Nairobi's Diplomatic Blunders: Day Arrest of International Leader Went South

  • A collage of Kurdish political prisoner Abdullah Öcalan (left image centre) and Biafra Leader Nnamdi Kanu (left). The two activists were arrested in Kenya in different times but in circumstances that led to a diplomatic crisis
    A collage of Kurdish political prisoner Abdullah Öcalan (left image centre) and Biafra Leader Nnamdi Kanu (left). The two activists were arrested in Kenya in different times but in circumstances that led to a diplomatic crisis
  • Over the last week, Kenya has dominated international headlines over its controversial role in the arrest of Nigerian activist Nnamdi Okwu Kanu. 

    Kanu was wanted by Nigerian authorities for leading an outlawed group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) which calls for the creation of an independent Biafra state in Southern Nigeria.

    While in exile, he established a home in Nairobi's Kileleshwa estate where he lived until Kenyan authorities allegedly arrested him and handed him to the Nigerian government in unclear circumstances that have seen the British government demand answers - since the Biafra leader was also a British citizen. 

    The incident offers an interesting reflection on instances where Kenya has landed itself in a diplomatic crisis for taking sides in disputes between foreign governments and the so-called fugitives. 

    Nnamdi Kanu Before He was Allegedly Arrested In Kenya
    Nnamdi Kanu Before He was Allegedly Arrested In Kenya

    Arrest of Kurdish Leader

    On February 16, 1999, most Kenyans woke up to their daily retinue of chores, jobs to rush to - and a whole lot smarting from Valentine's Day heartbreaks two days before.

    Well, a lot happened. A number of Kenya's foreign missions abroad had to deal with a violent clique of Kurdish protestors, a crowd so angry that our national flag was desecrated and burnt. The riots weren't exclusive to Kenyan embassies - Greek consulates and embassies across Europe.

    An attempt was made to storm the Israeli embassy in Berlin. This was a recoil to a high profile capture the previous day of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan.

    Who Was Abdullah Ocalan?

    Ocalan’s (pronounced "Ochalan") dramatic kidnap and subsequent capture in Nairobi could well make a thrilling global blockbuster movie.

    Ocalan was born in 1948, and at the time of capture, he was the leader of Kurdistan Workers (PKK) - a local equivalent would be the Francis Atwoli-led Workers Union. In addition to agitating for lower-tier worker's welfare laws, PKK had a left-wing Kurdish militant wing seen as the liberator of Kurds in their quest for sovereignty from Turkey.

    Western intelligence agencies, however, saw him as a leader of a terrorist movement.

    Prior to the Nairobi fiasco, Ocalan had spent months in Syria, waging guerilla attacks against Turkey. That's the country that later sentenced him to death - but luckily for him - commuted it to life in prison after another wave of global protests.

    How Did This Happen?

    On 29th January 1999, Abdullah Ocalan secretly travelled to Greece.

    Greece had an image to protect, no desire to be termed sympathetic fugitive wanted in many foreign countries. They hatched a plan to spirit him to South Africa, with a short spell in Kenya as they negotiated asylum.

    To this end, Greece assigned him an escort - a lanky intelligence officer from the Greece National Intelligence Agency (EYP).

    Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan.

    On 2nd February, a Falcon jet (Greek registered) carrying the Ocalan group landed in Nairobi. The day before, a senior aide to Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos had sent a coded message to the secretary of the Greek embassy in Nairobi that a 'special package' was enroute.

    Ocalan had a falsified identity, his passport under the name of a prominent Cypriot journalist and alleged PKK sympathizer, Lazaros Mavros. That, perhaps, wasn't a good decision.

    On touchdown, the group was later taken to the Greek Ambassador Georgios Costoulas's residence in Nairobi. At this point, Ocalan's escorting EYP intelligence officer filled him in on the South Africa itinerary.

    Right on the touchdown, the Greek Ambassador in Nairobi received concise instructions from Athens: All communication about Ocalan’s movements, would from then henceforth, happen only by telephone.

