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Blast from the past: Intrigues that led to first coup attempt in Kenya

President Jomo Kenyatta inspects a passing out parade mounted by the National Youth Service in Nairobi in 1964

Dramatic details have emerged of the fallout between Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta and his chief of military which led to the country’s first coup attempt in 1971.

Maj Gen Joel Ndolo, the army chief who quit after the plot was unearthed, had been grumbling about oathing in the armed forces, ammunition being given to civilians and rampant tribalism in public life, according to recently declassified American intelligence files.

He is reported by America’s spy agency, CIA, as having been particularly disturbed by the fast-tracking of an unnamed officer from the president’s tribe up the ranks to succeed him even though a Kamba (Jackson Mulinge) was next in line. Mulinge would eventually succeed Ndolo and become the longest serving military boss before retiring into politics.

The tension finally erupted when Ndolo, who had led Kenya’s military since independence, was arrested together with Chief Justice Kitili Mwendwa along with a coterie of politicians allied to opposition leader Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who had been placed under political detention the year before.

The CIA reports reveal for the first time that senior army officers were bitter because the armed forces did not have modern weaponry — at the time they were fighting Somali Shifta insurgents in northern Kenya.

Problems from the start

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The appointment of Dr Njoroge Mungai as Defence Minister was a special cause for grouse, because he was from the president’s tribe and a close friend of the head of state.

Says the report: “The government has been concerned over military loyalties. If the military attempts to intervene, the Kikuyu reportedly plan to rely on the General Service Unit, a tough paramilitary police force as a counterpoise. There is little evidence however that the unit could or would oppose the army”.

In a bulletin of June 25, 1971, CIA officials report how Ndolo was forced to resign after he was implicated in the coup plot.

“Gideon Mutiso, a Member of Parliament (Yatta) and a leader of the plot, testified at his trial on Wednesday that he and Ndolo met on a number of occasions to discuss the coup plans,” reads the report.

With Ndolo’s resignation, there was a push among top government officials to have him arrested, but the CIA say Kenyatta dithered and wanted publicity on the matter first before arresting him.

“Although the Kamba, along with Kenya’s other minority tribes, have become increasingly resentful over the dominant position enjoyed by President Kenyatta’s Kikuyu tribe, Ndolo reportedly has lost considerable support among Kamba and other army officers as a result of his complicity in the plot,” says the CIA.

Ndolo quit with full benefits and retreated to his Sultan Hamud home and kept off public limelight. He died on April 6, 1984, in a road accident while driving from Mombasa to his rural home.

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Mixed fortunes

Mr Mwendwa, the first African head of the Judiciary, resigned after he was placed at the core of the planning of the coup. Upon resignation as a CJ, Kitili went under but let his wife Nyiva Mwendwa participate and win the 1974 Kitui West parliamentary seat. He kept a low profile until after Kenyatta’s death in 1978. In 1983’s snap elections, Kitili took on Parmenas Munyasia who had trounced Nyiva in 1979. He lost to Munyasia by a small margin. A petition filed through a voter overturned Munyasia’s win, banned him and Kitili romped to victory. He died a year later on September 27, 1985 in a road accident.

Another key player was Daniel Owino, who incidentally had also participated in Kenya’s only mutiny in Lanet Barracks in 1964 and had been discharged dishonourably by Ndolo — who had presided over the military tribunal that tried the 1964 mutineers. He was sentenced to 9.5 years in jail and fled to London after his sentence where he lived until his death in 2012.

Mutiso was the MP for Yatta at the time of the 1971 coup attempt. He was among the 13 men tried and it didn’t take him long to confess and rope in Ndolo. He served his full term, made a political comeback as Yatta MP from 1983 to 1992 when he lost and retreated into farming and business.

General Mulinge, who was at the time the army commander, was approached to back up the coup by Ndolo but he turned down the request. He later dissuaded Kenyatta from jailing Ndolo.

Prof Ouma Muga was the first accused in the trial. He is said to have coordinated the coup from Makerere University. After finishing his jail term, Ouma joined active politics and won the Rangwe parliamentary seat in 1988 and became assistant minister for propaganda national guidance. He was however sacked for boasting of having written a technical speech for former President Moi.

