In April 1965, there was speculation that Kenya’s vice-president, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, was plotting a coup. Though some doubted those plans, President Kenyatta and his close ministers, including Njonjo, did not leave anything to chance.
On April 5, the British High Commissioner in Nairobi, Malcolm MacDonald, met Njonjo and thereafter telegrammed the Commonwealth Relations Office (CRO) with a record of their conversation.
“There are reports that Mr Odinga and his associates may attempt some kind of armed or other action to seize power in Kenya during this month of April… Njonjo said that Kenyatta expresses a strong hope that it might be convenient for a British ship or ships (such as an aircraft carrier) to be in neighbouring waters during this month, as a matter of their routine exercise,” MacDonald wrote.
“If the Government were in serious difficulty here, they would wish to ask for the help of British troops to maintain law and order until the crisis had passed.”
Dr Poppy Cullen, a historian in decolonisation and the postcolonial era, noted that the word “coup” was not mentioned in MacDonald’s telegram, suggesting some uncertainty about what form any action would take.
“However, Mr Njonjo had been educated and practiced as a lawyer in Britain, and had access to British Ministers, Prime Ministers, and the British High Commission in Nairobi. Close British relationships with Njonjo and as such, encouraged them to take his message seriously,” Dr Cullen noted in her article in the International History Review.
Quickly, the British State responded, and an intervention strategy named Operation Binnacle was planned.
Warships were sent to Mombasa and troops put on alert.
The fears of a coup were exacerbated when a Soviet ship, the Fizik Lebedev, docked in Mombasa loaded with weapons and military advisers on April 14. This did little to calm the wary nerves of the nation’s founding father, given his struggle barely a year earlier to quell the army’s mutiny at the Lanet Barracks in 1964.
Had the British not intervened, the situation would have gone awry and Kenya’s recent victory of gaining self-rule undermined by the destablisation of the new government.
So serious was the fear of an impending coup that MP Thomas Malinda alleged weapons smuggling to facilitate the coup.
“Arms and ammunition are continuously being smuggled from communist and other foreign countries into or through Kenya for the purpose of staging an armed revolution to overthrow our beloved Government,” according to the Assembly Official Record (Hansard) of Thursday, April 1, 1965.
By 1965, it was clear that relations between President Kenyatta and his vice-president had broken down.
Kenyatta felt capitalism would yield better fruits in advancing the economy but Mr Odinga was convinced that communism and the redistribution of wealth was the more reasonable path. As such, the two held brief for their masters, one for Western allies and the other for the Soviet Union and Far East, who preached communism.
Massive military support
There were fears that Mr Odinga had massive military support. According to Timothy Parsons, in his book The African Rank-and-File: Social Implications of Colonial Military Service in the King’s African Rifles, most of the soldiers in the army were Kambas who were believed to have come from the martial race.
It was thus perceived that most soldiers were loyal to their fellow Kamba, Paul Ngei, a national figure whose loyalty to the vice-president was unparalleled and it was feared that in the event of a coup, Mr Odinga would have the support of the majority in the army.
Reports that weapons were being smuggled to Kenya by the Soviet Union sowed fear in the fledgling government. On April 8 and 9, the Kenyan Army raided the offices and homes of Mr Odinga and his allies and confiscated all kinds of weapons they found.
In his letter titled “Plan for a coup d’etat in Kenya”, Kenya’s last Governor General and first British High Commissioner to Kenya wrote: “arms had arrived from Czechoslovakia and Poland throughout the previous months”.
At this time, the British were not in a hurry to engage in postcolonial military interventionism after suffering humiliating defeats, alongside France, in their efforts to work with Israel so that the latter could take control of the Suez Canal and serve their interests in 1956.
That they agreed to help Kenya to scuttle a looming coup, which was highly unlikely to happen, showed that the British viewed it as a threat to their interests and needed to do something before Kenya decided to join hands with their competitors in the Far East.
The assassination of Mr Odinga’s close ally Pio Gama Pinto in February 1965 made the Kenyan government jittery, with a large portion of the citizenry speculating that he was killed for political reasons. Mr Pinto had many connections with key allies in India and Portugal and was among the nationalist champions in the colonial era.
