On October 23, 1979, President Daniel Moi received a special delegation sent by the head of Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Yasser Arafat at State House, Nairobi.
The delegation, led by El Herfi Salmane, Arafat’s adviser on African affairs, raised eyebrows in Western capitals after President Moi said he supported Palestine’s demand for a homeland.
For that, America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) believed that Moi had been paid by the Saudis, who were double-dealing on the matter.
An Israeli representative in Nairobi had confided to US embassy officials that “Moi had received $8 million (Sh800 million at current exchange rates) for personal use” and that this was a bribe given to get Kenya to support the Saudi position on peace in the Middle East.
“We had heard the sum might be $10 million,” the then US ambassador to Kenya Wilber Le Melle wrote in a cable wired to Cyrus Vance, President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State.
Whether Moi received the money or not is not known, but US officials quoted the Kenyan ambassador to the US John Mbogua, in a separate note, confiding to them that Moi had told him that “Saudis had attempted to pressure him with money … to reduce the extent of Kenyan relationship with Israel and permit the establishment of a PLO office in Nairobi”.
Did he get the money? Nobody knows.
But it is the embarrassment that Moi faced in his inaugural visit to Riyadh that has never been reported and which remains hidden in declassified notes.
At one point, during the trip, Moi had wanted to cancel it and had told his Foreign minister Munyua Waiyaki so.
Moi had been invited to Saudi Arabia as part of geopolitics and to get Kenya on the Arab nation’s position regarding peace in the Middle East.
CAMP DAVID TALKS
The Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the precursor to the African Union, had taken a radical position and supported Arafat’s PLO which was demanding statehood.
A year earlier, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had surprised everyone by recognising the State of Israel and signing the Camp David treaty with Israeli’s Menachem Begin, a move that saw Jewish troops leave Sinai Peninsula and throw the Arab-Israeli stand-off into a spin.
But what Moi may have supported was the public position of Saudi Arabia on PLO, and which was to denounce the Camp David treaty and help the PLO.
But in private, the Saudi Crown Prince Fahd — according to a document released by the US Department of State on May 31, 2018 — had told the US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski on 17 March 1979:
“Saudi Arabia wants the Camp David talks to succeed. Their success is in the interests of Saudi Arabia’s most important allies, America and Egypt, and we will do everything in our power to help and make our support known to the world.”
But like the Saudis, Kenya was equally double-dealing on the PLO question, and while it was publicly at UN and OAU levels supporting the Palestine question, it was also privately giving the Israeli some hearing in Nairobi.
Attorney-General Charles Njonjo and head of intelligence James Kanyotu had emerged as the bitter opponents of the opening of a PLO office in Nairobi.
For his part, Foreign Minister Munyua Waiyaki had told everyone that he did not foresee a security problem over the establishment of such an office, although he had once been overruled by President Jomo Kenyatta in 1977. (But with Kenyatta’s death in August 1978, Dr Waiyaki could now push his dream, too).
But despite Njonjo and Kanyotu’s opposition, PLO was allowed to open an office in Nairobi, and rather than have a representative, the PLO Representative to Unep and Habitat, Salah Zawawi, acted as the head of the organisation in Kenya.
According to CIA documents, the first meeting between Moi and Zawawi, previously working at the Arab League office, was organised by Cabinet minister Nicholas Biwott; “the person who handles Moi’s finances and has been recipient of Arab largesse himself”.
Kenya’s support for PLO was actually contained in a communique signed between Kenya and Saudi Arabia during a controversial debut trip by Moi to Riyadh.
During this trip, according to a brief Waiyaki gave to US ambassador to Nairobi, the Saudis forced Kenya to sign a communique that they had no input on.
“The Saudis can be tough,” Waiyaki was quoted saying. The minister said the final communique was prepared by the Saudis.
“Although the Kenyans wanted to make some modifications, the Saudis made it clear that they would not accept any modifications, and so the communique was agreed to by the Kenyans and finally issued,” the US Ambassador was told by Waiyaki.
During the planning of that Riyadh meeting, in which the Saudis had also invited Somalia President Siad Barre, President Moi’s handlers started worrying that the Saudis were placing more emphasis on the meeting between Moi and Barre and had even suggested that they land at the same time.
Moi refused saying it would water down his trip — but still, he went.
In Kenya, the State radio had told Kenyans that the Head of State was on an official debut visit to Riyadh and hardly mentioned the attempt by Saudis to have both Kenya and Somalia end the shifta war.
In order to break the ice between the two, the Saudis housed presidents Barre and Moi at the Sheraton Hotel in Taif where the Crown Prince Fahd tried to carry out some shuttle diplomacy — hoping that a deal would be signed in public.
“The Saudis really carried it too far when they placed the two presidents in suites, not only on the same floor in the hotel, but with entrances opposite each other,” a US diplomat later wrote.
It wasn’t, after Moi demanded that Barre had to declare that his country had no territorial claims on Kenya.
And Barre, though willing to renounce the claim, was pushing for “self-determination” of Somalis in Kenya.
The two, actually, never met officially and only met during a formal dinner.
And as US ambassador Wilber Le Melle would later claim, Moi told him on the afternoon of September 21, 1978 that even the Saudis were “exasperated by the unreasonable position taken by the Somalis”.
And since there was nothing to report back on, Waiyaki had suggested to the hosts that they sign a Joint Economic Commission with Saudi Arabia and which would be reported back home as the main success of President Moi’s tour.
During his first visit to London in 1979, and as he was met by David Owen, President Moi was asked what he felt about the Kenya-Somali rapprochement and before Moi answered, Njonjo said in Kiswahili that the matter was not a priority — and Moi echoed the same to Owen.
What Kenyans have never realised was that Moi was thrown into high-stakes geopolitics when he got into office, and it appears that Saudi Arabia was one of the powerful forces pushing him.
Whether he got some money out of it, as the CIA claims, will never be known, but they have put it on record that they believe he did.
But what we can now see is that there is more to State visits than is reported publicly. At times, things can go wrong.