In “Memoirs of a Kenyan Spymaster”, Bart J Kibati writes about his three decades in the trenches of Kenya’s intelligence. It’s only the second book by a former Kenyan spy, but its still not James Bond material.
MEMOIRS OF A KENYAN SPYMASTER
By Bart Joseph Kibati. 266pp. Nairobi Academic Press. KShs. 1500.
This book, like most I’ve read this year, was a gift. I dived into it and read through in about 8 hours, stopping only for pit breaks and to take notes. I am not sure what I expected from it, but it made two promises in the opening pages that it failed to keep.
One is an allusion to the fact that the only other book by a former member of Kenya’s intelligence community, by Simon Wathome, “glossed over his career and focused on his family.” The other was the first line “When I was a child I loved to watch James Bond movies.” Both sounded like a promise for a thrilling read but it turned out to be more political commentary than the actual memoirs of a James Bond-ish spy. There was that sense of restraint, expectedly so, but it could still have been a lot better.
Reviewing memoirs is hard enough because people write about themselves subjectively. Add on to that the limits of what a former spy like Bart Kibati can write about, and you see why he ends up barely improving on Wathome’s precedent. This might explain why Kibati glosses over his own career at the very top, instead focusing on how he lost the top job when he was clearly the man for it. When talking about the nitty gritties of spying, he focuses on his life in the lower cadres, and still speaks more of the politics of the job than the job itself.
As a critical player in the secretive intelligence community for three tumultuous decades, Kibati’s book is important as both personal memoirs and historical record. To historians and researchers, that historical record is of interest in this book especially because we never get to see the backend of the intelligence community. The book’s selling point is exactly that, although I am not sure it even comes close, and it’s definitely not “beautifully written.”
In the 268-page book, Kibati writes about the many things that weaved into his years as a spy: politics on the job, racial discrimination, tribalism, the Kenyatta Succession, corruption, Chepkube, and land grabbing. He rightly notes that the Black markets of Chepkube were the first taste of mega-corruption in Kenya, and were the genesis of the idea of quick riches through illegal schemes.
The view seems more of a political history than an intelligence history one. We learn nothing, for example, about the bombing outside State House Mombasa in 1975 that killed Bihari Gudhka. As a top spy in Mombasa at the time, Kibati says nothing more of it than its political story, that of the bombings that preceded the murder of JM Kariuki. When he talks about Ibrahim Akasha, drug dealer and mobster par excellence, its when talking about politics within Special Branch, and misuse of power. He treats the fact that Akasha was a drug dealer and not a Palestinian terrorist almost as if one was worse than the other.
Kibati himself doesn’t come off as having been good at the business of spying itself; this could be because he couldn’t write about most of his work. I figure this manuscript had to be approved by NIS, who most likely excised some parts, forcing the author to fill it with what sound at times like unnecessary lectures. It explains why the book is thin on the actual spying, and more a random collection of mostly harmless anecdotes.
We learn from this book that it was ex-CIA that taught Opiyo and team how to torture prisoners using skills they had learnt fighting the Vietcong. We also learn of Captain John Kiniti’s Masterstroke, how the EAA pilot’s quick thinking in the dying days of the East African Community allowed Kenya to fly 3 planes out of Tanzania. It also tries to answer that question that has been bugging you about why the original EAC collapsed, and how Secret Branch contributed to the game of tennis Kenya and Tanzania were playing.
You’ll get unsatisfying, incomplete tidbits of Kenyan espionage, like how Kibati took up deep sea fishing and got a speedboat to do counter-espionage. There’s fast coverage of the activities of foreign spies in Nairobi, before quickly going back to the political scene. You’ll also get a jumbled refute that the Ngoroko (the commando unit established within the Anti-Stock Theft Unit in the 1970s) were infact an assassination squad. You’ll also get a quick mention of how the Israeli President secretly flew to Mombasa in 1986.
Many things irked me about the narrative arc and the typographical errors. I stopped counting the latter, most of which could have been corrected with simple Autocorrect, after 10. The narrative arc is unnervingly tiring, and there’s such constant repetition that you’ll, for a few chapters, wonder if your brain is playing games. But those are editorial failures, and this is a review of the content itself.