    Meanwhile, hawk-eyed Kenyan detectives picked up the Falcon jets radar - and especially about the identity of the mysterious passenger.

    On 4th February 1999, two things happened: Ambassador Georgios was summoned by Kenya’s foreign ministry, and, an official from the US Embassy in Nairobi made a formal application to meet with the Greek ambassador.

    That wasn't usually the case. Diplomats had a rotating cocktail feature that had them on a call-basis relationship. A formal application was unseen before.

    On 5th February, Ocalan's escort, the EYP officer, got to JKIA to catch a flight to South Africa, but he was detained for questioning by Kenyan detectives. He missed the flight. 

    In the subsequent days, Kenya intensified its questions to an increasingly nervous Greek ambassador, who made frantic calls to increasingly ambiguous Athens, seeking guidance. Athens was inconsistent, unhelpful.

    Someone at the embassy suggested Ocalan should be transferred to the UN in Nairobi, from where he would seek asylum. Ocalan furiously declined and proceeded to write a letter seeking asylum from Greece.

    To add salt to Ocalan's diplomatic injury, the women accompanying the Kurdish leader turned hysterical, threatening to set themselves ablaze within the compound of the Greek ambassador's residence. The attached diplomats were in a major panic.

    Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan.

    The Standoff Continued.

    Back in Athens, the Head of EYP, aware that more western spy agencies were monitoring the situation, begged the foreign ministry to kick out Ocalan from the ambassadorial premises. But a senior official at the foreign affairs ministry in Athens turned down the suggestion. 

    On Saturday, 13th February, Ocalan's plan to ship his Greek lawyer bore fruit. He landed in Nairobi.

    On the same day, Greece decided to send four members of its spy agency to Nairobi. Their brief?  Act by force, if necessary - book Ocalan in a hotel, give him some money, and - vanish. All communication he had with the embassy would also be terminated immediately.  But, alas, Kenya had other interesting ideas.

    On Monday, 15th February, Ambassador Georgios was again summoned to Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Officials informed him that Kenya was aware that a "terrorist", Ocalan, was being “accommodated” by Greece. They proceeded to declare it 'unacceptable'.

    As a way out, Kenya offered to avail a private jet that Ocalan could use to fly to a country of his choosing, with certain conditions - he had a two-hour window within which to leave for the airport. 

    Greece accepted the offer, and Pangalos agreed to remove Ocalan within the two-hour window. Nairobi, however, declined Athens' request to avail Ocalan’s flight path details.

    The Kenyan government also insisted on using their vehicles, as opposed to an embassy car. It had to be a government car.

    Ocalan boarded a Kenyan government car - with his aides and Greek embassy officials trailing them in another. Nairobi streets are a maze for foreigners - within no time, Kenyan detectives riding with Ocalan shook off the embassy tail - and made a dash for the airport.

    At the airport, Ocalan wheezed through customs like a visiting head of state to a waiting plane. The horror of horrors, Turkish Special Forces were waiting on boardThey seized him, took a couple of propaganda photos and blindfolded him. 

    News of Ocalan's capture leaked out to a great outrage by Kurds across various capitals of the world. Kenya was non-committal about it, but the incident saw relations between Kenya and Greece sinking to the lowest levels.

    Greece, however, was glad that another country got the blame for Ocalan's capture. The fiasco also called for diplomatic laundry, a pleasant term for 'sackings'. Greece fired, or forced resignations - Greek foreign minister, intelligence chiefs, et al.

    Kenya's long-serving immigration chief Frank Kwinga was nailed - to pay for allowing in Ocalan with a fake passport.

    Unverified sources claim Ocalan’s capture was a joint clandestine operation by Kenya’s intelligence, the CIA and Mossad. It was a fragile time, considering that the US Embassy bomb blasts in Nairobi had happened only a few months earlier.

    The Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), Nairobi
    bomb death terrorist arrest