Declassified British intelligence files have given fresh insight into how an elite police unit was formed to protect Kenya’s first President.
According to a document dated April 8 1964 and marked “top secret”, the idea to form the special Recce team in the General Service Unit (GSU) was first raised by the Minister for Agriculture Bruce Mckenzie when he approached the British Commonwealth Secretary to help Kenya set up a commando unit to protect Jomo Kenyatta.
The proposal was made without the knowledge of the President, Defence Minister Njoroge Mungai and the Commissioner of Police Sir Richard Catling.
When Catling was finally informed about the plan, he described it as of “little merit” since proper and satisfactory arrangements for protecting the President were already in place.
He went on to give the following details of security arrangements including two armed “henchmen” accompanying him everywhere, an assistant superintendent of police “in permanent attendance, a chase car with armed officers, police sentry in his Nairobi home, armed “private thugs” living in his compound, and a VHF telephone in his home linked to the police network to report any emergency.
The commissioner also said “further measures are being taken to make it difficult, if not impossible for unauthorised strangers to get near the house in Gatundu.” Mckenzie, who would in later years be revealed as a British spy, was to raise the issue again for the second time on May 6, 1964 when he met another British official, claiming Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga had sent 86 people – mostly from his Luo ethnic group – to Bulgaria for military training to become his praetorian guards on their return.
He was also alarmed by the attention Jaramogi had received while visiting Russia, which M15, the British intelligence, claimed was only comparable to the reception the communist state gave Egypt’s second president Gamal Abdel Nasser and Algeria’s founding President Ahmed Ben Bella.
On May 14, 1964, a meeting between General Freeland, the Vice Adjutant at the British Ministry of Defence, Kenya’s Commissioner of Police and Mckenzie took place in Nairobi where the three formally agreed that a commando unit of around 60 “loyal Kikuyus” should be formed and placed under the police and not the army.
The three also suggested that the unit should be trained by the British Special Air Services (SAS) and all recruits should be drawn from the GSU.
The proposal, however, had to be sent for further deliberation by senior security officials in London.
Various scenarios and contingency measures were reviewed in London before the ministry of Defence agreed to commit the SAS instructors to train the bodyguards as detailed in another secret document.
“I think on balance we shall have to agree to provide this training. I suggest however that we insist that the final request comes from Kenyatta himself and would prefer that we require the Kenyans to pay,” said the report in part. It was also agreed that the small team of SAS instructors be disguised as advisors to the GSU on Shifta operations in northern Kenya to avoid arousing suspicion.
The conclusion in the document was based on two assumptions: That there was an urgent requirement to prepare for an attempted coup instigated by Jaramogi and that the proposed special unit would support a pro-western regime against an anti-western one in Kenya as part of the cold war.
In analysing the two assumptions, the authors of the document found it hard to imagine a violent coup to overthrow Mzee Kenyatta, claiming such a move would be political suicide to the architect.
Observing that the possibility of a coup need only to be considered if either the President himself drove Jaramogi to desperate measures by dismissing him or if Jaramogi felt starved of effective power as vice president and tried to arrange an accident which could be blamed on someone else.
Although the M15 cast some doubt on the coup allegations against Jaramogi, they advised against taking any chances. “However much or little there may be in the recent reports of Odinga’s private army and however effective or otherwise it may be, the threat or rumour of it is in itself likely to intimidate political neutrals and speed the growth of Odinga’s influence and there is a strong case for trying to neutralise it,” the secret document said.
“Moreover if the Kikuyu cabal cannot get help from us they may seek it from the Israelis who would probably agree. In some ways this would be as good a solution as any but we could not rely on the Israelis to do the job properly and would find it hard to live with,” they concluded.
The document provided the basis for the formation of the special force unit of the GSU and in December 1964 the elite British forces conducted a short study and reconnaissance mission in Kenya to assess the best way to form, operate and train a small special unit in Kenya. The findings were forwarded to Dr Mungai, Kenya’s Defence minister.
According to the declassified documents, the setting up of special forces to act as the President’s bodyguards commenced with the arrival of four SAS instructors on February 21, 1965. Shortly after, two platoons of 37 men from the GSU, all of them carefully vetted, were recruited by the Commissioner of Police Sir Catling and put into training for three months.
In 1966, the British Secretary of State proposed to Mzee Kenyatta that another 15 to 20 men from different Kenyan tribes be allowed to serve in the unit. These men were to be hand-picked by ministers loyal to the President and carefully vetted.
A further suggestion was made by Mckenzie to the British Secretary of State for someone from SAS to come to Kenya every nine months to give a refresher course to the bodyguards.
Since then, the GSU special unit has expanded gradually into a more diverse and formidable commando team.