By Tom Odhiambo
Memoirs always offer the illusion of telling the reader the “private” end of the narrator’s life. In many cases, the writer assumes that the reader knows a bit of the “public” end of the story. It is this private, secret, as-yet-to-be-known aspect of the memoir that makes people buy such books. Otherwise, why would anyone be interested in someone else’s story, especially if that person has been or was a very “public” figure? The illusion of getting to know what hasn’t been known before leads one to read what essentially can be a very ordinary story to the end. The hope to stumble on a juicy bit of info can be intoxicating.
This is what happens, naturally, when one gets a book that promises to tell the story of a spymaster. Given the fear that the word spy has invoked in Kenyans over the years, especially the phrase “Special Branch”, Bart Joseph Kibati’s book, Memoirs of a Kenyan Spymaster (Nairobi Academic Press, 2016) should seduce many Kenyan readers. This is not just another memoir in the market. This isn’t some politician or businessman writing about the “challenges” they have faced in life and how they surmounted them to become successful businessmen. Neither is it some young tenderpreneur going on about how hard work pays in the end. This is the man who was once the second in command of the Kenya’s foremost spy organisation.
I bet there aren’t many Kenyans today who know who Bart Kibati is. They wouldn’t because this is a man whose job demanded that he kept in the shadows, shadowing enemies of the State, Kenyans or foreigners. Kibati is a man who rose through the ranks of the Special Branch of the Kenyan Police to be the deputy to the director before being “retired” and made a Deputy Secretary in the mainstream civil service, in the then Ministry of Transport and Communications. He eventually retired after 27 years as a spymaster.
Kibati began his career in the Special Branch in the colonial era. A bright student, Kibati was born in Murigo, Gatundu North District, in what is now Kiambu County. His father was a foreman on a European’s farm. But like many men in Central Province at the time, he became a member of the Mau Mau War Council and got detained in 1954 at Manyani then Hola. Kibati though, managed to work hard at school and eventually got admitted to Mang’u School. When he finished school, he was first hired by the then East African Airways but resigned to join the Kenya Police Force, as a trainee in what was known as Direct Entry Inspector of Police in 1968.
From the Special Branch Training School, Kibati was first posted to Nakuru as Deputy District Special Branch Officer. He was later posted to Nanyuki after political intrigues undermined a planned transfer to Eldoret. Kibati alleges that “tribal” shenanigans were behind the scheme that stopped him from going to Eldoret because the “Kalenjin” didn’t want a Kikuyu to be posted there.
Kibati argues that it is the same anti-Kikuyu schemes that denied him the chance to become the Director of Special Branch later, in the 1990s. This theme of tribalism recurs in the story. For instance, Kibati suggests that after the attempted military coup of August 1982, there was “ethnic cleansing of the Air Force”. But even here, he simply alludes to the sacking of officers from one ethnic group, which he doesn’t mention, but isn’t difficult to infer from the story. Yet, evidence suggests that many officers from various communities were sacked, jailed or condemned to misery and some executed for participating in or supporting the coup, or failing to fight the rebels.
There is a sense in which Memoirs of a Kenyan Spymaster isn’t really about what we can call “the real life of a spy”. It would be overly optimistic to expect that a spymaster would really reveal secrets. Either those secrets would have to be “declassified” first, and therefore become accessible to the public, or the author would have gone “rogue”, meaning that he would be disavowing the ties that bind him to the secret services. Kibati’s doesn’t fall in either category.
One would be right to argue that, to a large extent, Kibati is somehow “confirming” some stories that have been taken as rumours for some time in Kenya, or he is revealing bits and pieces of what he knows. For instance, Kibati adds more information to the tale of how the East African Community collapsed but only to the extent that he thinks that Tanzania and Uganda were jealous of Kenya. His anecdote about the raid on Entebbe Airport by the Israelis to rescue hostages on July 2, 1976, and the repercussions from the Idi Amin Dada regime, most significantly Amin’s declaration that the boundary between Kenya and Uganda be redrawn to “return” parts of Kenya – from Naivasha to western Kenya – to Uganda is a good reminder to Kenyans on our troubled history with that neighbour.
When Kibati talks about theft of public assets during the Moi regime, such as the allocation of land, government houses, beach plots etc., to individuals connected to politicians and civil servants, he is simply reiterating the argument that the monster we call corruption today has been with us ever since Kenya was established. Land grab is how the mzungu set up the colony. The men who took over from the wazungu simply allocated themselves, their relatives, friends, political supporters, and those who could pay for it, land that the coloniser had arbitrarily declared as “belonging to the government”.
The use of public office to enrich self remains the best means to accumulate wealth in Kenya. Indeed, the reason this anecdote on corruption is ironical is because Kibati writes in the early parts of his memoirs about his relatives being involved in the fight to reclaim their land and freedom from the colonialists. How tragic is it that there are squatters all over this country when a few men and women own thousands of acres of land, which largely lies unexploited?
There are several sides to Kibati’s story, which should provoke debate among different readers. There is Kibati, the nationalist, stridently arguing for a more proactive approach to intelligence gathering and pre-emptive response to criminal or terrorist activities. This is a man who wishes to see an institution such as the National Intelligence Services “enabled” by being made more professional, supported better by the State and anchored on policies that secure the interests of the nation’s security.
Says too little
Then there is another Kibati – a defender of his community. He doesn’t shy away from arguing that there seems to be an irrational – if it isn’t mere envy – dislike of the Kikuyu by other Kenyan communities. His own experience while working for the government seems to form the basis of this claim. But couldn’t he have said more about this subject? As a man who was involved in intelligence gathering, shouldn’t he explain to other Kenyans the seeming origin of this loathing of his community, apart from the claims that politicians retail on it?
In the end there are just too many questions that remain unanswered at the end of Kibati’s story. If you expect to know more about the Nyayo Torture Chambers and the members of the group that tortured supposed dissidents there, you will find no answers here. All that “Ngoroko paramilitary unit” stuff – as detailed in The Kenyatta Succession by Philip Ochieng’ and Joseph Karimi – is utter nonsense, according to him. There is no doubt that there are many anecdotes in Memoirs of a Kenyan Spymaster worth the reader’s time, but there are also too many blank spaces in the anecdotes as to leave one hoping for the next book by a Kenyan spy.
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi; Tom.firstname.lastname@example.org