The day Moi thwarted impending war on Kenya by US

Tuesday, February 4th, 2020 11:08 |
Late retired President Daniel Arap Moi. Photo/File

An untold tense detail between the diplomatic history of Kenya and the United States has emerged in an interview with a former envoy, detailing a moment when the super power threatened to attack Kenya.

Though the US and Kenya exchanged harsh communication over various issues, one tiff appeared to get out of hand when a former envoy to Nairobi threatened war to dissuade Kenya from targeting some American citizens.

Former US Ambassador to Kenya, Elinor Constable, has captured one of the most tense moments between her country and Nairobi, during President Daniel arap Moi’s reign, when she read the riot act to his government to protect some American missionaries targeted for expulsion.

The incident came almost ten years into Moi’s presidency, in 1987, and was largely seen as a problem of his own making.  With the State overly suspicious of local and foreign forces seeking to erode the Kanu grip on power, in late 1987, Moi picked on a most unlikely target to vilify for alleged interference in Kenyan affairs.

He suspected that some American missionaries were secretly working with then budding, but underground opposition, to undermine him. The then dreaded Special Branch was understood to have advised that if Moi could kick out of the country some suspected American missionaries, his problems would be half-solved.

Out of the blue, but apparently the work of the then powerful intelligence, a letter surfaced, saying the American missionaries were working with a right-wing racist American cult, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to topple the governments of Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

According to the letter, the four countries were targeted because of their opposition to the then Apartheid regime of South Africa. The letter said that Moi’s government was targeted as the first to be overthrown because Kenya was where “white interests were mostly at stake.”

The letter further claimed that USD 80 million had been raised for the project, a huge chunk which would be spent in Kenya on covert activities leading to Moi’s ouster. For maximum impact, the letter was leaked to the local press who, in turn, contacted the American Embassy for comment.

The US mission, then stationed on the Haile Selassie, Moi Avenue junction, promptly identified the letter as a forgery and communicated as much to the media. The instructions were that the media publicise the letter as gospel truth and as prominently as possible.

This was how ambassador Constable recalls the episode in an interview. She writes: “The political officer came in and handed me a letter.

The letter was from one of the missionaries (working in Kenya) to a minister (of the Ku Klux Klan) in North Carolina, and it reported on the success that he and his colleagues were having in overthrowing Moi.

There were references to the Ku Klux Klan as being involved in this plot to overthrow Moi, and various other silly things. The letter was clearly a forgery.

So I called the Foreign Ministry Permanent Secretary (Bethuel Kiplagat) at home, and I said, “Listen, you better know this letter is a forgery. If you’re throwing the missionaries out because of this letter, then think again, because somebody is messing around here. I got a vague reply.”

She continues: “The next morning, at home, I got the three local papers (Daily Nation, East African Standard and Kenya Times) and all of them – I still have them – had two and a half inch high banner headlines across the front page.

“Ku Klux Klan plot to overthrow Moi foiled.”  The newspapers printed the text of the letter and then reported that the missionaries were being deported.

Well, I picked up the phone and I called my friend at the Foreign Ministry (Kiplagat) and I really let him have it. I think he never forgave me for this because I swore at him, and he didn’t like that.

I said, “I don’t give a damn what you guys publish in your stupid newspapers. But if you touch one American citizen, it’s war. I will pull out the stops here. You will be so sorry.” “Calm down, calm down”, he (Kiplagat) said.

“No, I won’t calm down. This is outrageous, this is inflammatory. You are nuts, it’s a forgery.”  She reports Kiplagat kept saying, “No, please stop, Ambassador,” as she kept on, “No, I won’t stop.

I’m telling you right now.” The former envoy writes in the book, “Within an hour, Moi was out on the hustings, and he made a speech, and he said, do not hurt any American missionaries.

There may be a few bad apples, but most of these missionaries are wonderful people and we love having them in Kenya. And there were no incidents. Nobody was hurt. That was the end of that incident.”

The former envoy says after the incident she tried to get to Moi, but nobody wanted me to talk to him. Everybody, I think, was a little embarrassed. I kept trying to get to Moi.

Finally I talked to my friend, Kiplagat, and I said, look, if I don’t talk to him about the missionaries, can I meet with him?” She tells of what transpired eventually when she was granted an appointment with Moi: “We met, we started chit-chatting a little bit, and I said, “I wish you’d do me a favour.

If you think you have a problem, I wish you’d call me. Kiplagat started getting a little bit nervous, and I said, ‘just promise me that if you think something is going wrong, you’ll call me’.

And Moi said he would. And then I said to him, you know, you’re right about the KKK.”  She writes: “I could see Kiplagat was ready to jump across the room and throttle me. And I said, they’d love to overthrow you.

The Klan thinks it’s an outrage that a black man as powerful as you runs a country like this. But you have to understand something. The Klan is bankrupt. They don’t have enough money for an airplane ticket.

They can’t get over here. They can’t do anything to you. And we started laughing about it. So we put that behind us.”

This story was first published in November 2015 on

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