner circle. Despite his standing with Kenyatta, the vice president has never enjoyed the full confidence of the Gatundu group or participated extensively in its decision-making sessions. Moreover, he appears to lack the necessary political skills and sufficient backing to challenge the Kikuyu hegemony,” the memo said.
It added: “Moi would be legally blocked from making any significant changes while acting president, and therefore his chances to consolidate his position during his 90 days in office would be limited. The absence of formal constitution or party provisions for nominating a candidate to succeed Kenyatta as president strongly suggests the matter will be resolved in the Kikuyu inner circle. The Kikuyu may see Moi as useful in a transition period and might even support him in the election, but Moi’s prospects for political longevity will diminish as the Kikuyu increase their political strength.”
That assessment from the CIA dovetails perfectly with the recordings in Moi’s biography ‘Moi: The Making of an African Statesman’ which said that many of the powerbrokers of the Kenyatta era saw Moi as a “passing cloud” and actively worked to ensure that he doesn’t assume the presidency.
But a student of Kenyatta, and having worked as vice president for 11 years when Kenyatta died, Moi appears to have learned a lot about the psychology of power and the mechanics of politics, to an extent that he proved the CIA analysts wrong – he went on to rule Kenya for 24 years.
In fact, even the then powerful Attorney General Charles Njonjo is quoted in Moi’s biography giving credence to the “figurehead” portrait that the CIA had predicted, by saying, if the cabal around President Kenyatta had wanted to block Moi’s presidency, they would have done it “so easily”.
“I was Attorney General, the Commissioner of Police (Bernard Hinga) was Kikuyu, the Director of Intelligence was Kikuyu, the head of the GSU was Kikuyu, the senior officers in the Army and the Air Force were Kikuyus. If we wanted to organise something different, and not follow the Constitution, we were in a position to do it,” reads Moi’s biography. What these people overlooked was that with Moi as President, there was a lot he could do, both within government and within the then ruling party Kanu, to strengthen his position, and ensure he is elected President. Moi did exactly that.
About Kibaki, the CIA said he was not ambitious, but felt that if the worst came to the worst, the cabal around Kenyatta would settle on him.
“Kibaki seems acceptable to both the northern (Nyeri) and southern (Kiambu) and, like Kariuki, is popular among non-Kikuyu tribes. Kibaki also is an intelligent, talented, and energetic administrator. So far, however, he has shown little desire to compete for the presidency, and he generally shies away from back-room maneuverings,” the memo noted.
For Raila’s father, who was in the cold, the CIA said he appeared to have “lost much of his support”, but still noted that he retained considerable clout as a kingmaker. Odinga was the independence vice president, but he fell out with Kenyatta.
“Oginga Odinga no longer appears to have much chance. As a result of his detention, he appears to have lost much of his support. Odinga had hopes of a government post, but so far Kenyatta has refused to have anything to do with him. Odinga does retain a residue of popularity throughout the country among the economically discontented and he could swing support to someone like Kariuki. It is improbable, however, that Kikuyu establishment, which has been encouraging dissension among the Luo by pushing Odinga’s rivals, would permit the former vice president to re-enter the political arena,” the memo concluded.
It is here that the CIA also noted the possibility of a military coup, and said that while Major General Jackson Mulinge, the army commander and the senior military officer, seems inclined to preserve the military’s non-political image, there was trouble brewing underneath.
“The incessant maneuvering and the uncertainty over succession as well as the obvious attempts by the Gatundu group to advance their fellow tribesmen in the military, are slowly eroding this stand, and tribal enmity within the military is increasing. Top officers, particular those from the Kamba tribe, are wary of the Kikuyu ascendancy…There has been more grumbling over government corruption and tribal favourisitm, but for the most part, this has been confined to the barracks and mess halls,” they said,
While noting that Maj.Gen Mulinge was “loyal” and had “no political ambitions”, they said, if the military did not intervene to kick out Moi, then, the General Service Unit was likely to be the force that would execute the overthrow of government, and then keep the military at bay. “Kenyatta and his associates, well aware of the political potential of the military have deliberately recruited more and more Kikuyu into the military. They can also rely on the paramilitary police force, the General Service Unit, to discourage a military coup. This well-equipped and well-trained unit has important elements stationed near the capital and is almost wholly Kikuyu. Although the 1,600-man General Service Unit is outnumbered by the 5,000-man army, the paramilitary force could hold its own in a fight with the regular military. Kenyatta has attempted to retain this parity by preventing the army’s acquisition of some modern weapons,” the memo warned.
In the end, the CIA said that whoever takes over was likely to run into political headwinds.
“Regardless of who follows Kenyatta, there doubtless will be some changes. Without Kenyatta’s strong hand and towering presence the new government is likely to be troubled by maneuvering, division, and threats to its position that could bring on more repressive domestic policies. The new administration will probably also come under increasing pressures as a result of domestic problems. The Kenyatta government has taken little action to deal with the high rate of population growth and rising unemployment and the pace of land redistribution has been slow,” it concluded.
While the CIA correctly predicted a coup attempt, it got the culprits wrong. The August 1, 1982, coup attempt was led by Kenya Air Force soldiers, not GSU officers are anticipated earlier.