Jewish Political Studies Review 17:3-4 (Fall 2005)
Jomo Kenyatta and Israel
An Israeli diplomat's forging of ties with Kenyan leader Jomo Kenyatta
during Kenya's pre-independence period in the early 1960s helped pave
the way to fruitful relations between the two countries. This period
already saw initiatives in the fields of pilot training, intelligence
cooperation, and assistance programs. Among the gains for Israel was
Kenyatta's lasting, loyal support.
In December 1960 this author was asked by Ehud Avriel, then
special adviser to the Israeli foreign minister, to go to Kenya, then a
British colony. The British government had refused the appointment
of Uzi Nedivi, a high-ranking official, as consul general in Nairobi.
Avriel, however, deemed it important to have an Israeli presence during
the crucial years of Kenya's struggle for independence, in the hope of
establishing diplomatic relations once Kenya became a state. He said
that, given this author's junior status at the time, "nobody would
The post would be as assistant to Israel (Izzy) Somen, the "honorary
consul," as Avriel put it. It was supposed to be for a two-month
period, until another solution was found. Somen, a Jew who did
much to promote Israel's interests in Kenya, was highly regarded in
Nairobi where he had served as mayor, and was much involved in the
In the early period of statehood, Israel faced a struggle on many
fronts. The Arab countries were waging a three-pronged offensive
1. They initiated total wars, with terrorist attacks between the wars
both within Israel and against Israeli targets abroad.
2. All Arab and Muslim countries coordinated an economic boycott
against Israel, while pressuring other states to comply and also
to avoid diplomatic relations with Israel.
3. At the United Nations, the automatic majority formed by Arab,
Muslim, and Third World countries ritually adopted anti-Israeli
Israel's involvement with Kenya was part of its effort to forge
diplomatic relations with as many countries as possible.
An Initial Meeting
This author's strategy in Kenya was to seek to befriend and gain the
trust of its emerging indigenous leader, Jomo Kenyatta, who was
also the undisputed head of the largest and dominant Kikuyu tribe.
Kenyatta, however, was under house arrest, accused of being the force
behind the rebellious Mau Mau movement that had spread havoc
among the sixty thousand European settlers in the Kenyan highlands.
The author arrived in Nairobi on a morning in October 1961, and
went immediately to Gatundu, the village thirty miles away where
Kenyatta was confined to quarters. On a sandy road leading to the
place were two heavyset guards armed with sticks. They asked the
author's destination, and questions followed about personal acquaintance
or an appointment with Kenyatta, the answers being negative.
However, after identifying himself as an Israeli with a message for
Kenyatta, and after the message was apparently conveyed by one of
the guards, the author was allowed to proceed.
Although his age was not known at the time, Kenyatta was over
seventy but looked more like fifty. He was heavyset with a spotted
gray beard, and was wearing sandals, casual pants, and a colorful open
shirt while holding a long stick. The look was impressive, reminiscent of
Moses. The author, after being introduced to his new wife Mama
Ngina, a tall village woman in her twenties, explained that he had
been sent to Kenya to offer Israel's experience in nation building.
Israel, too, had freed itself from British rule just thirteen years earlier,
and used trial and error in integrating immigrants from seventy different
countries. Kenya, for its part, had forty different tribes that spoke
various dialects, which would have to be amalgamated into a nation
with a common identity upon gaining independence. Israel's advice
could be helpful in avoiding mistakes.
Israel, the author pointed out, could also assist in the fields of
agriculture, irrigation, animal husbandry, youth movements, social
work, childcare, and others. The meeting lasted five hours and seemed
successful in building trust. While strolling around Kenyatta's farm,
he said, "You know, we Kikuyu are the Jews of Africa, and we too
will outsmart the British government." At the end of the encounter,
he asked if Israel could supply him with an incubator for his chicken
coop; one was delivered two weeks later.
Back in the hotel in Nairobi there were four messages from a
MacDonald, assistant to the British governor, asking to return the
call urgently. The voice of the messages was sober and unfriendly:
"Kenyatta is under house arrest and a visit to him requires advance
A call received that evening from Izzy Somen was not encouraging
either. He expected the author would be asked to leave Kenya.
This prompted a decision the next morning to visit Kenyatta again,
while there was still time. On this occasion in Gatundu, at 10:30 in
the morning, the guards did not create an obstacle. Kenyatta was
warm and affable, and when told what had transpired since yesterday's
visit, he burst out angrily that the British did not understand that
their rule was over and it was time to leave Kenyans to manage their
own affairs. "As for you, my friend, don't worry. If they send you out,
I will receive you in Nairobi personally after our Uhuru [freedom]."
Something, then, seemed to have been achieved diplomatically in
any case; and MacDonald was not heard from again.
Soon after, Kenyatta was released from his confinement. The British,
in keeping with their practice of divide and rule, created a counterforce
of the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU). Consisting
of minority tribes headed by A. Ngala, this organization prolonged
the negotiations for independence at Lancaster House in London, but
could not weaken Kenyatta's undisputed leadership.
Pilot Training: A Breakthrough
Although Kenyatta was not a religious man, he was appreciative of
the Bible. He also admired what he considered "Jewish brain power."
Despite the fact that there was an influence here of anti-Semitic notions,
his own feelings toward Jews were favorable.
Friendship with Kenyatta led to friendship with a number of "Kenyan
leaders" who surrounded him, some of whom were James
Gitchuru, later finance minister; J.G. Kiano, later industry and trade
minister; and Mwai Kibaki, later, in 2004, president of Kenya. The
most colorful personality in those days, however, was Tom Mboya.
