WikiLeaks chief Assange traces his journey to fame to Nairobi

Wednesday March 18 2020

The reputation of whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks was built in Kenya, where its Australian-born founder Julian Assange once lived.

It is Kenya that gave the WikiLeaks founder, who was apprehended in London and faces possible extradition to the US or Sweden, the scoop that transformed him from an unknown hacker to one of the most talked about people on the planet.


By the time he was arrested at the Ecuadorean embassy in London on Thursday after the country withdrew his asylum following a seven-year stay, Assange had become America’s public enemy number one.

Depending on who you ask, Assange is either a hero or a villain. The US accuses him of conspiring with former American military analyst Chelsea Manning to download classified data.

Additionally, WikiLeaks has in the last few years been seen as an ally of the Russian intelligence. A federal investigation is underway to establish whether the leaked emails from the Democratic Party published by WikiLeaks are linked to Russia’s attempt to meddle in the 2016 presidential poll won by Donald Trump.

Before he became a global sensation, it was Mr Assange’s 2007 travel to Kenya and the courage he saw in local activists that would make him fall in love with Nairobi, motivating him to start leaking the secrets of governments.

These revelations are contained in the book WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, written by British journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding in 2011.

In the book, Mr Assange reveals his intention of starting WikiLeaks on Kenyan soil in 2007. He had come for the one-week World Social Forum, which began on January 24. It was held at Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani. The event is a parody of the World Economic Forum, a preserve of wealthy nations.


“By contrast, the WSF was where poor people gathered to talk about justice,” says the book about Assange’s thoughts.

He set up a tent at Kasarani and spent four days handing out flyers and talking about his intention to set up WikiLeaks.

Mr Assange was so happy with the response he got that he spent the next two years in Nairobi making connections with activists like Mwalimu Mati.

He would later tell an Australian publication that Kenya had an extraordinary opportunity for reforms.

“While in Kenya, Assange met courageous individuals, banned opposition groups, corruption investigators, trade unions, a fearless press and clergy. These brave people seemed the real deal to him. He contrasted them with fellow westerners who just loved cameras and throwing parties with foundation money,” the book says.

After about a year in Kenya, Assange stumbled on a report on massive corruption during President Daniel arap Moi’s era that the government was not willing to make public.

After coming to power in 2002, President Mwai Kibaki commissioned Kroll Associates — a British firm — to investigate the amount of money Mr Moi and his Kanu associates looted during his 24-year rule.


By the time the audit was completed in 2004, the Kibaki government, which was dealing with the Anglo Leasing scandal, decided to sit on it. Additionally, Kenya was approaching the 2007 elections and Kibaki, facing the prospect of being a one-term president, had received much-needed endorsement from Mr Moi and Kanu leader Uhuru Kenyatta.

By coincidence, Mr Mati, who was running Mars Group, had months earlier signed up as a volunteer for WikiLeaks after being prompted by a contact in Germany.

As the Kibaki administration continued sitting on the report, someone leaked it to Mr Mati. But its contents were so explosive that he feared putting it on his website. He gave it to WikiLeaks.

“This report was the holy grail of Kenyan journalism,” Mr Assange later said, “I went there in 2007 and got hold of it.”

Weeks later, the contents of the report were published in a dossier by London’s Guardian newspaper under the title: “The missing Kenya billions”.

Interestingly, WikiLeaks, which simultaneously ran the whole report on its new website, claimed it had not yet been publicly launched.

“Given the political situation in Kenya, we feel we would be remiss to withhold this document any longer,” it said.

It was a file whose contents we cannot publish fully because of legal implications. It put the plunder of Mr Moi’s government on a par with levels seen in Zaire — now the Democratic Republic of Congo — under Mobutu Sese Seko or Sani Abacha’s Nigeria. Mr Moi and his associates were said to have siphoned off more than Sh130 billion and used it to buy properties across the world.


The money was traced to Britain, Switzerland, South Africa, the US, Namibia, Malawi and the tax havens of Cayman and Brunei.

Among the assets amassed by influential Kanu people were multimillion-pound properties in London, New York, Johannesburg and other cities. There was a 10,000-hectare ranch in Australia and bank accounts containing hundreds of millions of pounds in Belgium.

The report detailed how wealthy individuals secured their properties across the world immediately after Mr Moi left power due to the fear that the new regime was going to recover what had been stolen.

While Kenyan media published piecemeal stories from the report, dozens of international publications picked it full steam, creating a global uproar.

WikiLeaks had arrived and the mercurial Mr Assange had turned into a global sensation. He would later claim that “voting shifted 10 percent in the 2007 elections”, courtesy of the leaking of the Kroll report.

The election was disputed and led to the worst political violence in Kenya’s history. President Kibaki and Mr Raila Odinga would be made to share power.

But Mr Assange and WikiLeaks were not yet done with Kenya.


The following year, the website landed its second biggest scoop. The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights had come up with a report on extrajudicial killings and disappearances.

The Cry of Blood, which gave an account of the crimes and asked the UN to intervene, was submitted to the government but never acted on or made public.

KNCHR did not even have it on its website but it found a way of landing on Mr Assange through Kenyan contacts.

It was an explicit report that detailed the names of the people executed and disappeared by the police. It also contained medical forensic evidence implicating police, mortuary and post-mortem reports.

“Four people who were associated with investigating the killings were murdered. They included rights activists Oscar Kingara and John Paul Oulu,” the book on WikiLeaks says. The two were killed while sitting in traffic on University Way in Nairobi.

These two leaks about Kenya would earn Mr Assange the New Media Award by Amnesty International. He flew from Nairobi to the event in London on June 3, 2009, the day he was to receive the award. But he encountered a problem with immigration officials at JKIA.


“He arrived late after a series of convoluted flights and the withholding of his passport details until the last minute,” the book says, adding that in his acceptance speech, Mr Assange recognised the role Kenya played in making him reach where was. “Through the courageous work of organisations like the Oscar Foundation, KNHCR, Mars Group and others, we had the support we needed to expose these murders,” he said.

Mr Assange had found his big break and the massive leaks of diplomatic cables that followed, exposing secrets from American embassies across the world, only boosted his image.

That was until 2010, when Swedish prosecutors issued a warrant of arrest against him for two alleged sexual offences. The United States also wanted him extradited over the leaking of confidential information.

Mr Assange fled to the Ecuadorean embassy in London in June 2012 where he was granted asylum. The status was withdrawn this week, leading to his arrest and ongoing legal battle