By Asher Naim
An Israeli diplomat’s forging of ties with Kenyan leader Jomo Kenyatta during Kenya’s pre-independence period in the early 1960s helped pave the way to fruitful relations between the Kenya and Isreal. This period already saw initiatives in the fields of pilot training, intelligence cooperation, and assistance programs. Among the gains for Israel was Kenyatta’s lasting, loyal support.In December 1960 this author was asked by Ehud Avriel, then special adviser to the Israeli foreign minister, to go to Kenya, then a British colony. The British government had refused the appointment of Uzi Nedivi, a high-ranking official, as consul general in Nairobi. Avriel, however, deemed it important to have an Israeli presence during the crucial years of Kenya’s struggle for independence, in the hope of establishing diplomatic relations once Kenya became a state. He said that, given this author’s junior status at the time, “nobody would notice.“The post would be as assistant to Israel (Izzy) Somen, the “honorary consul,” as Avriel put it. It was supposed to be for a two-month period, until another solution was found. Somen, a Jew who did much to promote Israel’s interests in Kenya, was highly regarded in Nairobi where he had served as mayor, and was much involved in the local politics.In the early period of statehood, Israel faced a struggle on many fronts. Israel’s involvement with Kenya was part of its effort to forge diplomatic relations with as many countries as possible.
An Initial Meeting
The strategy in Kenya was to seek to befriend and gain the trust of its emerging indigenous leader, Jomo Kenyatta, who was also the undisputed head of the largest and dominant Kikuyu tribe. Kenyatta, however, was under house arrest, accused of being the force behind the rebellious Mau Mau movement that had spread havoc among the sixty thousand European settlers in the Kenyan highlands.The author arrived in Nairobi on a morning in October 1961, and went immediately to Gatundu, the village thirty miles away where Kenyatta was confined to quarters. On a sandy road leading to the place were two heavyset guards armed with sticks. They asked the author’s destination, and questions followed about personal acquaintance or an appointment with Kenyatta, the answers being negative. However, after identifying himself as an Israeli with a message for Kenyatta, and after the message was apparently conveyed by one of the guards, the author was allowed to proceed.
Although his age was not known at the time, Kenyatta was over seventy but looked more like fifty. He was heavyset with a spotted gray beard, and was wearing sandals, casual pants, and a colorful open shirt while holding a long stick. The look was impressive, reminiscent of Moses. The author, after being introduced to his new wife Mama Ngina, a tall village woman in her twenties, explained that he had been sent to Kenya to offer Israel’s experience in nation building. Israel, too, had freed itself from British rule just thirteen years earlier, and used trial and error in integrating immigrants from seventy different countries. Kenya, for its part, had forty different tribes that spoke various dialects, which would have to be amalgamated into a nation with a common identity upon gaining independence. Israel’s advice could be helpful in avoiding mistakes.
Israel, the author pointed out, could also assist in the fields of agriculture, irrigation, animal husbandry, youth movements, social work, childcare, and others. The meeting lasted five hours and seemed successful in building trust. While strolling around Kenyatta’s farm, he said, “You know, we Kikuyu are the Jews of Africa, and we too will outsmart the British government.” At the end of the encounter, he asked if Israel could supply him with an incubator for his chicken coop; one was delivered two weeks later.
Back in the hotel in Nairobi there were four messages from a MacDonald, assistant to the British governor, asking to return the call urgently. The voice of the messages was sober and unfriendly: “Kenyatta is under house arrest and a visit to him requires advance permission.”
A call received that evening from Izzy Somen was not encouraging either. He expected the author would be asked to leave Kenya.This prompted a decision the next morning to visit Kenyatta again, while there was still time. On this occasion in Gatundu, at 10:30 in the morning, the guards did not create an obstacle. Kenyatta was warm and affable, and when told what had transpired since yesterday’s visit, he burst out angrily that the British did not understand that their rule was over and it was time to leave Kenyans to manage their own affairs. “As for you, my friend, don’t worry. If they send you out, I will receive you in Nairobi personally after our Uhuru [freedom].”
Something, then, seemed to have been achieved diplomatically in any case; and MacDonald was not heard from again.Soon after, Kenyatta was released from his confinement. The British, in keeping with their practice of divide and rule, created a counterforce of the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU). Consisting of minority tribes headed by A. Ngala, this organization prolonged the negotiations for independence at Lancaster House in London, but could not weaken Kenyatta’s undisputed leadership
Pilot Training: A Breakthrough
Although Kenyatta was not a religious man, he was appreciative of the Bible. He also admired what he considered “Jewish brain power.” Despite the fact that there was an influence here of anti-Semitic notions, his own feelings toward Jews were favorable.
