At the pinnacle of his rule, former Kenyan President Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi was an intriguing figure whose deft political manoeuvres often left both friend and foe in awe. That checkered legacy was apparent in the mixed reviews that followed his death on February 4, at 95 years.
The circumstances of his rise to power and the tumultuous internal and regional fissures, conflict and economic collapse across most of Africa, would ultimately determine the kind of leader he would turn out to be.
After emerging victor in a treacherous contest to succeed Kenya’s founding President Jomo Kenyatta, who died in late 1978, Moi presided over simmering tensions that threatened the basic fabric of the country’s social cohesion.
Coming from what was then considered a minority ethnic group, his choices for personal, and even Kenya’s continued survival as a united entity were limited.
The economic and institutional collapse elsewhere that made Kenya an island of stability and economic progress, gave licence to rule with an iron hand that turned him into a ruthless tyrant that brooked no dissent.
Moi plunged the country into a self-reinforcing spiral of repression that left behind countless victims and earned him many enemies. In that, he was no different from his African peers such as Idi Amin of Uganda and Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko.
Moi’s redeeming feature was that he managed to keep the country on a capitalist footing and presided over a reasonably functional economy. That was a rare posture in a mostly leftist Africa at the time, leaving Kenya as the pedestal for foreign capital into the continent.
He also kept the door open to Ugandan intelligentsia who were fleeing repression, gifting Kenya with a pool of cheap skills.
But his rigid political views and unrestrained cronyism, saw everything begin to unravel rapidly, as the world realigned following the collapse of communism in 1989. The Kenyan economy plunged into a downward spiral and moral avarice from which the country is yet to fully recover even today.
Yet Moi was able to redeem himself as the peacemaker, allowing multiparty democracy in Kenya in 1992 and presiding over the protracted negotiations that in 2005 yielded the accord that set the stage for the peaceful separation of the two Sudans.
Although it was ultimately abortive, Moi cannot be accused of doing nothing to moderate the warring parties at the peak of the five-year bush war that brought Yoweri Museveni to power in neighbouring Uganda.
Having been part of the generation that scuppered the original East African Community, Moi would play a pivotal role in the revival of regional co-operation, even paying reparation for the losses Uganda and Tanzania suffered from the unmitigated break-up in 1977. Those actions somewhat dulled the bitter aftertaste and allowed the region to embark on a new path of integration.
A reluctant democrat, he resisted the temptation to cling to power when the bell tolled for him at the end of his constitutional term limits. That single act earned him the redemption that allowed him to enjoy a mostly peaceful retirement from politics.
Moi had his failings, but his legacy will be remembered for a very long time.