Moi’s demise should goad Kenyans to reflect on economic and political past — and future

Saturday February 08 2020

Kenya’s former President Daniel arap Moi died on February 4,2020 in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG


In many commentaries after Robert Mugabe’s death, there was little gloating over his demise. Instead, there was a sad sense that Mugabe had ended up being just another African despot.

The commentators rued the lost opportunity to not only be great but also make Zimbabwe an example that would inspire Africa out of political and financial decay.

Mugabe’s demise, therefore, was not an occasion to rejoice over the passing of a former tormentor. Rather, it was an opportunity to reflect on the missed historical opportunity.
At the passing of Kenya’s former President Daniel arap Moi, commentators, too, will rue the lost opportunity to lift Kenya out of the political and economic mess it had sunk to by the time he took power in 1978. Kenya under Jomo Kenyatta had morphed into just another corrupt and deeply tribal African country.

Kenyatta had failed to grasp the almost impossible task of creating a nation-state from a multitude of ethnic nationalities. He also failed to understand what Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore so well knew—that freedom was only the beginning of another more arduous journey.

No one captures the gravity of the historical task that comes with freedom better than Nelson Mandela. In Long Walk to Freedom, he writes: “I have walked that long road to freedom...but I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”
After independence, a process which Kenyan political scientist, the late Ali Mazrui, calls the “deification of political authority” began. Jomo Kenyatta was likened to the biblical Moses. Schools and streets were named after him. His face was on the currency and on the walls of every government and private office.

Those who protested the diversion of national purpose to the building of a cult of personality were jailed, tortured or eliminated. Secret police lurked everywhere, waiting to pounce on those suspected of harbouring independent thought.


Kenyatta was surrounded by a powerful clique later called the “Kiambu Mafia” who were a law unto themselves. Fear reigned and the nation sank into despair.
It was in this context that Daniel Moi assumed power. His ascendancy to the presidency effectively brought the nefarious ambitions of the “Kiambu Mafia” to a screeching halt. It does not take much imagination to figure out what would have become of Kenya had this group taken power. The group’s character had a lot in common with fascist praxis and ideology.
Would Moi restore democracy and rescue the country from a cult of personality and reorient it towards the goals of the national struggle for independence? Like Kenyatta before him, Moi failed to understand the Herculean task history had placed on him.
Within no time, Moi began to build his own cult of personality. His face appeared on the currency. Roads and schools were named after him. Like Kenyatta, he created a national day to celebrate his person.
The “Kiambu Mafia” was replaced by a “Rift Valley Mafia” who, like their Kikuyu counterparts, were a law unto themselves. Specially-built torture chambers were constructed in Nyayo House to add to the existing ones in Nyati House.

Voting by secret ballot was abolished. Secretive night-time trials were held for those who did not “sing like a parrot”. Sycophancy became the only legitimate form of political expression.

Epic corruption suffocated the economic life of the country, trapping millions in poverty. Development experts refer to the 80s in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa as the “Lost Decade”.
This week, however, what you will hear is historical revisionism taken to a reckless extreme. In his official statement on Moi’s passing, Deputy President William Ruto claimed that Moi led the reforms that restored democracy to Kenya! That claim is a mockery of those who endured jail, torture and death in order to restore democracy.

We will be told that his philosophy of “Peace, Love and Unity” turned Kenya into a paradise. A paradise from which thousands fled? We will be reminded of his projects that brought great benefits, even when economic data from that period indicate a comatose economy.
We will be told that he abhorred tribalism even when his regime, just like his predecessor’s, was thoroughly tribal. We will be told he hated corruption, even when it is a fact that the most crippling corruption was hatched and executed during his reign.

In reality, Daniel arap Moi is another chapter in Africa’s history of repression and failure, adding to those of Mugabe, Kenyatta, Nkrumah, Tragic!

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator