Daniel arap Moi, Kenya’s second president who ruled for 24 years under an authoritarian one-party system, died at the age of 95 in Nairobi, Kenya, on February 4, 2020. President Uhuru Kenyatta made the announcement from Nairobi Hospital, without going into specifics about the nature of his passing. He ordered a period of national mourning and accorded him a state funeral with full civil and military honors.
Moi’s legacy in Kenya and across Africa remains contested. For some he was a strongman who bent the Kenyan state to the will of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) ruling party and to his personality. Media freedoms were harshly suppressed, political opponents were regularly jailed and tortured, and billions of dollars were siphoned out of the country into offshore accounts or used to buy influence and loyalty among his cronies. Power concentration was instrumentalized through the National Assembly, which formalized Kenya’s de-facto one-party governance with a constitutional amendment that made KANU the only legally permitted political party. Others recall his pledge to follow in the nyayo (Swahili for footsteps) of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first post-colonial president. Upon his inauguration, Moi traveled ceaselessly throughout Kenya, attending prearranged and impromptu meetings while extolling the nyayo principles of “love, peace and unity”. The release of 26 political prisoners across various ethnic backgrounds, anti-corruption efforts that resulted in the resignation of several officials, and his relative outsider status given his heritage as part of the marginal ethnic Kalenji people all helped portray the image of a man who would be able to make Kenya into a more accountable and democratic state. Kenyans who
were in school during the 1990s fondly remember drinking free “nyayo milk” that was part of Moi’s initiative to alleviate child hunger in public schools.
The rise of the man born as Toroitich arap Moi in the Rift Valley village of Kuriengwo in 1924 to the presidency was distinct from most other African heads of state who took power during the first decade of independence. He did not receive an education from abroad, nor did he gain influence by rising through military ranks. At age ten, Moi began attending the Africa Inland Mission, which molded him into a staunch evangelical Christian and lifelong devotee of the church. It is here that he christened himself with
the name Daniel. Once matriculated, he went on to a teacher training college, which seemed to have reinforced his preference for the discipline and order that would characterize his time as president decades later. As a teacher and later head teacher, Moi developed a reputation among colonial officials as a studious and sober worker, someone who would be an ideal “moderate” African president. British officials selected him to attend a special civics course in 1953, at a time when anti-colonial sentiment against colonial rule was at its peak, culminating in the decade-long Mau Mau Uprising, which cost thousands of Kenyan lives.
In 1955, Moi formally entered politics through his election as member of the Legislative Council for the Rift Valley. He was in attendance for the Lancaster House Conferences, a series of meetings from 1960 to 1963 in which Kenya’s new constitution was drafted. In 1960, he founded the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) as a primary challenger to Kenyatta’s KANU. Despite this challenge, Moi displayed an acute political intuition by befriending Kenyatta and acquiescing to his proposal to dissolve KADU and
merge with KANU. Moi would be handsomely rewarded for this compromise when he served as minister of home affairs from 1963 to 1967 and then as vice-president from 1968 until Kenyatta’s death in 1978. Under the Kenyan Constitution, Moi became acting president, with elections required to take place within ninety days. Immediately, he faced challenges from within KANU, specifically among the ethnic Kikuyu elite that made up the “Kiambu Mafia”, a close-knit shadow cabinet that held deep ties to Kenyatta, also a Kikuyu. The Kiambu Mafia preferred one of their own to succeed Kenyatta, as Moi hailed from the minority Kalenjin
tribe. Their efforts failed and Moi assumed the presidency later that year on November 8, running unopposed.
The watershed moment for the Moi administration came four years later, on August 1, 1982. Hezekiah Ochuka, a low-level officer in the Kenya Air Force, with the backing of university students, initiated a coup d’état against Moi. The effort was quickly crushed, but the resulting chaos opened a path for Moi to consolidate his power further. He ordered the arrest of 2,100 members of the Air Force and imprisoned hundreds more. Through a lengthy judicial inquiry, Moi labeled these Kenyatta holdovers as traitors, which allowed him to disentangle himself from the political machine he inherited from Kenyatta and further bend the government to fit his persona. Political repression only grew more widespread in the aftermath. Academics were monitored and suppressed, the police and secret service were used to assault dissidents and to infiltrate movements critical of the regime, and the courts were controlled by the party, counteracting any attempt at democratic reform. Arbitrary arrests and torture became more commonplace, an extension of Moi’s obsession to maintain control and swiftly crush any perceived opposition to his rule. Human rights and pro-democracy advocates were seen by Moi as agents of “foreign masters” who failed to see the necessity of him remaining as Kenya’s strongman in order to maintain stability.
As the 1980s progressed, Moi found himself becoming more and more isolated. With the Cold War winding down, Western governments were less keen to overlook Moi’s oppressive rule when his country no longer served as a counterbalance to the communist regimes that once ruled in neighboring Ethiopia and Somalia. The flow of foreign aid that helped keep the Kenyan economy afloat began to dry up while
entrenched corruption continued to sap revenue out of the state’s coffers. With the arrival of the 1990s, Moi’s grip started to loosen. He introduced multi-party elections in 1992 and 1997, but internal division among the opposition and widespread violence during the campaign season and the vote proper granted him victory both times. The degree of violence suffered by Kenyans during the post-electoral violence of
the 1990s was part of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission of Kenya’s final report, issued in 2013. Ethnic violence frequently broke out in the Rift Valley before, during, and after each election, usually between Kalenjin, who were largely supportive of KANU, and other ethnic groups assumed to be supportive of opposition parties.
Moi’s handling of the AIDS epidemic during this same period also sullied his image. His evangelical upbringing and alliance with conservative social elements in Kenyan society precluded him from recognizing the AIDS plight as a legitimate concern. There was also a fear that publicly acknowledging AIDS in Kenya would damage the country’s tourism sector, which was a vital contributor to the GDP. A national awareness and prevention campaign was ultimately instituted, though only after the international community threatened to cut off all foreign aid unless steps were taken against the virus.
The one area in which Moi can be generally praised by all observers is his efforts to promote peace and human rights on an international level. While he severely curtailed the freedoms of his compatriots, Moi displayed an ardent commitment to encourage democracy and human rights beyond Kenya’s borders, which first began in 1979 with Kenya’s participation in the Commonwealth Monitoring Force Zimbabwe (CMFZ). The CMFZ was tasked with overseeing Zimbabwe’s transition from a colony to an independent republic along with an open and accountable electoral process.
Kenya under Moi sent troops, advisors, and police to the African Union’s peacekeeping missions in Chad in 1982 and 1983, and to more than 20 United Nations peacekeeping operations in Africa, Asia, and Europe from 1988 to 1998, making it one of the largest African contributors during this period. Moi also exerted great effort to resolve conflicts in Angola, Liberia, and Mozambique and to support post-war reconstruction efforts through the UN. Kenya also became a signatory to several international human rights treaties during Moi’s reign, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
All told, Moi’s death marks the end of an era that defined a significant portion of Kenya’s post-independence history. Though his tenure during the 1980s was marked by civil oppression and hostility to democratic reforms, supporters note that it was a relatively stable period in Kenyan history. Opening up elections to other parties during the 1990s was an essential step in bringing Kenya closer to embodying a democracy in more than name only. It also paved the way for a peaceful transfer of power in 2002, when then vice president Mwai Kibaki won the election. Considering the not insignificant number of African nations that descended into political chaos or outright violence during the same period when an incumbent president refused to step down or ignored the results of an election, this was a commendable achievement for Kenya, and a legacy for man who valued peace and order at home and abroad.
Ian Wendrow is staff writer at the New Africa Daily