Defining Moi's Legacy
Retired President Moi threw a lavish birthday party last week to celebrate his 88th birthday. Now in the sunset of his life, it affords an opportunity to look back at his Presidency and the effect of his 24 year rule on Kenya. Conspicuously missing from his invitation list may have been victims of his two decades of autocratic rule that left Kenya yearning for greater democratic space and opened the floodgates for multiparty politics.
At his last public function in 2002, while presiding over the handing over of the Presidency to Kenya's third President, Mwai Kibaki, Kenyans showed their gratitude for his 24 years at the helm by pelting his motorcade with stones.
History can rarely be re-written or the facts re-arranged to make the history maker look good. The facts are written on the wall, which is what makes history the best teaching instrument of tomorrow. When Kenyatta appointed then Vice President Moi to be his VP in 1967, he had fallen out first with two prior appointees.
Firstly was a defiant and radical Oginga Odinga in 1965 who became the first VP to serve and then resign. The public fallout in Limuru during a KANU conference led to the infamous little general elections of 1966 that saw Oginga test his muscle fielding candidates on his own new political party KPU (Kenya Peoples Union).
President Kenyatta allowed a brief three-year of dissent from Odinga before proscribing KPU and placing Odinga under house arrest in 1969 following the Kisumu riots, when rowdy youths gave Kenyatta a unique welcoming reception pelting him with stones as he presided over the opening of a hospital.
The second VP to exit, Joseph Murumbi, who served from May 1965 until December 1966 fell out with Kenyatta on ideological grounds and opted to resign rather continue to serve in an administration that did not endear to his ideals and vision for Kenya. Murumbi, the son of a Masai woman and a Goan trader, had become disillusioned with Kenyatta's iron fist dealing with the opposition within the Government and growing corruption tentacles that were spreading around the regime.
Moi stepped into the shoes as an obedient, peace loving loyal servant of the President serving from 1967 to 1978. Succession politics heated up as Kenyatta's health became an issue and the Kikuyu power barons wanted to keep the Presidency in the house of Mumbi. Kenyatta ignored the change the constitution move muted in 1976. To date he has confounded critics as to why he kept Moi as his VP.
He had many opportunities to pick anybody else but it is possible he stuck with Moi because he never wanted history to judge him as one who perpetuated Kikuyu hegemony and was comfortable keeping a man who represented one of the smallest sub tribes of the Kalenjin and who, Kenyatta believed, had the character and fortitude to hold the nation together.
When Moi took over on August 22nd 1978, following Kenyatta's passing, the country's economy was growing, the coffee industry had just experienced a boom and private sector growth was at an all time high. The country Gross domestic product (GDP) grew at an annual average of 6.6% from 1963 to 1973. When Moi took over in 1978, available figures show GDP slumped and grew sluggishly over a ten-year period. Moi’s ascension was euphoric and for the next three years the country seemed to be on a honeymoon.
During Moi last term, 1997 to 2002, the economic growth oscillated between 1.4% to negative growth by the time he left office. A combination of factors can be attributed: manifestation of corruption in the public sector, poor whether, poor management of resources, abandonment of the agriculture sector which declined and general failure of the nation physical infrastructure which regressed.
In 1980, the Kenya shilling was pegged at sh7.42 to the dollar. When Moi left office in 2002, the shilling had lost enormous ground, hovering at sh78.58 to the dollar, more than a ten-fold loss.
In his heydays, Kenyatta brandished an elderly flywhisk, which complemented his pompous, thundering speeches during national holidays. For whatever reason, Moi chose a weapon to replace the flywhisk, a rungu associated with the Masai who traditionally use it in warfare and for hunting. The stick is known to inflict maximum injury when properly used. It was also a symbol that elicited comedic reaction. American comedian Eddie Murphy once described Moi as a bone carrying head of state.
When Moi took over, he made nationalism a core of his presidency. Soil conservation became a familiar theme and he led Kenyans in an annual tree planting exercise. Kenya, Moi told his audiences, was on the run. There was war on corruption, war on poverty, expansion of free primary education and growth of the diary industry. Everything seemed to be going well until the abortive 1982 attempted coup led by a band of radical Kenya Air force officers.
Ostensibly, a different Moi embarked on re-organizing the country after 1982. Moi the peace loving President of the late 1970s became the dictator of the late 1980s and early 1990s. He clamped down on dissent, ordered the arrest of University lecturers for “teaching sedition” in the universities, made Kenya a de facto one party state, and clamped down on political gatherings.
The cheering Kenyan spirit of optimism in the early Moi years was vaporized and a gloom of darkness and fear enveloped the nation. Moi seemed to exert more effort in oppressing the people’s dreams.
Police adopted a heavy-handed approach in dealing with critics of the Government. University lecturer’s left in droves to teach abroad and by 1990, the level of self migration took on a new dramatic turn as thousands of Kenyans flocked to US, UK and other countries around the world in search of greener pastures.
Moi’s political mantra, fuata nyayo (following footsteps) became a euphemism for you are either with us or a dissident.
Moi filled the police, military and the public sectors with members of his tribe. He appointed a historian to run Kenya’s biggest bank at that time. He build amazing roads in far-flung regions of rift valley where was little economy activity. Cows littered the new highways, sleeping on them as roads in agro-based regions of south Nyanza, central and Eastern provinces collapsed. Mediocrity thrived.