He was so feared that Britain’s Deputy High Commissioner, Henry Stanley, after Pinto’s death, described him as “possibly the most dangerous Communist influence in Kenya, because of his acute intelligence and talent for intrigue”. Mr Stanley also reported the possibility of tension and trouble for the government later in the year following his assassination.
Despite all these upheavals, there were doubts that a coup would happen. However, to show his support for President Kenyatta, High Commissioner MacDonald, who liked the President’s ability to take care of British interests, wrote to London and expressed concerns over Njonjo’s fear of a possible coup.
“Although Kenyatta and his principal colleagues are inclined not (repeat not) to take this possibility too seriously they nevertheless feel that they cannot ignore it and hope that whatever is appropriate and could be quickly effective on the lines suggested can be arranged,” he wrote.
He also expressed his belief that the vice-president would be assisted by his foreign allies to conduct the coup.
“Something of the kind has certainly been considered by Mr Odinga, his Kenyan supporters, and probably their allies outside,” he added.
This message created a stir in London, where John Chadwick of the CRO stated that a coup was unlikely.
“It is possible that the extremists might, perhaps as a policy of desperation, make so ill-considered and possibly violent attempt to protect or restore their position, if not to overthrow the government,” he wrote.
“I suggest that we should work on the assumption that we would wish to intervene if necessary to prevent the overthrow of the present regime in favour of a minority government of the extremists; that such a risk does exist; and that a contingency plan should be made as soon as possible against such an eventuality … we must assume for the moment that there is a real danger.”
Kenyan Army mutiny
MacDonald reported a few days later that the chances of a coup were remote but urged caution, saying perhaps the organisers of the coup “may be better prepared than we know”.
Britain could not ignore the situation, especially after the Kenyan Army mutiny at the Lanet Camp in Nakuru on January 24, 1964 barely 43 days after Kenya attained independence on December 12, 1963.
This mutiny reportedly broke the trust between Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta and his then home affairs minister, Mr Odinga. It was whispered in the corridors of power that Uganda’s Prime Minister Milton Obote had supported the mutiny to oust Kenyatta and install Mr Odinga in power.
However, photos showing Kenyatta and Obote smiling and at ease with each other could suggest that the former, though aware of the latter’s intent, kept his suspicions to himself. Obote was eventually ousted in 1971 through a military coup staged by Idi Amin.
In addition, the British already had their suspicions about Odinga even before independence, and unlike Kenyatta, whom they re-evaluated and certified to be a more reliable person to take care of their interests in Kenya, had not been re-evaluated, as he became the epitome of the ‘radical’ Kenyan politician. His Soviet and Chinese connections were perceived as a direct threat to his colonial masters’ interests.
The fact that Soviet and China had made financial offers to Kenya in 1964, coupled with the offer of arms by Russia, stirred the British to support Kenya in fear that the Soviet Union was supporting the coup.
Odinga’s education programme that had seen at least 1,500 Kenya students get scholarships to study in Communist countries, with fears that some of them had received military training, added to the suspicions.
President Kenyatta barred these students from being integrated into the army.
MacDonald later argued: “Odinga probably expected that such students would be accepted into the Kenya armed forces, that they would constitute a fifth column for him there, and that they would be in a position to use the Communist arms in his cause.”
While handing over Kenya to the Kanu-led government, the colonial government had implemented and funded ‘willing-buyer, willing-seller’ land transfer programmes, meaning Europeans would be paid for selling their land and these were continued by Kenyatta after independence.
Interestingly, the emotive issue of land settlement was the main subject discussed in the British parliament regarding Kenya in April 1965.
Another crucial interest for the British was the Europeans’ continued safety and welfare as that depended solely on the ability of the Kenyan government to maintain law and order, and a coup could jeopardise their lives.
A successful coup would also possibly terminate the substantial military relationship that Britain continued to have with Kenya. The two counties had, in the aftermath of the 1964 mutiny, signed a Memorandum of Intention and Understanding that secured key strategic benefits for Britain, including overflying and air-staging rights, while offering Kenya British training and finance.
