Kenya of the late 80’s was essentially a single-party state, with the president holding almost complete control. President Moi ruled from 1978 through 2002 and worked to crush movements among academics to initiate democratic reforms. Two failed coups d’état were attempted almost simultaneously in 1982, and then just a few years later the Kenyan government publicized a letter asserting that the Ku Klux Klan was attempting to overthrow the Kenyan government. Elinor Constable, who was Ambassador to Kenya from 1986-1989, recounts the discovery of this letter and the kidnapping of an American citizen that followed. She was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in May 1996.
“The judge has disappeared”
CONSTABLE: The incident…involved the kidnapping of a retired American judge, the chairman of the board of the Lawyer’s Committee on Human Rights in this country, a very distinguished fellow. He had asked the Kenyans for a visa to come to Kenya to observe a trial, and the Kenyans didn’t want to give it to him. I persuaded them to do it. I said, “Look, you are always saying that you have a fair and open system, that you don’t have a human rights problem. What better publicity could you have than to have a distinguished American jurist come to Kenya, observe your due process in action.”
I talked them into it, they gave him a visa — Marvin Frankel was his name. He showed up on a Tuesday (he and I were going to meet on Wednesday) and he went straight to the court room. My junior political officer was there with him. I was in my office, the political officer came rushing in breathless, “Ambassador, the judge has disappeared.”
“The judge has disappeared. He was sitting there, I was sitting there, I was watching the trial, I turned around and he was gone.” He was very upset. I said, “Calm down, Jerry. He’s just disappeared.” I said, “Do you have any idea what might have happened.” And he said, “None.” He talked to people at the scene, and they reported seeing a couple of goons come in, and he said the judge walked out with them. He’d been kidnapped.
In full view of everyone in a court room, and he had been carted off to a place called Nyayo House, which is a building in downtown Kenya where political prisoners were allegedly tortured. I never knew for sure. It was plausible, it was a plausible accusation.
“If you touch one American citizen, it’s war”
There was an event that had preceded this which had some bearing on it. We had some missionaries in western Kenya who were being thrown out of the country. The government of Kenya was, for reasons that nobody understood, refusing to renew work permits or visas for a group of missionaries in western Kenya. A couple of the missionaries had been a little bit rough and controversial, but it seemed like a disproportionate response, and we were in the process of trying to sort it out, and I was trying to make sure that they weren’t physically mistreated in any way. The government had a perfect right not to have them there, but it seemed stupid. And again, all these things seemed to happen on a late Friday afternoon.
The same political officer who reported Frankel’s disappearance came in and he said, “I think I may have figured out what’s going on,” and he handed me a letter. The letter was from one of the missionaries to a minister in North Carolina, and it reported on the success that he and his colleagues were having in overthrowing Moi. It went on to say that no large country should be run by a black man. 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 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.
The next morning at home I got the three local papers 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.” It printed the text of the letter, and it then reported that the missionaries were being deported. Well, I picked up the phone and I called my friend at the Foreign Ministry 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.”
“No, I won’t calm down. This is outrageous, this is inflammatory. You are nuts, it’s a forgery.”
“No, please stop, Ambassador.”
“No, I won’t stop. I’m telling you right now.”
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.
And then I tried to get to Moi, but nobody wanted me to talk to him. Everybody, I think, was a little embarrassed. The missionaries went home. There were a couple of articles, and then it all stopped. 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?”
We met, we started chit-chatting a little bit, and I said, “I wish you’d do me a favor. 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, call me.” And Moi said he would. And then I said to him, “You know, you’re right about the KKK.” 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.” Where is she going to take this? And I said, “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. Afterwards Kiplagat said, you promised. And I said, “Just missionaries, just missionaries. I didn’t say I wouldn’t talk about the Klan.” So we put that behind us.
But then not long after that they kidnapped Frankel. Now, what to do? My political counselor started getting hysterical, wanted me to call Moi. And I said, no, not yet. I want to know where he is first. I didn’t want the Kenyans to hurt him. We had enough contacts in the Kenyan police and intelligence and military, so I figured we’d be able to do that pretty fast.
We found him, I’ve forgotten who got the information, but we found him very quickly. He had been taken first to a local jail, and just thrown into a jail cell. They took his shoe laces away, his tie, his belt, and dumped him in with some common — we don’t know if they were criminals or not, but they were in the cell with him. Then they moved him to the Nyayo House and started interrogating him, among other things about the Ku Klux Klan, and they wanted to know why he had come to Kenya. “I just came to see a trial.” “Yes, but why? Who sent you?” They were getting almost paranoid about this.
When I found out where he was, I sent my chief of the consular section over to Nyayo House to find him. They didn’t want to let him in, and he said, “I’m here for the American ambassador, and I’m here to find the judge.”
While he was trying to get in, he saw someone at the end of the corridor, and he shouted, “Are you Judge Frankel?” And Frankel said, “Yes.” And he said, “I’m here to rescue you.”
At that point I did call Moi, he wasn’t there but I talked to his personal assistant, and I said, “You have Judge Marvin Frankel detained at the Nyayo House. He’s a distinguished American jurist. This is a scandal. You release him immediately. He also has a serious heart condition, and if you don’t let him out of there immediately, he could die.” That was a lie but that sometimes gets to them. He was released in 15 minutes. We took him straight to the airport, and put him on the next plane. He said, “I want to get out of this country. I don’t ever want to see it again.” Of course, that was marvelous publicity for Kenya. It was idiotic.
Moi claimed that he knew nothing about it, that this was the work of this security fellow. And that when he found out about it, he was horrified, and he’d released him immediately. I had no basis for contradicting him except to point out that there was a climate that existed in Nairobi.