Kenya: Moi's Mistakes Were Largely Tied to Survival

13 February 2020

An oft-repeated statement of President Daniel arap Moi's at the height of his rule was that Kenya was an island of peace in a sea of turmoil.

And while he was taunted by his opponents for the arm-twisting tactics with which he achieved the peace, the phrase rang true for much of the near quarter century the six-foot-tall man from the Tugen Hills bestrode the land like a colossus.

Moi reigned at a time when the African continent was littered with despots and riven with war.

From Uganda to the Atlantic Sea in the West and from Sudan and Ethiopia to the Mediterranean Sea in the North, the notoriety of some of the dictators bordered on the beastly and the macabre.

From the cannibal Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic to Sani Abacha, the butcher of Abuja, and the bloodthirsty Idi Amin of Uganda, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi, Africa had them all.


Historian Charles Hornsby has described the early days of the Moi presidency as a period full of hope with Kenyans priding themselves as the first country in black Africa to transfer power peacefully and constitutionally.

To crown this feeling, Moi released all of Kenyatta's political detainees, including George Anyona, Martin Shikuku, Jean Marie Seroney, Koigi Wamwere and Ngugi wa Thiong'o to much acclaim.

But the genial servant-leader soon turned into a strongman, a process that took four years, culminating in the aftermath of the 1982 attempted coup, in what historians have described as an act of survival as he sought to weaken his most vicious opponents and secure his position.

After the coup, Moi's paranoia, coupled with the influence of a cabal of hardline advisers, set Kenya on a repressive path, damaging the economy and hurting its standing abroad.

"From a minority community with little education or international exposure, a poor public speaker, lacking the legitimacy that leading the country to independence had brought Kenyatta and without the economic opportunities that had permitted Kenyatta to rule over a period of prosperity, he faced daunting obstacles," argues Hornsby, who wrote Kenya: A History Since Independence, published in 2013 to mark Kenya's 50 years of self-rule.


Moi came to power just after the coffee and tea boom of 1976/77 and found himself isolated and the country's economy in a slump.

The second oil crisis in 1981 only deepened the country's economic woes. And he had little to lean on.

"Unlike Kenyatta, he did not have a coterie of educated, able, experienced and trusted tribesmen around him. There were still virtually no Kalenjin parastatal executives, businessmen or even senior politicians at the time. Indeed, there were few Kalenjin in Nairobi (apart from his assistant Nicholas Biwott) on whom he could rely," writes Hornsby.

To understand Moi is to appreciate the history of Kenya, as the story of the nation is intertwined with that of the man who, by the time he left power, was the longest-sitting MP (1955-2002), longest-standing Vice-President (1967-78), and longest-ruling President (1978-2002).

This longevity made him a central figure in the transformation of the Kenyan state from the colonial period through the prosperous early independence years to its trudge into the modern era.


Prof Odhiambo Ndege, another historian, reckons that Moi's ascension to the presidency in 1978 after he had been VP since 1967 offered Kenya the economic and political continuity the nascent state needed.

"That continuity was good for Kenya. Discontinuous leadership can be destabilising," says Prof Ndege, who teaches at Moi University. He describes Moi as a routine President who was hesitant to interfere with institutions except when he made Kenya a one-party state by law after Kenyatta made it so in fact, and when he arm-twisted judges to nail his enemies.

"More than Kenyatta, Moi respected institutions. I was old enough during Kenyatta's time and whenever there was a crisis he would simply order "funga hiyo kitu" (close down that thing), which often meant Parliament. He also had no qualms ordering members of the Executive to arrest MPs in Parliament," says Prof Ndege.

But Moi's was a party state. He drafted Kanu into the Executive, so much so that at its height, the party was more powerful than the Judiciary and Parliament. US ambassador Smith Hempstone, who was a thorn in Moi's side, went further, calling his regime a "one-man state".


While Moi flaunted Kenya's peace credentials, he didn't rule in peace.

Dismissed as a passing cloud, his source of constant pain was a section of the powerful Kikuyu elite that fought him incessantly, having never come to terms with the fact that power had shifted from Gatundu to the remote Rift Valley.

But even as he fought for his survival at home, he juggled regional and international affairs and throughout his rein Kenya retained its premier position as the "anchor state" for Western powers in East Africa and the Horn, a pedestal it shares with Nigeria and South Africa in their respective regions.

Moi was more assertive internationally than the frail and inward-looking Kenyatta, travelling frequently to cultivate relations with the US, the UK and China.

For his efforts, Kenya was the highest recipient of US aid in sub-Saharan Africa and the UK's second even during the heady days of multiparty agitation.

And while the economy was sluggish for most of the period, Kenya maintained its position as the economic powerhouse of the region, eclipsing Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia throughout his long reign.


As chairman of the Organisation of African Unity (now African Union) between 1981 and 1983, Moi was active, trying to resolve a myriad squabbles on the continent, bolstering Kenya's stature as the big boy of the region.

With this profile, he protected Kenya's sovereignty firmly, warding off Uganda's and Tanzania's bullying.

He was also a man conservationists loved. From protecting the endangered elephant and rhino to running one of the largest anti-soil erosion campaigns anywhere, he also initiated tree-planting in many parts of the country, not least his Baringo backyard, though his willingness to hive off forests to buy votes in the 1990s would wipe out these credentials.

The former schoolteacher had a keen interest in education, building more girls' schools than any other leader. He also established the second university in the country, with the number rising to six by the time he left office. He also put up private secondary schools in Baringo, Nakuru and Nairobi.


A key incapacity was his insecurity on account of his education level.

A primary school teacher, he was ill at ease in the company of educated people, opting to ingratiate himself with illiterate old men who helped him rule, largely on instinct and, in retrospect, got it right on most of the important questions of the day.

Of his close confidants, the most famous were the illiterate Mulu Mutisya from Ukambani, the uneducated Kariuki Chotara (Nakuru) and the primary school-educated Ezekiel Barng'etuny (Nandi).

But he also propped up intellectuals whom he used as advisers and fronts, without really trusting them. They included Josphat Karanja, George Saitoti, Philip Mbithi, Sam Ongeri and Jonathan Ng'eno -- all of them professors he plucked from the university.

"On the balance, I would say that he tried despite the odds stacked against him. Unlike Kenyatta, who ruled during a prosperous period, Moi reigned at a tumultuous time globally. Debilitating structural adjustment programmes were introduced to restore the economic order in the Western world and Africans were merely a pawn. But we didn't go down the Zimbabwe way. This is not to say he didn't make mistakes. There were mistakes largely tied to survival," says Prof Ndege.


By 1990, calls for him to level the political playing field had reached a crescendo.

Mocked by Western media and envoys as a relic of the past and a dinosaur clinging to power, he bowed to the pressure to allow multipartism, but would stay on for another 10 years through divide-and-rule tactics.

He would play one of his competitors against another until he handed over power in 2002 to a united opposition that beat his preferred successor, Uhuru Kenyatta.

Critics contend that Moi presided over a looter's paradise, with the magnitude of the heist on his watch rivalling that of the infamous kleptocrats in the mould of Mobutu and Abacha.

But even his diehard detractors will struggle to fit him within the typical stereotype of the grotesque African despot who plundered his country, leaving nothing to hand over to his successor.

In the end, it might still be more attractive, more politically correct, to say that Moi killed Kenya, but 24 years is such a long time to be killing a country and actually not kill it.

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