Action against the rebels
A copy of the “UK Eyes Only” supplementary directive to the commander of the British Army training team Kenya, on December 14, 1964, stated that “circumstances might arise under which the Team might be called upon by the British High Commissioner to assist, in so far as they are able, in the protection of British lives and property in Kenya”.
Upon receiving President Kenyatta’s message through his trusted lieutenant, Njonjo, the British government, after considering all these factors, began preparations.
On April 8, the Defence Operations Executive met. Kenyatta requested ships and foot soldiers. It was agreed that sending the ships would deter the overthrow of the Kenyan government. The arrival of the ships showed Odinga that President Kenyatta had a firm ally in Britain.
An April 1965 brief for the Secretary of State, “Defence and Oversea Policy Committee Kenya”, TNA DEFE 25/121, noted that sending war ships would be counter-productive as American and Russian ships also arrived in Mombasa, raising the possibility of external military action.
The ship, the HMS Anzio, was already scheduled to visit Mombasa between April 10 and 21, but the Ministry of Defence reviewed the positions of other ships and diverted the HMS Albion for a few days en route to Singapore.
MacDonald discussed this change with Njonjo, who “tells me that Kenyatta will be very grateful”. The British High Commissioner was also informed that “three further ships” could reach Kenyan waters at short notice if a real emergency arose, although interestingly this information was not to be shared with Kenyatta.
The fact that the plans were done secretly and that the only Kenyan who was kept informed was Njonjo showed just how much he was trusted by the British government.
All this while, Njonjo had insisted that the requests he was making were “not formal”, saying it would be “politically inexpedient” to make such a request pre-emptively, though should a “critical condition occur”, President Kenyatta would make a request.
However, for the deployment of troops on the ground, the British government needed to receive a “formal request”.
By April 9, the Ministry of Defence created a plan, Operation Binnacle, for the deployment of troops should they be required. One battalion could arrive from Aden, Yemen, after 36 hours with no prior warning, or after 15-18 hours if they had a 48 hours’ notice. If necessary, another battalion could be sent from the UK.
It was also clear that the limitations of any possible intervention were put into consideration. Notes from the Chief of Staff in the Planning Assumptions recorded on April 8, 1965 demonstrated this.
“We would wish to intervene to prevent overthrow of Government by extremists, provided we could achieve this within our means and without getting involved in protracted operations against rebels … Our intervention should take a precisely-defined form for a precisely-defined object.”
The guidelines for intervention were rigidly restricted to releasing Kenyan forces and police for action against the rebels, guarding Kenyatta and friendly ministers as well as public buildings and other key installations in Nairobi, including maintaining control over the airport.
Also, the troops could not operate outside Nairobi or be drawn into a long guerrilla-type campaign like that against the Mau Mau slightly over a decade earlier. The troops could also not be used to arrest or fight dissidents except in self-defence.
An intelligence briefing memo to Kenya, TNA DEFE 64/158, drafted on April 13, 1965, revealed that by April 1965, around 150 British officers and NCOs [non-commissioned officers] had been seconded to the Kenya Army as trainers.
All through, the British were clear that the Kenyan military must play a significant part, with British forces coming in to play a supporting role. Although not always planning in tandem with the Kenyan military, its assistance was essential if British forces were to intervene successfully.
The troops would “come under the operational command of the British Commander of the Kenya Army, Brigadier Hardy, thereby clearly demonstrating our role in assisting the Kenya Government,” a British official noted.
Since the mutiny, Kenyatta and the British had focused on ensuring an apolitical military and the British presence and leadership in the Kenyan military meant they could probably count on much of the military supporting the government rather than a coup.
British military leadership in the Kenyan military would certainly have made planning a coup more difficult as it would have been hard to secure support at a high level.
On 9 April, MacDonald spoke again to Njonjo and asked for the “latest appreciation of the time when trouble (if any) might start”. Njonjo responded that a coup could occur “any time from ‘mid-April’ onwards”, potentially in the next week, although “the situation this morning seemed rather more relaxed than it appeared a day or two earlier”.
The response showed the Kenyan government was more confident of its stability and as such did not need immediate British military intervention.
The British High Commission in Nairobi also had no immediate expectation of a coup.
