- McKenzie was not your ordinary soul. He was an astute wheeler-dealer, politician, spy and 'Mr Fix It'. He had enemies, too. Terrible, uncanny and ruthless, just like him.
- After his retirement from the Cabinet, McKenzie had secured the Volkswagen dealership in East Africa with Charles Njonjo.
It is 41 years this weekend since the death of Bruce McKenzie after his twin-engine Piper Aztec 23 plane exploded over Ngong Hills, a few minutes after 6pm on May 25, 1978 as he flew back from a meeting with President Idi Amin of Uganda.
It was an assassination, nay, murder at sunset.
For starters, McKenzie was the only colonial-era Cabinet minister retained by President Jomo Kenyatta after independence, and he was until 1969 Kenya’s minister for Agriculture – while also helping many of his fellow Cabinet ministers enter into business and, like him, become millionaires.
McKenzie was not your ordinary soul. He was an astute wheeler-dealer, politician, spy and 'Mr Fix It'. He had enemies, too. Terrible, uncanny and ruthless, just like him.
The identity of who planted the time bomb that killed McKenzie has always been speculated.
For his part, President Amin tried to distance himself from plotting the death of McKenzie to retaliate the humiliation he faced after the Entebbe raid by Israeli soldiers on July 4, 1976 – as they rescued 103 passengers taken hostage when a French airliner was hijacked en route from Israel to France.
As to the suspected agent, one name keeps recurring: that of British-born Bob Astles, regarded as Idi Amin’s political adviser but who regarded himself as “odd-job man”.
He also told those who cared to listen that he was head of anti-corruption squad.
In Amin’s Uganda, odd jobs had no definition and ‘Mr Bob’ – as the man was known in Kampala - was left to interpret his job description.
He did it with gusto and those who crossed his path faced the wrath of Uganda’s State Research Bureau – a notorious spy network that operated from a three-storey building with an odd name: State Research Centre and headed by Major Farouk Minowa.
The moustached Bob Astles was the brains behind this “research centre” which he had helped set up in 1973, and its only equivalent, in terms of notoriety, was the infamous Makindye Military Police Barracks.
Astles had known McKenzie for years and his Cooper Motors Corporation had supplied the Land Rovers used by the Research Bureau; in effect, McKenzie was also a supplier to Amin’s murderous gangs.
After his retirement from the Cabinet, McKenzie had secured the Volkswagen dealership in East Africa with Charles Njonjo and was the middleman on purchase of Vickers tank by Kenya in 1976.
With this prowess, Amin, or rather Astles, had turned to McKenzie to deliver radio equipment to the secret police from UK’s Pye Telecommunication through its Kenyan distributor Wilken Telecommunications Limited.
This company was owned by McKenzie and Keith Savage and supplied Amin with VHF-FM radio telephone systems and Land Rovers ostensibly designed to “detect television licence dodgers”.
In 1976, another British company, Contact Radio and Telephone, had built a bullet-proof broadcasting station for Amin which could be used in times of war and emergency.
It was a booming business, and it is now known that both McKenzie and Savage made several trips on weekly basis to Uganda and held lengthy talks with Amin.
Whether this closeness to Amin scared Astles is not clear.
It is interesting that one of the passengers aboard the ill-fated flight was Gavin Whitelaw, a representative of Vickers – a British company that built battle tanks for export.
This led to speculation that McKenzie’s trip was possibly to secure an arms sales deal.
But McKenzie was a double-dealer, too. He is said to have persuaded Jomo Kenyatta to allow the Mossad to gather intelligence from Nairobi and to permit the Israeli Air force access to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, shortly after the Entebbe raid.
Whether this was known to operatives within Amin’s circle of political buffoons is not clear, although it is now well-documented in secret papers and through first hand testaments.
But in a message to Amin, after the death of McKenzie, his widow rejected the notion that the Ugandan dictator had been personally aware of the plan to kill Bruce.
“I feel that I can let you know that I, being his widow, utterly reject such irresponsible statements,” she wrote.
The McKenzie family did not want to antagonise Amin in order to protect their business fortunes.
It is now known that Astles called Nairobi asking whether the aircraft reached safely.
It is this call which led to speculation that Astles, and by extension Amin, was involved in the assassination.
“Some observers believe that McKenzie had been muscling in a ‘territory’ Astles considered his own,” said an US Cable quoting officials familiar with the matter.
So close was Amin to Astles that he had appointed his Ugandan wife, Mary Senkatoka, as a Cabinet minister.
But he was wary of any other foreigner who could get close to Amin. On top of his hit-list was McKenzie and Keith Savage who were business allies of Kenya’s attorney general, Charles Njonjo.
In Uganda, Astles had few friends and expatriates and diplomats nickname him “the white rat” after he masterminded the kneeling of expatriates before Amin.
Amin was also carried into an Organisation of African Unity conference in Kampala on a chair by four expatriates.
It is claimed that after ‘Operation Thunderbolt’, Astles convinced Amin that these Kenyan-based businessmen were Mossad operatives (which could have been true).
It was after a meeting in Njonjo’s Muthaiga house that Kenya allowed Israeli fighter jets to land and refuel at JKIA.
British military historian and broadcaster Saul David, in his new book Operation Thunderbolt, says that Kenya’s involvement had to be kept top secret.
He claims that the country – without the knowledge of President Kenyatta - had provided a base for Mossad agents to gather intelligence on the Entebbe old terminal prior to the operation.
What we know is that Mossad director Yitzhak Khofi contacted Mackenzie who consulted with then-Home Affairs Undersecretary Nicholas Biwott, and they organised for a Mossad operative Shalomo Gal to charter the plane that photographed Entebbe augmenting intelligence.
Michael Harari, another Mossad senior agent, also travelled to Uganda by disguising himself as an Italian businessman to gather more intelligence.
For that, and in McKenzie’s honour, former Mossad head Meir Amit had a forest planted in Galilee.
Amit is credited for helping Israel in forging ties with various African countries by preferring diplomatic pressure – secret or overt - to assassination.
He once wrote: "In intelligence, people are more important than rifles."
Later on, Astles revealed that he knew of the plot to kill McKenzie but said that he had nothing to do with it.
He would also claim that he, too, was a victim of Amin’s murderous gangs and that he had twice been targeted.
In the Kenya political circles, McKenzie was a friend to not only Njonjo but also health Minister James Osogo, Water Development’s Dr Gikonyo Kiano and later on Vice President Daniela arap Moi and Finance minister Mwai Kibaki, who later purchased McKenzie’s Gingalili Farm near Solai, Nakuru.
Some pundits still say that McKenzie was at the wrong place – with the wrong person, Keith Savage who had survived another assassination attempt a few weeks earlier in Nairobi.
According to American intelligence briefing, he had made a “great number of enemies here over the years due to allegedly heavy-handed and dirty business tactics”.
For his part, the US intelligence described McKenzie as a “consummate promoter” who had his fingers “in a wide assortment of desks in which many government topsiders cooperated and from which they profited… these deals more than anything else have kept the Moi/Njonjo group together”.
The death of McKenzie was an indicator of how deadly the region was in terms of business, wheeler-dealing and regional trade.
The players in this game were at the top echelons of government and touched on geopolitics.
But whether the “white Rat” was involved, and why, has never been known.