by KAMAU NGOTHO (Daily Nation)
Like with politics, espionage knows no permanent friends or enemies, only the convergence of interests.
Said to be the second oldest profession, at times it appears to have even lesser morals than the first.
No surprise that when relationship between Nairobi and Washington were at the ice cold, it was still business as usual for legendary Kenyan spy chief James Kanyotu and the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States.
Early one morning in February 1991, Mr Kanyotu found himself with a difficult assignment. His friends in the CIA had called with an urgent and unusual request.
They had with them 600 Libyan dissidents they wanted sequestered in Kenya before they could be flown to a safe haven out of the reach of mercurial Libyan leader, Col Muammar Gaddafi.
The dissidents had been spirited out of Libya in a daring secret move and first flown to the then Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo.
But the CIA was not confident that Zaire was a safe haven. (Post Continues Below)
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The country’s dictator, Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko was a US ally and had himself come to power in the 1960s as a CIA protégé.
But the Americans considered him unstable, unreliable and unpredictable.
His avarice and love of money was legendary, and it would not be beyond him to cut a deal with Col Gaddafi and turn over the dissidents in exchange for handsome sums wired to his numerous Swiss bank accounts.
The Americans wanted their charges out of Congo speedily, and Kenya seemed like the best choice.
But there was one problem. President Moi at that time had no time for the US.
Kenya was in the throes of the multi-party campaign and the US had come out strongly in favour of the push for democratisation.
Mr Moi was particularly irked by President George Bush’s ambassador in Kenya, the outspoken Smith Hempstone, who consorted openly with and supported the growing opposition of the day and had been dismissed as the Nyama Choma (roasted meat) ambassador.
An approach through Mr Hempstone would not work, for Moi would have loved nothing better than to tell the envoy to ‘shove it’.
A direct approach from Washington, either through the Secretary of State or the President himself, was also considered but none wanted to chance reaching Moi when in one of his foul moods and risk a humiliating rejection.
So the CIA turned to Mr Kanyotu to soften President Moi for them. It was a difficult assignment on two grounds. First of course was Mr Moi’s growing anger with the United States.
Then there was the security risk for Kenya in crossing Mr Gaddafi, who might find a soft target on which to hit back at the US.
The Libyan leader by then was on the American list of unfriendly regimes.
He was fiercely anti-American, and was accused of financing Middle Eastern terrorist groups that were increasingly aiming at targets in the West.
The Libyans at the time were also moving aggressively to position themselves in sub-saharan Africa, unlike many other North African countries, which viewed themselves primarily as members of the Arab world.
That was where Mr Kanyottu found the chink in President Moi’s armour.
Libyan interests in the region had in the past few years been viewed suspiciously by Kenya, which was alarmed by the countries seeming support for dissident movements.
From the early 1980, the Libyan embassy on Loita Street had become a popular calling place for radial student activists from nearby University of Nairobi.
Usually it was to pick up freebies in the form of Mr Gaddafi’s writings, including his famous Green Book, and other literature and posters on Libyan and on the Palestinian cause.
Mr Kanyotu’s agents kept a close watch around the embassy, paying particular attention to student leaders whom they thought might be tempted into going beyond mere infatuation with Gaddafi and enlisting into something sinister.
Libya at the time already had a strong presence in neighbouring Uganda, which under President Yoweri Museveni had become the favoured transit point for Kenyan dissidents fleeing the country for exile in Europe.
By early 1991, Kenya had already severed diplomatic relations with Tripoli after accusing the northern African country of sponsoring anti-Moi elements.
Some student leaders at the University of Nairobi had also been arrested and charged with espionage for allegedly spying for Libya.
Even without the Libyan link, President Moi at time viewed President Museveni as a dangerous radical all too keen to spread his ideology across the region.
Kenya and Uganda had engaged in a brief shooting war across the common border only a few years previously, and still regarded each other with deep suspicion.
With all the information at his fingertips, Mr Kanyotu was able to convince President Moi that the real threat lay not in US support for the multi-party campaign in Kenya, but in Libyan support for dissidents who might want to forment a revolution via neighbouring Uganda.
Mr Kanyotu thought, Moi — even for ego purposes only — would relish the moment to show both Col Gaddafi and Mr Museveni who was boss in the region. Mr Moi gave his nod, and working under the strictest security, Mr Kanyotu’s men and the CIA hurriedly constructed a camp to hold the Libyans at a remote point off the Thika-Garissa highway. Within a week, a makeshift barracks was in place complete with a borehole and a fully-equipped dispensary.
To throw off-scent any nosy characters, signposts were erected purporting that American peace-corps were coming to help sink boreholes in the remote reaches of Mwingi District.
On D-Day, Mr Kanyotu joined the CIA team at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport shortly after midnight. Also present was Mr Hempstone.
As Nairobi slept, two US Air Force jets taxied at the far end of the apron. Unmarked buses from the Kenya Army were in place to transport the delicate human cargo.
Before dawn, the Libyan exiles were sound asleep in their new, but temporary, Kenyan home.
Mr Gaddafi, probably through Ugandan and Soviet intelligence sources in Nairobi, soon came to learn about the presence of Libyan dissidents in Kenya.
He was furious, and immediately set about planning how to retaliate.
A Libyan commando force assembled near the Entebbe Airport in Uganda, ready to strike once the exact location of the secret camp holding Libyan dissidents in Kenya was established.
Gaddafi’s first option was lightning air strike to bomb the camp and kill as many of the residents as possible.
The other was to bring in a commando squad by land, raid the place and capture some of the dissidents.
To keep him off-scent, Mr Kanyotu and the CIA put up several decoys that kept the Libyan intelligence operatives on a wild goose chase.
Meanwhile, the Americans found a permanent refuge for the dissidents, and before the Libyan forces could strike they were secretly flown out of Kenya under cover of darkness.
After ranting and raving for a period, Mr Gaddafi concluded the Kenyan leader was no pushover and offered to make peace.
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