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How Entebbe raid made African countries isolate Kenya

Sunday November 10 2019

Entebbe raid

Ugandan President Idi Amin checks on one of his soldiers injured during the Israeli commando raid to free 104 hostages at Entebbe Airport in 1976. Kenya was left exposed after the operation. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

JOHN KAMAU
By JOHN KAMAU
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There is a British intelligence file I have been looking for.

Now I have it (part of it). It is about the aftermath of the 1976 Entebbe raid and the successful rescue of Israeli hostages who had been seized aboard Flight 139, a French airliner hijacked en route from Israel to France and flown to Entebbe, Uganda.

Unknown to many Kenyans, the country was ostracised by almost all African countries and there was fear that Idi Amin could attack Kenya.

It was a race against time — and everyone was desperate to fly arms to Nairobi.

But there was one problem, how to get arms to President Jomo Kenyatta’s government without violating the airspace of hostile African countries that were at odds with the Israeli raid.

This is the untold story. The file, “Hijack of Air France Plane”, is perhaps one of the indicators of how Kenya played in the big League of Nations and why it is still taken seriously in diplomatic circles — at times.

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It also shows the behind-the-scenes efforts to make sure that Kenya did not become a victim of the Entebbe rescue — however well-meaning.

KENYA DENIES

The first salvo was thrown by Algeria, which had on July 8, 1976 written to the UN Security Council accusing Israel of “stubborn determination” to expand the scope of its aggression.

They also praised Idi Amin’s efforts, which “had made possible the release of many hostages and was aimed at securing that of the remaining ones”.

That letter, signed by Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was then the minister for foreign affairs and until eight months ago, the president of Algeria, was indicator that Kenya might be singled out for criticism.

For either fear of criticism or perhaps trying to forestall any falling-out with Idi Amin, Kenya decided to deny that it had offered assistance to the Jewish state and that some members of the Kenyatta government had known about the rescue.

Of course some Kenyan officials had known about the raid in advance — but that was not politically right to admit.

Those in the know, according to Israeli documents, included Attorney-General Charles Njonjo, who hosted the crucial Nairobi meeting attended by Ehud Barak, Israeli Special Forces commando, plus top Mossad officers.

Among those present was legendary Mossad officer Mike Harari — the man who had once been sent to lead a squad of hitmen to avenge the murders of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes by Palestinians during the 1972 Munich games.

ISRAELI AGGRESSORS

On the Kenyan side, too, was Bernard Hinga, the commissioner of police, Ben Gethi, the GSU commandant, and Bruce McKenzie, a former Kenyatta Cabinet minister.

But in its letter dated July 7, 1976, Kenya denied Uganda’s “allegation” to the UN Security Council, circulated as document S/12124, and said “there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate (Kenya’s) collaboration with Israel in the Entebbe episode as alleged in the Ugandan statement.

“Kenya has not and will not be used as a base for aggression against a neighbouring or indeed any other country in the world, least of all Uganda, which Kenya has consistently assisted with supplies since Uganda’s coup d’etat in 1971.”

Of course this was all hogwash — and we now know from Israeli records that we were knee-deep involved. Again, it was the right thing to do, then.

Kenya claimed that its airspace was violated by the “Israeli aggressors” as they headed to Entebbe.

“If in the process they overflew Kenya’s territory, as is being alleged, then Kenya, too, was the victim of aggression … however, the landing of the Israeli aircraft at Nairobi Airport after the Israeli raid was only allowed following a last-minute request for medical facilities with respect to the injured persons.”

DIPLOMATIC MEETINGS

What senior diplomats knew was that Kenya had, as a result, been exposed — both militarily and diplomatically — and that was why the US sent a warship, the frigate Beary to Mombasa and two unarmed Navy P-3 Orion patrol aircraft that were stationed at the Nairobi airport. Kenya made sure that Idi Amin knew about these developments — and that the US was ready to help Kenya.

There was a flurry of diplomatic meetings, held to handle any falling-out with Amin and also to protect Kenya.

On the afternoon of July 28, 1976, the British minister of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs Ted Rowlands met with the Kenyan high commissioner in London, Mr Ng’ethe Njoroge, to alert him that London was to cut diplomatic ties with Uganda that evening.

