Just before the second Lancaster Conference on Kenya’s independence in February 1962, Tom Mboya, (Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister), Bruce McKenzie (later Agriculture minister) and James Gichuru (later Finance minister) went to West Germany.
Many western countries wanted to woo perceived moderate Kenyan leaders.
However, according to confidential papers recently released in London, the visit ended on a scandalous note when the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs found out that McKenzie was trying to recruit German striptease girls for his nightclub in Nairobi. The Germans mentioned the issue to the British ambassador in Bonn.
McKenzie was a man of mystery — even now, 41 years after his death. His secretive nature made him an excellent wheeler-dealer and foreign spy agent.
As a white man, he was not considered a threat to Kenya’s divisive politics.
Owing to Kenya’s diplomatic weakness in those early years, he was instrumental in promoting ties between Kenya and European nations.
However, intelligence documents paint him as a double-crosser.
In 1968, when Britain and Israel were engaged in rivalry over Kenya’s security contracts, he secretly invited the Israelis to help train the General Service Unit, before turning around to warn the British Commonwealth Secretary that the Jewish country was doing everything possible to penetrate Kenya’s military and should be stopped.
At times, though claiming to pursue Kenya’s interests, he exercised his influence for his gain.
At the time of his death, he was a director of more than 20 Kenyan firms and had business interests in Canada, Saudi Arabia, the US and Brazil.
Playing a pivotal role in McKenzie’s business success were his opportunistic tendencies.
He was among the first Europeans who read the wind of change and sided with African nationalists.
At first he befriended Mboya, then shifted his allegiance to the “Gatundu group”.
He got into an unholy business relationship with Daniel arap Moi, Charles Njonjo and President Idi Amin of Uganda.
Moi had established business links with Amin just after the despot took power, and the two were friends until 1974 when McKenzie’s intermediary role became more important.
When one balances as many interests as McKenzie did, one makes money, friends and enemies.
Although the popular lore was that he was killed by Amin, a confidential report compiled by the East African Research Department of Foreign and Commonwealth Office said it was the work of the Criminal Investigations Department on behalf of influential people in Kenya.
A powerful minister from central Kenya who served under Kenyatta and Moi appears in the report as a main culprit.
A day before he flew to Uganda, McKenzie, at a dinner organised for the representatives of British firm Vickers Ltd, confided in those present that he was meeting Amin the following day to discuss the resumption of regular flights between Entebbe and Nairobi.
He also promised Vickers that he would raise with Amin to settle a debt owed to the company on work done at Tororo Cement factory. But he also had his personal deals to seal.
Accompanying him was his close business associate and Wilken Avionics Managing Director Keith Savage and Gavin Whitelaw, a former senior accountant with Lonrho.
Whitelaw’s presence on the doomed flight was also a mystery.
The night before the trip, McKenzie had told John Watts of the British High Commission that he would be landing in Kenya from Britain though he didn’t know the day of his arrival.
It is also possible that he was lying since it later emerged the three were trying to arrange a major arms deal with Amin.
In Entebbe, the three spent most of the morning of May 24, 1978 in a meeting with Amin.
Seven to eight minutes flying time to Nairobi, the piper Aztec 23 crashed in Ngong killing all on board. Investigations suggested a bomb explosion.
Kenya consequently sent a telegram to Uganda demanding answers. Uganda said the aircraft had been under guard.
Despite Kenya’s strong protest, Njonjo sent a private message to Amin saying he did not believe Uganda was involved.
On June 2, 1978, samples were sent to Britain Royal Armament Research & Development Establishment (RARDE), London.
A secret report isolates three possibilities about the concealment of the bomb.
First, the device might have been hidden among personal hand luggage “which had been found on the seat by a person who had gained access to the cabin”.
Second, the bomb could have been “hidden in a jacket on the seat and was concealed by a second jacket”.
Finally, that the device was “introduced into the personal hand luggage of the victims and unwittingly taken aboard by him”.
The report added that the nitro-glycerine-based device was likely to have been a commercial blasting explosive.
“The damage to the aircraft and the injuries to the victims are consistent with the involvement of about 21b of an explosive of this type,” the report said.
RARDE refused to hand over the report to Kenya unless £4,334 (Ksh555,000) was paid.
RARDE still insisted it would only dispatch the report upon receiving a letter from Kenya authorising payment, which was consequently written by CID director Ignatius Nderi on August 1, 1978.
But it seemed Kenya had made the promise simply to hoodwink the British into releasing the report, for it took another year of nagging by RARDE before payment was made in July 1979.
RARDE’s analysis was never made public. Instead, Kenyan investigators released their own version in May 1979.
The CID said McKenzie was killed by a time bomb planted in a stuffed lion’s head given to him by Amin. This theory was dismissed by the East African Research Department as a cover-up.
The stuffed lion head theory had first been perpetuated by a South African journalist called Colin Legum in an article published in the UK Observer in February 1979.
When officials from RARDE privately questioned him, he mentioned his source as Njonjo, Deputy Parliament Speaker Fitz De Souza and unnamed Israelis.
So, what could have influenced McKenzie’s assassination? Perhaps the answer lies in a comment made to Sir Stanley Fingland, the British High Commissioner to Kenya, two months before the crash.
“McKenzie had discharged his main and outstanding contributions to Kenya in the past and that he was becoming anachronistic and perhaps a dangerous one in the present and future Kenya.”
Fingland agreed with this, describing it as “a fair and objective judgement”.
The writer is a journalist and researcher based in London