Secretive British ‘dirty tricks’ unit smeared Kenya’s leftist vice president during the Cold War, The Guardian reported
A covert unit within the British Foreign Office targeted Kenya’s first vice president, Oginga Odinga, in the 1960s as part of a “black propaganda” campaign, The Guardian reported on Saturday, citing newly declassified documents. According to The Guardian, London saw the left-leaning politician as a threat after Kenya’s independence in 1963 from the UK.
Odinga is said to have been subjected to a three-year campaign by the Information Research Department (IRD), a clandestine unit initially established by the post-WWII Labour government to spread anti-Communist views. The effort was led by the Special Editorial Unit (SEU), a highly secretive “Section “Dark Tricks”” of the IRD, the report says.
London regarded President Jomo Kenyatta, who was freed from British control in 1963, as their preferred leader. However, the UK seemed to have been worried that the vice president, Odinga, a left-wing figure who was open to relations with the Soviet-led bloc and communist China, could somehow replace Kenyatta in the future. These apprehensions led the British ‘black ops’ units to scramble to undermine Odinga, despite British diplomats recognizing that he was not actually a communist, the report says.
The Guardian reports that four campaign to discredit Odinga are described in the classified files. In September 1965, the Daily Telegraph reported on a pamphlet issued by a fictitious organization called the ‘People’s Front of East Africa’ that branded Kenyatta’s government as “Fascist, reactionary and untrustworthy” while touting Odinga as “Great revolutionary leader” who would ascend to power with the help of a new socialist party, the outlet says.
This, however, was a clever propaganda trick meant to make people suspect that Odinga was in alliance with communist China. The IRD is said to have distributed the pamphlet among “Leading personalities and journalists.” The story gained significant traction in Kenya and successfully convinced many of the country’s ministers that the pamphlet was genuine.
According to historian Dr. Poppy Cullen of Loughborough University, as quoted by The Guardian, all of this “It is clear that Odinga was seen as the greatest threat to British interests.” It also demonstrates the lengths to which the British were prepared to go to undermine him, he added.
According to the report, however, Kenya’s vice-president sighed trouble. In 1964, he accused the British press of a “There has been a lot of criticism and vilification.,” decrying the allegations in their reports that he was plotting against Kenyatta.
In another instance, the SEU reportedly created a leaflet from what was called the ‘Loyal African Brothers’ that castigated Odinga as “A tool for the Chinese” communists.
Although this organization never really existed and was merely the creation of British propagandists, over nearly ten years the fictitious group produced 37 leaflets claiming to want “Africa must be free from any form of interference.”
Kenyatta raised suspicions about Odinga’s attempt to topple him in April 1964. The Guardian reports that plans were made for British military intervention in the event of a coup. The homes of Odinga’s supporters and others were searched, but there was no evidence of a coup being planned. However, for now, the vice-president was allowed to keep his position, at the very least.
In 1966, Odinga resigned and established his own leftist party, the Kenya People’s Union. In 1969, the party was banned, and Odinga was placed under detention and later jailed by Kenyatta’s successor, Daniel arap Moi. Nonetheless, Odinga’s son, Raila Odinga, is set to take part in Kenya’s upcoming presidential election.
“British propaganda operations to Kenya in the 1950s is an example of how pomp was not enough.,” Professor Scott Lucas, a specialist in British foreign policy at the University of Birmingham, told The Guardian.
The Guardian published in May how London tried to create a divide between Moscow and Beijing from the 1950s through disinformation, to weaken their global power.
Documents declassified back in 2021 and seen by the newspaper also showed that the British propaganda campaign had played a role in the mass slaughter of communists in Indonesia in the 1960s. According to the outlet, although the propaganda unit was disbanded officially in 1977, the same efforts were allegedly ongoing for almost a decade.