How Ouko got entangled in Lockerbie plane bombing case

Sunday January 13 2019

Robert Ouko

Labour minister Robert Ouko addresses the crowd during Madaraka Day in June 1984. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

KAMAU NGOTHO
By KAMAU NGOTHO
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In the early years of his rule, when he was youthful and bubbling with energy, President Daniel arap Moi was always on the road at home, or in the skies visiting some foreign country.

His foreign travels had all the drama and razzmatazz. First, he wouldn’t travel light.

He carried a crowd with him even if no more than half dozen people had any official role to play.

A former top official in his government told me of one time when members of a Kenyan presidential delegation had to share rooms in Beijing when the numbers in the entourage exceeded what the Chinese hosts had prepared for.

Another time Zambian authorities were embarrassed when the margarine wasn’t enough to go around the breakfast table when the Kenyan presidential party flooded the room.

RECEPTION

Another thing with President Moi visits — former US ambassador to Kenya Smith Hempstone called them wanderings — abroad is that they were all characterised as official State visits even when some of them were private.

At one time the Kenyan leader was on a “State visit” to Italy, Romania, and Finland, though not many Kenyans could figure out where the last two were in the world map.

But the big drama of President Moi’s foreign trips was when he was going out and when coming back.

The town would come to a standstill as the entire Cabinet, top civil servants, top security men — name it — would flock to the airport to see off or receive back the big man.

They would all line up to shake the president’s hand and remain waving at the take-off bay until his plane disappeared in the skies.

On the reverse, they stood to welcome him immediately the presidential jet showed up in the far horizon.

IRAN

It was during that period when the Kenyan president was bitten by the travel bug when on November 14, 1988 he left for a four-day State visit to Iran.

The No. 2 passenger in the manifest of the presidential jet was Foreign Affairs minister Robert Ouko.

Media reports at the time showed the Kenyan President was thrown a red carpet welcome by his Iranian counterpart and visiting factories outside the capital Tehran.

On returning home, President Moi said Kenya would be selling more tea to the Middle-East country and would support the Palestinian cause.

Never mind within weeks of the visit, Kenya resumed diplomatic ties with Israel which had been “severed” 15 years earlier.

Nothing else was said about the Iran visit by the Kenyan President.

***

Then Lockerbie happened. At seven in the evening London time, Pan-Am passenger airliner Boeing 747 flew out of the Heathrow Airport en route to New York.

Undetected in the luggage compartment was a suitcase containing a cassette-player.

Inside the gadget was an odourless plastic explosive with an atmospheric timer.

In about 40 minutes, the flight climbed to the trigger height — 31,000 feet above sea level — over a village near Lockerbie town in Scotland. Then hell rained.

The bomb exploded, breaking the plane into a thousand pieces that scattered over a kilometre radius.

The intact part of the fuselage hit the ground with such a force it created a medium-sized crater. Two hundred and seventy lives were lost.

HOSTAGES

A month after the tragedy, the British periodical well-known for juicy leaks, the Private Eye reported that among the passengers in the ill-fated US airliner were officers from the US Intelligence outfit, the CIA, who had been in Iran to negotiate a secret deal to release American and other western foreigners held hostage in Iran and Lebanon.

The report went further to say that during the visit to Iran by President Moi a month before the Lockerbie tragedy, it had been agreed with Iranian authorities that Dr Ouko be one of the go-betweens in the Iran/US secret negotiations.

The rationale was that Dr Ouko could be trusted as an honest broker by both Iranian and US diplomats with whom he had struck friendship in his role as Kenya’s foremost diplomat.

Neither Kenya or the US confirmed or denied the story carried in the British publication. Both conveniently assumed they never read or heard about it.

Lebanon hostage crisis had come about when a Lebanese terrorist group, Hezbollah, backed by the Iranian government, embarked on systematic abduction of foreign nationals in the country.

One of the captives was the CIA station chief in Beirut, one William Buckley, a happening that made Uncle Sam feel so humiliated and could go to any lengths to leverage with thugs in the Middle-East.

***

It was in the era of what the US has ever come close to a Donald Trump presidency.

A former Hollywood movie actor, a Californian called Ronald Reagan, was the man in the White House.

Like Trump, he had been elected on the strength of a doctrine of fear and had vowed that under his administration, the US would pull all the stops to face any threat, real or imagined.

Iran happened to be foremost in his radar, close to what Mexico is to President Trump.

When he came to power, the US was just recovering from humiliation after Iranians stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took everybody, including the ambassador, hostage.

Reagan had said never again, only for the abductions in Lebanon to happen when he was at the helm.

But like in the Trump case, the democrats had taken over at the US Congress during midterm elections and vowed to tame the Republican President.

ARMS DEAL

Specifically, the Congress passed what was called the Bolard Amendment, which banned the CIA and the US military from interference in foreign conflicts without explicit approval of the Congress.

But President Reagan wasn’t about to be stopped by the Congress. Behind the scenes, he manoeuvred to cut corners and have his way.

In the Lebanon hostage crisis, he started circumventing the law that restricted arms sales to Iran.

He did so by having the CIA secretly sell arms to Iran and divert part of the proceeds to fund anti-communist rebels in then rogue Central American country of Nicaragua in what was called the Iran/Contra affair.

From the story in the British publication, the Private Eye, it would appear President Reagan also had other spanners in work in the Lebanon hostage crisis and where Kenya was looped in.

Postscript

Dr Robert Ouko would mysteriously disappear, only to be found murdered slightly over a year after the Lockerbie tragedy.

Incidentally, he had just come from a trip in the US with the President when he vanished.

***

Libya would be accused of having masterminded the Lockerbie terrorist bombing of the US jetliner and forced to surrender, after long drawn pressure, two of her citizens for trial in Scotland, and also to compensate victims of the plane explosion.

The story was that Libya did so to revenge the bombing of her cities of Tripoli and Benghazi ordered by President Reagan two years before Lockerbie tragedy.

But five years ago, a former Iranian intelligence officer disclosed that it was Iran, working with Syria, that organised the Lockerbie bombing to revenge what was called “accidental” downing of an Iranian civilian jet by a US warship, killing 290 people five months before the Lockerbie tragedy.

All in all, nothing has ever came out clearly on who did what and why in the Lockerbie matter — least of all Kenya that was at some point looped in the murky affairs of the powder keg that is the Middle-East.

It reminds me of what my late Senator and MP GG Kariuki once told me. “In diplomacy, once in a while you find yourself in dark glasses on a dark night looking for a black cat in a dark room.” Tough luck!