Moi’s new political courtyard created an ensemble cast of interesting players; the likes of Kariuki Chotara and Mulu Mutisya who spent their time rhapsodizing Moi.
Moi argued that conducting feasibility studies for economic development was a waste of time and promptly set new standards for roadside declarations for new districts, hospitals, roads and even the appointment of a Vice President.
Conversely, the economy stagnated and spiraled into a syrup of failure. Exports shrunk, the shilling weakened and inflation grew exponentially. Corruption became emblematic of Government functionaries. Kenyans knew of only one political party, KANU. It was their father and mother and they resented it. By 1990, tired and suffocating Kenyans grew despondent and disillusioned with the direction the country was going.
The country, once a bastion of economic prosperity in Africa, under Moi became a pariah nation whose reputation for brutalizing the opposition was being whispered in the corridors of power in western capitals.
The agitation for multiparty politics grew by leaps and bounds and flashing the two-finger salute – the signal for more than one party - became an anathema. Moi’s algorithm for demands for greater democratic space was to unleash the special branch and general police with guns, batons, tear and gas to give the opposition hell.
Moi called the concept of multiparty politics alien and stubbornly maintained it would breed tribalism. In any case, he argued, Kenyans were not cohesive enough to embrace the same. With a sputtering economy, growing unemployment, increasing crime and Kenyans going abroad by the thousands, Moi conceded to pressure from inside Kenya, a rogue ambassador and from powerful western Governments for multiparty politics. Kenyans had become cohesive overnight.
Looking back, Moi presided over a period that saw the expansion of ethnic politics, which he had ironically argued against. The Kalenjin warriors became a factor of elections since 1992 under his watch, turning Rift Valley into a vortex of violence. The same period saw the emergence mungiki, taliban and other amorphous groups take a foothold.
But his greatest victims may not even be the thousands who camped in maela and many church compounds escaping the violence instigated and managed by state forces in an attempt to redraw the electoral maps in Rift valley to Kanu's advantage; his most bitter critics may be the hundreds who were tortured and jailed in kangaroo courts for being perceived critics of his administration.
And Nyayo house, ironically a testament to his clarion call to follow in Kenyatta's footsteps, carries the scars of Moi's autocracy with the tortures cells in the buildings basement. From Wahome Mutahi, Goerge Anyona, Raila Odinga and Miguna Miguna, the list of victims reads like a who is who in Kenya. The victims were beaten with pipes, placed in water filled cells and severely beaten by special branch officers for their advocacy work.
The most painful emblem of Moi’s excess is watching an apoplectic Kenneth Matiba, the former vibrant football boss and Permanent secretary detained after the saba saba riots of July 1991 struggling to piece together a sentence. His voice quavers and he speaks in excruciating pain, his words barely coherent.
Here is a once life loving mountain climber, a brilliant administrator who became a successful hotelier now trapped in a body that brings him enormous pain. It is the after effects of a stroke suffered while in detention under Moi’s orders. When you see the thread of pain on Matiba’s face, you realize how far Moi was willing to go to fight pluralism and by extension democratic space.
Looking back, Moi may have decided that staying in power was more important than allowing democracy to flourish, and the attempted coup may have exposed him as too vulnerable a leader. Turning to dictatorship tendencies may have been a way to secure his position and keep different competing ethnic and economic groups at bay and in line. But all this came at a heavy price.
After 24 years, Moi left state house with little to show in terms of either development or national cohesion. He took over when the economy was booming and left the country at negative growth. Tribalism grew faster than the rate of inflation. When you look at the state of the economy, growing infrastructure today and the growth in property market under Kibaki’s tenure, its not hard to imagine what Kenya would be like if Kibaki had 24 years of uninterrupted rule to exact his ideas.
On a recent visit, a Kenyan businessman told me he was happy that Moi is alive to see the work that Kibaki has accomplished in less than 10 years, "so that Moi can learn what governing a country properly entails". Does it bother him when he drives down Thika road, sees the various development projects? Recognizes farmers earning a decent living and sees young men setting up businesses? Does Moi ever ask himself: I think maybe I could have done better?
Which brings us back to legacy. Kibaki has spent the last years cementing his vision with road construction projects all over the country. He has spurned empty rhetoric, mistakenly turned a blind eye to corruption and focused all his energies on Infrastructural growth as Kenya's panacea for growth in the rural areas, expansion of agriculture that he probably sees as the only way to meet the challenges of a devolved system of Government.
Moi spent his last years trying to popularize a political project called Uhuru and force him and Kanu down the throats of Kenyans essentially to protect himself and his cronies. The man who declared Kanu would rule for 100 years; the former school teacher who became President retired as the country's richest man owning everything from tea plantations, hotels, large tracts of land and manufacturing businesses acquired in unclear and to date unexplained circumstances.
The larger question is whether Moi belongs to the pantheon of historic actors who made a mark in Kenya’s painful history. From the likes of Jomo Kenyatta, Tom Mboya, Pio Gama Pinto, Koitalel arap Samoei or Harry Thuku whose contributions are well documented.
Which is why history can be cruel. Legacies can never be re-written or stage-managed. Mobutu Seseko, Augustine Pinochet, Nicolae Ceaușescu, Joseph Stalin all left their legacies to history. Retired President Moi will leave his too.
By Sayila Liganga in Washington, DC
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informative and impressive, well done.
Proofread before posting. There are errors a spell checker will not find.
" growth of the diary industry", "poor whether"