British Cold War propagandists smeared Kenyan Vice President Oginga Odinga in the 1960s in “black” propaganda operations, recently declassified files reveal.
The Foreign Ministry’s propaganda arm, the Information Research Department (IRD), has targeted the Kenyan nationalist in a three-year campaign led by its dirty tricks section, the Special Editorial Unit (SEU).
Odinga’s son, Raila Odinga, could be elected president on Tuesday when Kenyans go to the polls.
Oginga Odinga was a major figure in the struggle against British colonialism. After independence in 1963, the British identified pro-Western President Jomo Kenyatta as their favorite leader. Vice President Odinga was leftist and open to relations with the communist bloc. Fearing that Odinga would replace Kenyatta, constitutionally or otherwise, the British attempted to undermine him.
Although, as British diplomats acknowledged, Odinga was not a communist, according to historian Dr Poppy Cullen of Loughborough University, he “posed a direct threat to British interests”. Not only did Odinga favor radical domestic policies, but he accepted financial support from the Soviet Union and Communist China. But President Kenyatta could not dismiss Odinga, as he represented the powerful Luo tribe.
Declassified files reveal four “black” operations against Odinga. In September 1965, the The telegraph of the day published an article entitled “Document ‘Revolution’ in Kenya”. He reported on a pamphlet published by the “East African People’s Front” calling Kenyatta’s government “reactionary, fascist and dishonest”. But he praised Odinga as “a great revolutionary leader” who would be brought to power by a “newly formed Kenya People’s Revolutionary Socialist Party”.
In fact, it was a sophisticated propaganda operation that heightened suspicions that Kenya’s vice president was in cahoots with communist China. The IRD sent 80 copies of its pamphlet to “leading personalities and the press”, reports the SEU. Kenyan newspapers gave it wide coverage. It was believed that Kenyan ministers were convinced that the leaflet was genuine.
Referencing Odinga’s right-wing rival Tom Mboya, SEU’s John Rayner wrote: claimed it was the work of the CIA.
Dr Cullen says: “It makes it clear that Odinga was seen as the main threat to British interests, and how far the British were willing to go to smear him.”
Odinga suspected he was being targeted. In 1964, he complained publicly about a “wave of defamation and facile criticism” in the British press. Choose UK newspapers, including the Telegraphwhose correspondent Odinga was expelled from Kenya four months later, he complained about reports suggesting he was plotting against Kenyatta.
“British intelligence officers”, he concluded, were “sanctioned by their government for passing official information to the so-called ‘independent’ Fleet Street press”.
A declassified report from June to December 1964 reveals what appears to be the first SEU operation against Odinga. In October, the SEU produced a leaflet, claiming to be from the “Loyal African Brothers”, calling the Kenyan leader a “tool of the Chinese Communists”.
The Brothers are an invention of IRD propagandists. In nine years, 37 leaflets have been distributed by the bogus organization claiming to want to “liberate Africa from all forms of foreign interference”.
Kenyatta’s claims in April 1964 that “Mr. Odinga and his associates might attempt some sort of armed or other action to seize power” prompted plans for British military intervention should fears of a coup would materialize.
It also triggered another SEU operation accusing Odinga of being involved in a leftist coup.
Despite raids on the offices and homes of Odinga and other radicals, resulting in the confiscation of weapons, no concrete evidence of a coup was found and he remained vice president.
An assessment by the British High Commissioner highlighted Russian arms deliveries, weapons in communist embassies and premises under Odinga’s control, as well as his involvement in the military training of Kenyans in communist countries. But even he concluded that “the plotters expected that overthrow would be possible by more or less constitutional means, and that the arms and trainees were simply to give them additional assurance and support if needed”.
According to Cullen, author of Kenya and Britain after independenceeven if the fears were real, “the coup was most likely largely fictional”, a “pretext to act against Odinga”.
Nevertheless, IRD propagandists weaponized the high commissioner’s report. An article titled “Kenyatta frustrates leftist coup” was published in a Swiss publication with the aim of spreading it to Western European media. “It is now clear,” he says, “that only resolute action by President Kenyatta succeeded in thwarting a leftist pro-communist coup in Kenya.”
According to Professor Scott Lucas, a specialist in British foreign policy at the University of Birmingham, “The history of British propaganda operations in Kenya reminds us that the time of a declining empire was not so much the pomp and circumstances than deception, misinformation and dirty tricks.”
At bottom, ‘it was an effort by those in London to continue to exercise control over a former colony long after its independence,’ Prof Lucas said.
Odinga resigned from Kenyatta’s government in 1966 and established a new political party, the Kenya People’s Union (KPU). But the country’s experiment with multiparty democracy did not last long. KPU members have been detained without trial under draconian new laws.
In 1969, the party was banned. Odinga was detained and subsequently imprisoned by Kenyatta’s successor, Daniel arap Moi.
His son Raila, who followed his father into politics, was repeatedly imprisoned without trial before Kenya returned to democracy. Whether he will fulfill his father’s ambition and become president of Kenya remains to be seen.