Friendship with Kenyatta led to friendship with a number of “Kenyan leaders” who surrounded him, some of whom were James Gitchuru, later finance minister; J.G. Kiano, later industry and trade minister; and Mwai Kibaki, later, in 2004, president of Kenya. The most colorful personality in those days, however, was Tom Mboya. Although the most intelligent and educated person with leadership qualities, and having wide contacts with international organizations and particularly with the American trade-union leader Walter Reuther, Mboya never attained a top position because he was not from the Kikuyu but from the Luo, the second largest tribe. He was also in conflict with the Odinga, a tribe within the Luo category.
After Mboya’s marriage, the author was asked by Ehud Avriel to invite him for his honeymoon to Israel. There, he favorably impressed many. When the timetable for Uhuru was agreed upon with Britain, and Israel responded favorably to a Ugandan-Tanganyikan request for the training of pilots, the author was instructed to ask Mboya to add five Kenyan candidates even though Kenya was not yet independent.
After sending an objection that this might be interpreted as Israel giving preference or, worse still, interfering in Kenya’s internal affairs, the author was granted permission to refer the matter to Kenyatta, but only after consulting with Mboya. There was no trouble gaining Mboya’s assent that Kenyatta would choose the candidates. Mboya knew the limits of his role, and a decision of such national significance, involving Kenya’s future air force, could only be Kenyatta’s prerogative. Mboya, envied for his intelligence and international status, was in constant danger and ultimately was assassinated. Kenyatta, for his part, was appreciative of the pilot-training offer and this further enhanced the trust that had been built.
Independence and Diplomatic Ties
The author worked closely with Kenyatta, and never held a serious meeting with Ngala, the KADU president. It was evident that whatever maneuvers the British used, Kenyatta was irreplaceable. Hence, even before independence, all Israeli assistance programs went through the “Kenyatta channel.” It was clear he would always approve them, but it gratified him to be treated as the leader even before it was official. The numerous training programs – mostly in rural development, irrigation, social work, and health – both involved bringing Kenyans to Israel for courses and sending Israeli instructors to Kenya. The graduates became effective “ambassadors” for Israel. The most notable project was the establishment of a school for social work in Machakos, fifty miles north of Nairobi.
Early in 1962, the head of the Mossad in the region arrived in Kenya and asked the author how he could meet with Kenyatta. It was arranged for breakfast at the author’s home the next day. Kenyatta appeared with one assistant. The author also arranged the presence of Arye Oded, who later became Israel’s ambassador to Kenya. At that meeting, cooperation began in the field of intelligence and security and eventually expanded considerably. Also that year, the author – the only non-African able to go to Kenyatta’s office without appointment – arranged a meeting for him with then-Foreign Minister Golda Meir that even further enhanced the intimate relationship with Kenyatta.
One day early in 1963, the author was called to Kenyatta’s office – he was then rotating prime minister with opposition leader A. Ngala – and was secretly asked to send a fighter with the nom de guerre “General China” to Israel for “training.” Itote Waruhiu – his real name – was the commander of the Mau Mau’s Kikuyu underground, and the British viewed him as a terrorist. Kenyatta wanted to groom him as a commander in the Kenyan army when the time came. He also, most likely, wanted to secure the support of Mau Mau fighters who were still hiding in the forests. That he placed this delicate matter in Israel’s hands shows the depth of Kenyatta’s trust.
Asked by Foreign Minister Meir to remain, the author’s “two months” lasted three years until Kenya attained independence and opened diplomatic relations with Israel. As the Uhuru approached, the Foreign Ministry approved the author’s suggestion to purchase a plot of land near his hotel and build the future embassy and future ambassador’s residence. Israel’s delegation to Kenya’s independence celebration included Meir and Avriel.
The author planned the new Israeli embassy’s foundation-laying ceremony for two days before that event, on 10 December 1963. Although neither Avriel nor Meir believed that, with so many dignitaries coming to the country, Kenyatta would attend, he did so and it was he and Meir who laid the foundation. Kenyatta said he looked forward to Kenyan-Israeli friendship, that the two countries had much in common historically, and that he was happy Israel’s was the first embassy to be built in Kenya and hoped it would set an example. Among the dignitaries present were Gitchuru, Kiano, and Kibaki.
Heads of Arab states’ delegations to the independence festivities, we learned from reliable sources, planned to raise the issue of Israeli diplomatic representation. However, they changed their minds after seeing the next morning’s press with the picture of Kenyatta and Meir laying the foundation stone and quotations of Kenyatta’s words. Thus, Israel won a round in the diplomatic struggle. Kenyatta remained friendly and trustful toward Israel all his life, and often helped it in times of need – such as when, despite Kenya’s close relations with neighboring Uganda, he allowed an Israeli air force plane to refill in Nairobi on its way back from the Entebbe raid.
*Asher Naim is a veteran Israeli diplomat who has held positions in Japan and the United States, and was ambassador to Kenya, Uganda, Finland, Ethiopia, the Third Committee of the United Nations, and South Korea. He was instrumental in negotiating the transit of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and in the repeal of the “Zionism is racism” UN resolution.