The American spies’ understanding of Kenya at the time appear to be terribly limited to the power dynamics between the ruling Kikuyu elite and the Luo elite. Their understanding of politics is that all MPs then were elected to represent largely homogenous tribal constituencies and that they were all “well aware of the need to defend their tribes’ interests”.

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“Tribalism, the single most important ingredient in Kenyan politics, poses the greatest threat. Most Kenyans live in rural areas and owe primary allegiance to their tribes. Outsiders are viewed with suspicion. As a result, most Kenyan politicians represent tribal constituencies and are identified by their tribal affiliations. Recognising that their tribes provide them with their primary means of political support, Kenyan politicians put the interests of their tribes first,” reads an intelligence memorandum of May 30, 1972, titled The Post Kenyatta Conundrum.

Running on empty

It didn’t matter back then to the CIA that the people wanted better health services, schools and economic opportunity because the government didn’t have the money to meet the people’s expectations, and when it came to sharing the national cake, that process was subservient to the cut-throat “intertribal competition”.

The files are part of the cache of documents that the CIA published online in January 2017, which The Standard on Sunday has been reviewing. In one of the files dated February 6, 1970, the CIA isolated the military as a “new problem”, because Ndolo had slammed the Kenyatta government and some of its corrupt ministers for the political unrest in the country following the killing of Tom Mboya and the detention of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.

The American spies listened to Ndolo and analysed his words and phrases and concluded that his words were “reminiscent of pronouncements used to justify military take-overs in Africa”.

“He has been disturbed because Kikuyu in the army are stealing ammunition and giving it to civilians. In addition, the major-general was disgusted by a resurgence of tribal oath-taking among the Kikuyu—presumably instigated by the ruling clique—designed to unify the tribe in the face of growing opposition from the Luo and others. Ndolo was particularly incensed by the attempt to extend oath-taking to the army and to his own Kamba tribe,” the CIA says in a report titled: Special Report: New Politics and Old Problems in Kenya.

The files reveal for the first time how Ndolo moved soldiers between barracks without permission from the president in an attempt to scuttle oathing. That secret movement of troops made the Americans to infer “political overtones” meant to “discourage further oath-taking in the army”.

The CIA does not give details of the oathing ceremony, but other accounts by scholars and prominent Kenyans say the oaths involved bloody rituals and pledging loyalty to the government of the day.

Another memo dated 27 August 1970 titled Growing challenges to the old guard in Kenya, says massive oath-taking alarmed other communities and even many Kikuyu leaders.

“Some of the oaths taken called for Kikuyus never to relinquish power. In a few districts, these oaths were forcefully administered and law and order broke down as local authorities were ordered not to interfere,” the memo reads.

The CIA says the military was demoralised because they did not have modern weapons.

“There are reports of declining morale in the army, mainly because of neglect by the central government,” the memo noted.

Foggy forecast

This assessment is informed by the February 1970 dossier which records the CIA’s thinking about the military’s stance regarding politics.

“Several senior army officers are known to be very bitter because the Kenya armed forces do not have modern weaponry and because Kenyatta recently appointed a Kikuyu crony defence minister. Many of these officers are now believed to be increasingly wary of Kikuyu intentions. They fear that Kenyatta will seek to ensure his control of the army by promoting a Kikuyu to commander even though a Kamba is next in line,” the CIA says.

The American spies were wary of the Kenyatta successions and predicted violence because of ethnic tensions.

“The Kikuyu are not ready to give away any power, and Kenyatta’s mental flexibility will decrease further with old age. On the other hand, bickering will undoubtedly increase as the newly elected non-Kikuyu members attempting to obtain economic help for their areas, run into intransigent Kikuyu ministers. Although these and other intertribal problems should continue to be worked out in political forums, an occasional tribal flare-up would not be surprising,” the CIA says.

Despite the grim prediction of violence, the transition from Kenyatta to his deputy Daniel arap Moi in 1978 was peaceful. The warning of an attempted coup would come to pass in 1982 when Kenya Air Force soldiers led a short-lived revolt.

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