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Suspicions and game of wits at Lancaster Conference

Saturday December 14 2019
LEVPIC

Jomo Kenyatta (left) and Tom Mboya attend the Lancaster House Conference in London. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By LEVIN OPIYO

With Kenya’s independence almost becoming a reality, the African nationalists shifted focus from fighting the British colonialists and began competing on holding sway in the future government.

The rifts became even more profound during the second Lancaster Conference in London, convened primarily to provide a framework for Kenya’s transition to self-rule.

Archived documents and transcripts of bugged conversations paint a picture of a constitution-making process marred by political intrigues and suspicion between a Kenya African National Union (Kanu) faction led by Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and another led by Tom Mboya, James Gichuru and Bruce McKenzie.

On one occasion, according to a report marked “Secret” and stamped “Cabinet Registry”, Mboya visited Odinga’s room at the Cumberland Hotel and forgot a sensitive draft he had been given to peruse and amend by his ally Eliud Ngala Mwendwa.

In the document, Mwendwa argued that teachers and intellectuals such as Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano should affiliate and use their influence to direct Kenya’s political progress.

While waiting for Odinga, Mboya made a number of corrections to the draft but inadvertently left it on the table on his departure.

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Odinga walked in shortly after and found the document, which he subsequently took to Kenyatta.

In the ensuing discussion, the two agreed that Mboya and Kiano were the most dangerous men in Kanu, plotting against them.

ANTI-MBOYA PLOT

Kenyatta, according to documents seen by the Sunday Nation, is alleged to have said that “Kiano did not present so great a threat as Mboya, with whom he (Kenyatta) would deal and ensure that he could cause no more friction”.

The rifts had begun to emerge even before the delegations left for Lancaster.

A couple of months before the conference, Idrix Cox, leader of Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and Odinga’s friend, confided that a journalist had informed him that the British were planning to support Mboya and the moderates in the Kenya African Democratic Union (Kadu) to take over the leadership of Kenya by engineering a split in Kanu.

Such a move, according to Cox, was to happen either before the delegates left for the conference or during the sessions.

And in case the plan failed, then the British were to align Kenya’s economy to the West after independence and use it to drive a wedge between Kikuyus and Luos.

Cox further advised Kenyatta and Odinga to use every option to present Mboya to the world as “the stooge of London and Washington”.

Despite lacking evidence, the allegations resulted in deep hostilities towards Mboya before and during the conference.

KANU MODERATES

Although it was likely that the allegations were Communist propaganda, it was also true that the British really resented the possibility of Kenyan politics being dominated by the so-called leftists and were trying to prop up leaders they saw as moderates.

Adding credence to this are confidential notes of a meeting that took place in November 1961, between Lord Perth, Minister of State in the Colonial Office, and Sir Evelyn Baring, who was then known as Lord Howick after his retirement as Governor of Kenya.

Lord Howick described leftists allied to Odinga — such as Paul Ngei and Fred Kubai — as the worst group in Kanu, expressing fears that there was a risk that they would have the upper hand.

His main concern was that Mboya’s American funds were drying up and the moderates were losing ground to the “extremists”.

They both agreed that the Kanu moderates led by Mboya and Gichuru should be encouraged to work together with Kadu and be built up at all costs.

To achieve this, they hoped to help them financially if they showed signs of affiliating with Kadu.

JOMO'S WORRY

Before flying to London, an anxious Kenyatta visited the US Consulate and demanded an explanation for Washington’s complicity in propping up Mboya.

The consul denied it, saying the financial support Mboya was receiving came from trade unions.

Mboya, McKenzie and Gichuru’s decision to fly to London via West Germany at the invitation of the federal government further fuelled speculations of a conspiracy.

They requested financial aid after independence and support in the development of co-operative farming, arguing that Kanu would definitely form the next government in Kenya.

The Germans tactfully refused, explaining that they could only enter into an agreement with the government in power.

Nevertheless, they were greatly impressed with Mboya’s vision for the future, as indicated in a letter written by Von Mutius of the African Desk.

The three arrived in London well in time for the conference, with Mboya receiving Kenyatta at the London Airport.

BUGGED ROOMS

While the Kanu delegation stayed at the Cumberland Hotel, Mboya, Gichuru and McKenzie were accommodated at a flat owned by Sir Eboo Pirbhai, leader of Ismaili community in Kenya, most probably to avoid being monitored by the British intelligence, who had bugged the rooms and wiretapped telephone lines at Cumberland Hotel.

This perhaps explains why records of private conversations between Odinga and Kenyatta are readily available while none exists on Mboya’s conversations.

Odinga, however, remained suspicious of the trio, as he later said. “On the eve of the Lancaster House Conference, the trio went to London via West Germany and in London together stayed in Sir Eboo Pirbhai’s private house, where they were insulated from the rest of our delegation.

It transpired finally that their insulation was to cover up their scheming and manoeuvres against certain Kanu leaders.”

OPINION POLL

In the course of the conference, Odinga visited the Russian embassy to seek funds, claiming Mboya had received £100,000 (Sh13.5 million at the current exchange rate) from Israel and $57,000 (Sh7.7 million) from the US.

When the Russians asked him whether Kenyatta was pro East or West, he said that both the British and Americans were trying to win over Kenyatta to a pro-Western outlook, and went on to reveal that three days after their arrival, Kenyatta had sneaked into the US embassy in London, where he stayed until 1am.

Three days into the conference, Macro Survey published in the British's The Guardian results of an opinion poll showing that Mboya had support among all parties and races.

According to the survey, three-fifths of Africans interviewed thought he had done the most to advance Kenya’s independence, and Europeans and Asians put him second only to Ngala as the politician they would trust to look after national interests after independence.

PUBLIC PERCEPTION

According to Norman Solomon, the founder of the Institute of Public Accuracy, “Opinion polls don’t just measure, they also manipulate, helping to shape thoughts and tilting perceptions of how most people think.”

Whether the survey was in good faith or commissioned to tilt public perception remains debatable. But still, its timing was bound to raise eyebrows in the Kenyatta-Odinga camp.

Midway through the conference, Mboya briefly left the talks and dashed across the Atlantic to speak at the annual Banquet of Chicago Conference for Brotherhood.

Aware of the concerted efforts to paint him as an imperialist stooge, he focused his speech on bashing Britain and America.

"Great Britain never granted any nation its independence," he said. "The people of those nations who have been freed or are being freed are doing so because they have fought for their freedom.”

He also warned Americans not to expect any gratitude by helping Africans. He flew back to London the same day to continue with constitutional talks.

SHREWD DEALMAKER

The constitutional conference ended on April 6, 1962, with a formal signing ceremony. Mboya came out with an enhanced reputation as an astute negotiator.

Even Odinga’s communist allies appreciated him. “Within their own delegation (Kanu), this chap Mboya was very slick,” said Cox.

They were, however, frustrated with Odinga for not doing enough to influence Kenyatta, whom they said was slowly drifting towards Mboya.

“And, of course, there is this whole question of Mboya who, in my view, has been exerting more influence on Kenyatta during the talks than Odinga has,” Cox remarked.

Odinga continued condemning the “moderates” long after the Lancaster Conference. The pre-independence alliances would later shift after independence in 1963, shaping Kenya’s destiny.

The writer is a journalist and researcher based in London

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