Former Kenya president Daniel arap Moi (1978–2002) was taken into the Nairobi Hospital a few days ago. His press secretary Lee Njiru, who served in that role to him for all the years he was president, said it was nothing untoward, just a regular medical check.
He pooh poohed claims that Moi had left us, as the Kenyan rumour mill and some loose fingers on social media had claimed.
The rumours were perhaps not surprising. Moi is 95 years, and in recent years has on occasion been unwell, and needed tending and mending.
Last year he went for a medical check-up in Israel, and Njiru had to contend with another round of rumours that he wasn’t returning the way he went.
All said Moi has been a remarkable example of good health. It was widely believed that, like former Zambia president Kenneth Kaunda, who is also 95, Moi lived off boiled maize, yams, and other foods – though Kaunda mostly eats them raw.
Also, that he didn’t eat meat or partake of absinthe, and sustained his soul with prayer. Lee recently said Moi was a voracious meat eater, but was disciplined and had good longevity genes – which run in his family. Whatever the case, when he was in his 80s, he still had an energetic step, and would have outrun many a 25-year-old up the stairs.
Kenyan politicians, it has to be noted, tend to live longer than their regional peers. Charles Njonjo, Kenya’s famously Anglophile and three-piece-striped-suit-wearing former Attorney General, is about to turn 100. Though he’s slowed, he is still very much in there, his bourgeois sensibilities unblunted by the passage of time.
Seeing East Africa today, Moi’s perspective on the region would be a gem. He’s the only East African leader who started office or was in power in the 1970s who’s still around. And in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is just him and Kaunda (1964-1991). Until The Gambia’s former president Sir Dawda Jawara (1970-1994) died recently in August, they were three.
In East Africa two men, since long-retired; Tanzania’s Hassan Mwinyi, and Burundi’s Pierre Buyoya (nicknamed “Gustave” after the ferocious man-eating 900kg crocodile in the northern shores of Lake Tanganyika) were presidents with Moi in the 1980s. Make that three. One man, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, was is in power with Moi in the late 1980s.
For that reason, Museveni is the best qualified person to be Chief Consoler to Moi in his twilight years. He’s the only one who can really talk authoritatively with Moi about Africa in the Cold War era, and explain from experience how things are different today.
So, imagine Museveni visits Moi in Kabarak. Moi is seated on his porch in a sofa, with a Maasai blanket wrapped around him. Museveni reaches out and holds Moi’s cold left hand between his palms and says:
“Remember when [US President] Ronald Reagan made that speech in West Berlin in June 1987, and told [Soviet Union leader] Mikhail Gorbachev to ‘tear this wall down’?
“Who knew the world would change so much in the years to follow”?
Only those two men can have that conversation – if Moi wanted to reminisce on the times with a leader who still has a view of the aftermath of those events from State House.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is the curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]