Although the most intelligent and educated person with leadership
qualities, and having wide contacts with international organizations
and particularly with the American trade-union leader Walter Reuther,
Mboya never attained a top position because he was not from the
Kikuyu but from the Luo, the second largest tribe. He was also in
conflict with the Odinga, a tribe within the Luo category.
After Mboya's marriage, the author was asked by Ehud Avriel to
invite him for his honeymoon to Israel. There, he favorably impressed
many. When the timetable for Uhuru was agreed upon with Britain,
and Israel responded favorably to a Ugandan-Tanganyikan request
for the training of pilots, the author was instructed to ask Mboya to add
five Kenyan candidates even though Kenya was not yet independent.
After sending an objection that this might be interpreted as Israel
giving preference or, worse still, interfering in Kenya's internal affairs,
the author was granted permission to refer the matter to Kenyatta,
but only after consulting with Mboya. There was no trouble gaining
Mboya's assent that Kenyatta would choose the candidates. Mboya
knew the limits of his role, and a decision of such national significance,
involving Kenya's future air force, could only be Kenyatta's prerogative.
Mboya, envied for his intelligence and international status, was in
constant danger and ultimately was assassinated. Kenyatta, for his
part, was appreciative of the pilot-training offer and this further enhanced
the trust that had been built.
Independence and Diplomatic Ties
The author worked closely with Kenyatta, and never held a serious
meeting with Ngala, the KADU president. It was evident that whatever
maneuvers the British used, Kenyatta was irreplaceable. Hence, even
before independence, all Israeli assistance programs went through the
"Kenyatta channel." It was clear he would always approve them, but
it gratified him to be treated as the leader even before it was official. The
numerous training programs - mostly in rural development, irrigation,
social work, and health - both involved bringing Kenyans to Israel
for courses and sending Israeli instructors to Kenya. The graduates
became effective "ambassadors" for Israel. The most notable project
was the establishment of a school for social work in Machakos, fifty
miles north of Nairobi.
Early in 1962, the head of the Mossad in the region arrived in
Kenya and asked the author how he could meet with Kenyatta. It was
arranged for breakfast at the author's home the next day. Kenyatta
appeared with one assistant. The author also arranged the presence
of Arye Oded, who later became Israel's ambassador to Kenya. At
that meeting, cooperation began in the field of intelligence and security
and eventually expanded considerably. Also that year, the author - the
only non-African able to go to Kenyatta's office without appointment
- arranged a meeting for him with then-Foreign Minister
Golda Meir that even further enhanced the intimate relationship with
One day early in 1963, the author was called to Kenyatta's
office - he was then rotating prime minister with opposition leader
A. Ngala - and was secretly asked to send a fighter with the nom
de guerre "General China" to Israel for "training." Itote Waruhiu -
his real name - was the commander of the Mau Mau's Kikuyu underground,
and the British viewed him as a terrorist. Kenyatta
wanted to groom him as a commander in the Kenyan army when
the time came. He also, most likely, wanted to secure the support of
Mau Mau fighters who were still hiding in the forests. That he
placed this delicate matter in Israel's hands shows the depth of
Asked by Foreign Minister Meir to remain, the author's "two
months" lasted three years until Kenya attained independence and
opened diplomatic relations with Israel. As the Uhuru approached,
the Foreign Ministry approved the author's suggestion to purchase a
plot of land near his hotel and build the future embassy and future
ambassador's residence. Israel's delegation to Kenya's independence
celebration included Meir and Avriel.
The author planned the new Israeli embassy's foundation-laying
ceremony for two days before that event, on 10 December 1963.
Although neither Avriel nor Meir believed that, with so many dignitaries
coming to the country, Kenyatta would attend, he did so
and it was he and Meir who laid the foundation. Kenyatta said he
looked forward to Kenyan-Israeli friendship, that the two countries
had much in common historically, and that he was happy Israel's
was the first embassy to be built in Kenya and hoped it would set
an example. Among the dignitaries present were Gitchuru, Kiano,
Heads of Arab states' delegations to the independence festivities,
we learned from reliable sources, planned to raise the issue of Israeli
diplomatic representation. However, they changed their minds after
seeing the next morning's press with the picture of Kenyatta and
Meir laying the foundation stone and quotations of Kenyatta's
words. Thus, Israel won a round in the diplomatic struggle.
Kenyatta remained friendly and trustful toward Israel all his life,
and often helped it in times of need - such as when, despite Kenya's
close relations with neighboring Uganda, he allowed an Israeli
air force plane to refill in Nairobi on its way back from the Entebbe
* * *
ASHER NAIM is a veteran Israeli diplomat who has held positions in Japan and the United States, and was ambassador to Kenya, Uganda, Finland, Ethiopia, the Third Committee of the United Nations, and South Korea. He was instrumental in negotiating the transit of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and in the repeal of the "Zionism is racism" UN resolution.
The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect
those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
The above essay appears in the Fall 2005 issue of the Jewish Political Studies Review, the first and only journal dedicated to the study of Jewish political institutions and behavior, Jewish political thought, and Jewish public affairs.
Published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (http://www.jcpa.org/), the JPSR appears twice a year in the form of two double issues, either of a general nature or thematic, with contributors including outstanding scholars from the United States, Israel, and abroad. The hard copy of the Spring 2005 issue will be available in the coming weeks."
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