That time Moi thought the Ku Klux Klan was out to get him.
It started with a letter, a memo actually.
It was titled “MEMO: TO Klu (sic!) Klux Klan Members.” Its author was Kenneth A. Caswell of Foscoe Christian Church in North Carolina. The memo detailed a plan to help the apartheid government by overthrowing four Sub-Saharan African governments. On top of the list were the leaders of Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe (misspelled Zibabwe), and Zambia.
To do this, the Klan would need to raise $80 million and “$1, 000, 000 for bribery-the only way things can be done in black Africa.” The basic plan was “to begin with Kenya because this is where our interests are mostly at stake. Our folks there need money.” The operatives were, the memo read, seven missionaries who it then went ahead to name in the letter.
It then concluded, quite unimaginatively, “We have to move fast for white supremacy.”
The full memo ran in all three major papers, and began one of the worst clusterfucks in Kenya’s diplomatic history. For whoever first received the letter, it must have looked like a scoop. It was a fantastic story. The Klan was reaching out far beyond North America, to help South Africa’s government survive by destabilising its closest enemies. Top of the list was Kenya, so this felt and smelt like a Kenyan story.
Kibaki, then the Vice President demanded that “Kenyans must expose fellow countrymen tempted to collaborate with evil foreigners in their machinations to destabilize the country.” Moi went even further and claimed the latest strike by the University of Nairobi had been caused by Afrikaners. Everyone was seeing boogeymen everywhere, and they were mostly racist enemies with a plan to harm the good government of Kenya.
The Standard, in what must now look like one of its most ridiculous editorials ever, confidently said that “This is not a scarecrow story or a shouting cry of Wolf!” which in fact, it was.
It also added “Neither is it a piece of disinformation,” which it was too. Actually, if they had bothered to really read the letter, they would have seen just how ridiculous it was.
But there was some context to the mood in the country at the time.
In 1986, Kenya arrested several American missionaries and charged them with sneaking weapons into the country. They had been arrested with “guns, uniforms, ammunition, and maps.” That by itself was scary, because Western governments had long used missionaries as spies, or spies as missionaries. But the guns Kenya found were actually pellet guns, and not even enough to destabilize a rat, and there was no ammunition. The maps that ‘infringed state security’ had been bought from a government store in Nairobi. The 500 uniforms were school uniforms imported from a church in Oregon.
During the interrogation, one of the missionaries, Lyle Hutson, died of a heart attack.
Hutson’s death meant the story needed to die fast, and quietly. So it did. But then the Klan plot was ‘discovered’ and pasted on all the front pages in the country. This time for sure, the American missionaries had been caught red-handed in a racist plot.
But the letter was clearly a forgery. The US State Department said as much using words such as ‘absurd’ and ‘ridiculous’ which were, in this case, euphemisms for utter dumbassery.
When contacted, Caswell disowned the letter and explained that his church did not even have any missionary operations. His signature had been forged, and he didn’t even recognize the writing style. But the letter had been written on a paper with a letterhead from Caswell’s church. So who had written it, and why?
The man the Washington Post’s lens turned to was a Kenyan preacher, David MS Kimweli. Kimweli moved to the United States four years before the Klan story. He had a scholarship from the Johnson Bible College in Knoxville, Tennessee.
After he was ordained, Kimweli roamed the American South introducing himself as the president of two churches. Both of them,the Kenya Christian Evangelistic Outreach Mission, and Reach and Touch Global Ministries, didn’t actually exist. He quoted their work in Kenya in his fundraisers, and managed to build quite a name for himself as a prolific preacher who wanted to help his people back home. His churches needed money, he said, and missionaries.
One of the churches that Kimweli preached in was Caswell’s. He was there a few times in February 1987, nine months before the Klan conspiracy in Kenya. In the intervening period, seven missionaries actually believed Kimweli’s call to action. They packed up their families, quit the jobs and booked flights to Kenya.
All seven of them would be explicitly named in the fake Klan letter.
They arrived in Kenya in to find Kimeli had duped them. With little to go back to, they sought new missions. But for one, Peter Hamilton, Kimweli was getting off too easy. So he began writing to pastors back home, telling them Kimweli was a con. Finding himself increasingly on the defensive, Kimweli began fighting back. In one letter, Hamilton writes that “Now the real problem is that Kimweli is applying pressure in Kenya to shut up the people over here.”
What’s impressive is what Kimweli chose to do next. He chose to play on a paranoia he knew was hard to ignore, by feeding a hungry propaganda machine.
The KKK letter mentioned Hamilton and his wife as “Stationed in Thika, only about 20 miles from Nairobi, among natives who are dissatisfied with the present governments. They have had great successes. They used the funds to bribe the government officials and also to equip themselves with automobiles, computers and telephones.” It wasn’t just a description, it was a proper map to their new home and enough circumstantial evidence to suit both Moi’s and Kimweli’s purposes.
All seven Americans mentioned in the letter were detained and deported. Another group of 8 Americans and one Canadian were arrested and given a week to leave the country, only to later be told to stay. The silence meant Moi had won against whatever the Klan demons had been plotting against his rule, and he quickly went back to his purge at home.
Only it wasn’t over. In fact, it was just about to escalate too fast for comfort.
At around the same time Kimweli had been in Caswell’s church, a businessman called Peter Njenga Karanja had been arrested in Kenya while on his way to the bank. He was suspected to be a member of Mwakenya, a clandestine Marxist radical group that was Moi’s primary boogeyman. Karanja was beaten and tortured for three weeks.
On February 26th, three police officers took him to Kenyatta Hospital with septic ulcers all over his body. He died two days later of pneumonia and intestinal gangrene. In early 1988, months after the KKK plot and a year after Karanja died, an inquest into his death began in Nairobi. Among the first observers of the case were two Americans, retired federal judge Marvin Frankel and medical examiner Robert H. Kirschner, who arrived in Kenya the day before the inquest started. They both disappeared from the courtroom on the first day of the inquest.
The US Embassy, then based on Haile Selassie Avenue, panicked and immediately launched a manhunt. Initial intelligence showed they had been arrested, transported to a police station where they were detained for a night, and then moved to the infamous Nyayo House torture chambers.
In an interview in 1996, America’s ambassador to Kenya in 1987 Elinor Constable confessed she had called the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Zachary Onyonka and threatened war if they hurt the judge. “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 sorry.”
The threat went up the chain and Frankel and Kirschner were released and immediately deported. Cleverly, Moi disowned the arrest of the judge and claimed that it had been the work of an overzealous security officer. Very few things of that nature ever happened in Moi’s turf without his knowledge because of his constant need to purge his enemies, real or perceived.
The Klan conspiracy was revived again in 1995, but this time not by Kimweli. At the time, Richard Leakey and Paul Muite had just launched the Safina Party. For Leakey’s skin color and lack of religious beliefs (he is an avowed atheist), Moi supporters called him everything from a Klan member to a devil worshipper. Moi had actually launched a committee to investigate devil worship in 1994, so these were two conspiracies meeting against the same man.
Nothing ever happened to Kimweli for causing such a national outrage. His letter remains a reminder of one of the lowest moments of Kenya’s diplomatic history.
One story is good,
till Another is told.