However, on April 12, there was an active confrontation between Odinga and moderates (President Kenyatta and his allies). However, reports from Deputy High Commissioner Stanley stated that “matters have so far gone remarkably well. Kenyatta is decisively on top”.
On April 14, MacDonald and Njonjo met again and he informed Njonjo that a battalion of British troops was ready at 48 hours’ notice in Aden to fly to Nairobi if and when a formal request was made.
By then, the Kenyan government’s intelligence suggested the following day, April 15, as “one possible date for the action”, although Njonjo now thought this unlikely.
In response, the British government suggested changing the readiness of British troops to eight hours in case of an attempt the following day.
Kenyatta, however, did not see this as necessary and MacDonald wrote to the CRO on April 14, indicating things were now calm.
“In Kenyatta’s view the Opposition have become rather ‘frightened’ and it is very unlikely that they will act tomorrow,” he wrote.
Nothing happened on April 15, but on the same day, the Director of Operations in Aden decided that “all binnacle forces within the command should meanwhile remain at 24 hours’ notice British High Commission in Nairobi indicates that the situation warrants forces being at the reduced notice”.
These were reduced to 48 hours’ notice on April 24 and thus spent nine more days on alert for a Kenyan coup.
On April 29, Kenyatta, not yet willing to let the British troops leave, asked if they “could remain at 48 hours’ notice” should it become necessary.
Soviet Union’s influence
It was also during this time that President Kenyatta, with the help of the British, vanquished the Soviet’s influence in the country. The arrival of the Fizik Lebedev in Mombasa confounded even the President’s allies, including Njonjo, MacDonald noted.
Interestingly, Daniel Branch, in his book Kenya: Beyond Hope and Despair, argued that Odinga had organised the arms shipment as part of an arms deal made in 1964. But the timing made it appear suspicious. However, once the Russians who had arrived with the ship were investigated by the British High Commission, Njonjo was informed that three were suspected of being intelligence officers.
According to MacDonald, “President Kenyatta and his most confidential ministerial colleagues were very grateful for that information”.
The British were also involved in the rejection of the Soviet arms shipment. Branch, however, revealed, “officials at the [British] High Commission pressured the president to publicly reject the weapons”.
Before the arms were rejected, some leading Kenyan politicians and the commander of the Kenyan Army, who was to recommend whether to accept or reject the arms, inspected them. The fact that the commander, Brigadier Hardy, was British and he was the one to assess the equipment was perhaps already a sign that it was unlikely to be accepted.
Njonjo, again, played a crucial role in ending the influence of the Soviet Union when, together with Kenya’s minister for Agriculture, Bruce McKenzie, approached MacDonald and requested British action.
MacDonald was asked “to convey privately and unofficially to Brigadier Hardy that he should give an honest opinion about the utility of the various items of equipment, but with a prejudice in favour of rejecting each and every item as not sufficiently useful”.
MacDonald passed on the message, and Kenyatta publicly rejected the weapons for being old and not useful. If this had been a plan by the Soviet Union for a revolution, or even to disrupt the British position as a leading military ally in Kenya, it had failed.
By May 5, exactly one month after Njonjo’s first approach to the British, MacDonald, in his letter to A.G. Bottomley in London, surmised that “whatever is the truth about the plan for a ‘coup d’état’, the preparations for it have now gone hopelessly awry”.
On May 10, the British decided that although they no longer expected an immediate coup, “the plan should still be issued since a potential threat continues and similar alarms could arise in the future”. This meant that Binnacle plans would remain in place.
The possibility of a coup was reviewed in January 1966 and considered “unlikely”, but the idea did not completely dissipate as noted by MacDonald in his letter to A.G. Bottomley titled “Can It Happen Here?”
The British plan for intervention in response to unrest in Kenya existed until 1971, when it was evident that “the present day political and military considerations made it no longer realistic to plan for this contingency”, as an official letter drafted by a British official stated.
Just like that, Njonjo, the self-proclaimed Duke of Kabeteshire, spooked the British government to dispatch troops and warships to Kenya for a coup that never was and shrewdly used the same opportunity to finish the Soviet influence in the country.
This way, he effectively safeguarded President Kenyatta’s reign and won the hearts of the Brits with the promise of taking care of their interests.