I have a problem with how Kibati approaches tribalism, especially the subject of Kikuyu hegemony. He says (several times) he doesn’t understand the hostility that other Kenyans have against his tribe, which is a bit of a stretch for a man who lived and worked in the thick of Kenya’s social politics. Perhaps he couldn’t see it because he was in it, and only began to see the discrimination proper when a new president favored his own. He doesn’t see it when he gets free land, or even in how he approaches the entire topic of Kikuyu intra-politics. His is a point of privilege and access under two governments, and this lens blinds him to the entrenched Kikuyu hegemony that thrived under Kenyatta and survived even Moi.
My bigger concerns with this book are with how he approaches the Nyayo House torture squad, and his fervent anger towards Mohammed Affey for trying to fight the Indemnity Act. The first of these is easy to relate to Kibati because it was the work of his colleagues such as John Opiyo. The way he sees it, Opiyo and his torture team were a small part of the Secret Branch, and most of it was still doing its work professionally. He uses revisionist words like “purportedly” when talking about Nyayo House, and approaches it almost as if the torture that happened in its basement is a matter of conjecture and not fact.
He dresses James Kanyotu almost saintly, despite the fact that the torture and maiming of thousands of dissidents was done under their watch. Here, the concept of collective responsibility escapes Kibati, who retains a singular view to the hatch he was managing at the time, ignoring the fact that the rest of the farm was rotten. Neither does he see the problem with senior intelligence men like him accepting what amounted to land gifts from the political class of the day.
My second here needs some context. The Indemnity Act was passed in 1972 to protect security forces for things they had done in Northern Province and parts of Coast during the six years of the Shifta War. It protected them from acts done in good faith, but barely defined these.
In 2010, Affey moved a motion to repeal it to allow the TJRC to properly investigate the atrocities of the war. The bill passed but was never signed into law. Still, Kibati spares a few pages to say Affey and his ilk, such as activists, are unpatriotic for not recognizing the sacrifices of the Kenyan soldiers and cops who fought in the war. He calls it “the demonizing of the patriots” and tells us that “civilized nations” would have a “Remembrance Day” instead. He uses Wagalla Massacre, which occurred in 1984, as an example of the Indemnity Act’s limits because it only covered upto 1967. But he conveniently leaves out massacres such as the Garbatullah Massacre of 1967 which happened smack in the covered time. Kibati even compares Kenya’s (and Ethiopia’s) response to the Somali secessionist movement with the Allied response to Hitler.
That entire section of the book felt personal, and when he later talks about retirement, it makes some sense. Kibati makes some valid points on how we need to ease retirement for security officers, because of their sacrifice, and because of security. Kibati makes solid points on what’s wrong with Kenya’s security and criminal intelligence today. He also gives us a history of the intrigues within the intelligence community of his days, and his access to two presidents. We learn how James Kanyotu lost his job in the moving chairs of Moi’s inner court after a bluff.
In a few anecdotes, especially in places he worked (EAA and Secret Branch), Kibati comes off as having a persecution complex. He even celebrates, the failures of his enemies. A good example is describing his former boss’s, Adrian Muteshi’s, fight with William Ruto for land in Eldoret as Muteshi’s “waterloo.” Muteshi was Kibati’s boss at EAA in the mid-1960s, and apparently not a very good one.
Many parts of this book have that grandfatherly nostalgia “back in our days” voice, even in how it appreciates Kenya’s unique security challenges today. Kibati yearns for the an intelligence organisation with the powers that the Secret Branch his spent his working life had, without appreciating why we must never go back there again. Perhaps it is the closed cubicle view of an insider, or the perspective of a lifelong government employee, but Kibati’s views on security intelligence would take us to the dark days.
This book has little on intelligence history that you don’t already know, but it’s still an important perspective, albeit sketchy, from the inside.
The work of a spy, Kibati says several times, is to maintain the status quo. That’s what he does with this book.
Buy this book on The Magunga Bookstore here [Link]
One story is good,
till Another is told.