Mr Njoroge had asked Mr Rowland what the UK would do if President Amin took action against the remaining UK citizens.

It was this meeting that saw Kenya continue to lobby for urgent delivery of bombs and ammunition, saying any further delay “might be misinterpreted in Nairobi”.

In a secret report on the meeting, the UK said it had agreed to fly the equipment to Kenya “but we have met with severe difficulties in gaining overflying rights, coming against obstruction after obstruction”.

OAU

So serious was this sabotage by African countries that the British Prime Minister James Callaghan had asked Mr Rowland to ask the Kenyatta government to help gain clearance from certain countries.

The fear in London was that the British press had started reporting about this failure to get clearance and this was exposing the weakness of the Kenyan military then.

That few African countries wanted to deal with Kenya for siding with Israel was known in diplomatic circles.

“Mr Njoroge thought that most African states would prefer to say nothing about the dispute between Kenya and Uganda, but in their heart of hearts most of them believed that Kenya had agreed in advance to Israeli planes landing at Nairobi after the raid and this had somewhat isolated Kenya in African eyes,” the report quotes Mr Njoroge.

The reason Kenya was isolated was that it had gone contrary to the Organisation of African Unity line that foreign troops should not be entertained on African soil.

The meeting was also told that Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania “would not be sorry to see Kenya isolated within Africa”.

While there was sympathy for Kenya — outside Africa — for helping tackle terrorists, the applause given to the country in the West was being used against it in Africa and as a sign of “self-identification with the West”.

EGYPT'S PERMISSION

The only sympathetic countries were Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire and Cameroon.

A letter written by P.E. Rosling of the East African Department analysing Kenya’s predicament notes: “For a very long time, Kenya has been something of an odd-man-out in black Africa. Capitalist. (By) hobnobbing with the British, Americans, and the Western world generally, keeping the Eastern bloc at arms’ length, and at odds with her Eastern bloc-armed neighbours, Kenya is out of tune with the regimes and ideologies of the rest of Africa.”

This was the reason that African countries were blocking Kenya’s attempts to fly urgently needed ammunition.

The declassified documents show that Israelis had asked the British to fly the aircraft down the Sinai side of the Gulf of Aqaba but the British turned down the offer because they would have to seek Egyptian permission at a time when part of Sinai was occupied by Israel.

The British Embassy in Tel Aviv also gave some suggestions to Frank Wheeler, of the Near East and North Africa Department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office:

“The crucial question … is whether we could get away with the Gulf of Aqaba route without the Egyptian or others making a political issue out of it. Even if the aircraft were detected, the Jordanians and Saudis at least would simply look the other way … the Israelis would have kept quiet (and) the only difficulty country to be overflown would have been Ethiopia.”

RISKY OPTION

The other option put on the table was to fly the arms to Eilat and then ship them to Mombasa.

The British continued to toy with the idea of flying the arms to Israel and leaving it to Tel Aviv to take them to Kenya. But this option was risky.

“There was a high probability of such an operation becoming public knowledge and that, if it did, we could expect a very sharp response from Araba and many African states. We would have been accused of collusion with Israel and Kenya against Uganda, and some of the odium of the Entebbe rescue operation … would have inevitably rubbed off on us.”

Britain knew that Israelis did not care much about violating international law and delivering the arms to Kenya on their behalf. They said as much in some correspondence.

“They demonstrated during the Entebbe raid that they were prepared to violate international law while staging military overflights of third countries without diplomatic clearance. But except for infringing Egyptian airspace of Israeli-occupied Sinai when flying down the Gulf of Aqaba, it would not in fact have been necessary for them to overfly the territory of third countries to deliver arms to Kenya,” wrote P. Yarnod of the Defence Department when asked about possible routes.

We don’t know from that file whether the arms were delivered, but what we know is that Kenya was left exposed by the Entebbe raid.

The British were by October discussing whether they could use a military base known as “Akrotiri” in eastern Mediterranean — “but the main difficulty is how to get beyond Cyprus to the South and East.”

[email protected] @johnkamau1