Why did Moi die a hero? Why was it unfashionable, shameful even, to demonise Moi on his deathbed and in his death? Simple: the atrocities of successive regimes

By David Wanjala

December 30, 2002 will go down in history as one of the most difficult times in the life and times of the late President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi. It is the day he handed over instruments of power at Uhuru Park after his 24-year rule in the most chaotic presidential inaugurations of our times, before a hostile, ecstatic crowd whose delayed and frustrated expectations for a new dawn had boiled to uncontrollable heights and that needed him out of sight, out of mind and gone forever.

Moi had been left to find his own way to Uhuru Park. The organisers of the inauguration of winner Mwai Kibaki as Kenya’s third President, probably out of excitement, sheer oversight or even malice, did not plan for how the long serving President would be escorted to the venue through observing a proper and deserving protocol. Obviously, they did not anticipate the level of hate that the crowd was capable of displaying towards the retiring President. 

When Moi’s motorcade finally made it to Uhuru Park, an overflowing sea of overexcited and chanting humanity at the time, for the highly anticipated handover, all hell broke loose. A rowdy and uncontrollable youth blocked it on the procession way. It took concerted efforts by multi-agent security personnel to help the President make it to the podium amidst mudslinging from the uncontrollable crowd. More shocking is that the equally overexcited ‘dream team’ on the podium that was pregnant with expectations as they waited to be handed power seemed to enjoy the humiliation of the president, to the chagrin of invited foreign dignitaries.

When Moi finally stood up to make his farewell speech, he was booed and shouted at. It took the efforts of agitated Yoweri President who interjected and admonished the crowd for lack of respect for the elder statesman. President Museveni, visibly upset, admonished the crowd, even pointing a finger at individuals in the crowd who were exceedingly unruly. He called on Kenya to count itself lucky that an African Head of State was “peacefully” handing over power. It wasn’t until after this admonition that the crowd, probably in retrospect, cooled down and allowed Moi to make his speech.

When Mwai Kibaki finally took the long awaited oath of office as the third President of the Republic of Kenya, every syllable was punctuated by chants of approval from the ecstatic sea of humanity in attendance, and the millions of other Kenyans watching on live TV at their various social places including bars and from the comfort of their living rooms. 

It was a moment to behold. 

Moi’s exit from Uhuru Park was as sullied as his entry. He went back to State House where a Kenya Air Force helicopter was on standby for his final journey out of power. A battery of crestfallen loyalists were on hand for this final ritual. Moi emerged from the Statehouse main door and matched briskly to the waiting chopper for that final trip to Kabarak, his private and retirement home. Dr Sally Kosgei, his last Head of Civil Service sobbed among others as they waved their last from Statehouse at their former boss and mentor. A while later, he disembarked at his home in Nakuru to a new reality of his remaining life on earth. A few journalists had been deployed at his home to relay live events on TV of this tail end of the life and times of Moi in power. 

Mumekula (Have you had something to eat)?” he asked the visibly tired journalists who had obviously stayed around for the whole day waiting on him. “Pea hawa nyama choma (give them some roast meat),” he ordered his servants. 

A new dawn had indeed begun for Kenya’s unlikely second president. It felt like lights had dimmed and curtains drawn, signaling an end of a play on a theatre stage. 

December 30, 2002 was a difficult day for Moi. Not even the most hardened or sadistic of souls, however tyrannical Moi’s rule had been, could fail to find a space in their hearts, however peripheral, to empathise. Most of us wrote him off. At around 80 years old and with oblivion looming large on the horizon, he wouldn’t survive the following five years, we silently predicted. How wrong we were!

The frustration, anger and the resultant disrespect that was directed at Moi at Uhuru Park on that day was understandable and could even be justified. The anger and frustration had been sowed, germinated and tended for the past 24 years. Unfortunately, it had been suppressed from flourishing to maturity, effectively being nursed into a time bomb. When the Opposition triumphed in 2002 to usher in President Kibaki and the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) regime, fortunately (for how could it be unfortunate), deflated the time bomb in one go and so the compressed anger of over 20 years was competing for space to let out.

You had to have lived on Mars or been in Moi’s system to not understand this collective anger: the economic ruin, corruption, the massacres, tortures, emasculation of freedom of thought, assassinations, ruining of education, entrenchment of tribal favoritism, electoral fraud…name it! There are those, many of them, who paid the ultimate price trying to stand up to this regime. Moi crushed the plotters of the 1982 attempted coup, sacking and jailing many low rank officers of the Kenya Air Force that had no clue what the coup was about. To date, families of these officers are still reeling from the crashed dreams of their siblings, fathers and mothers.

Universities and university dons suffered the most. To solidify his grip on power, Moi denied research resources to the higher learning institutions so that they existed in name but not functional in their core mandate. The dons, especially in governance related courses like political science, law, and history were to lie low or face the torture chambers. He infiltrated lecture theatres with spies. Lecturers could be dragged from halls to torture chambers for something they said in a lecture, probably expounding a concept or a theory.

The repeal of law to allow for multiparty democracy did not come on a silver platter. And when it finally came, Moi manipulated the electoral systems to survive the two first multiparty General Elections of 1992 and 1997, of course riding on the greed and lack of vision of some of the luminaries of the Opposition politics. Even when the Constitution barred him from contesting again, he still wanted to manipulate the system to install his protegee, Uhuru Kenyatta, at the time, a greenhorn in politics and governance. All these and many more put together explain the boiling point, the seething anger that reared its ugly head at President Kibaki’s first inauguration as Kenya’s third President.

So,why did the tables turn 18 years on at Moi’s demise? Why did Moi die a hero? Why was it unfashionable, shameful even, to demonise Moi on his deathbed and in his death to the extent that even most of the surviving victims of his brutal regime elected to make peace rather than speak out and shame him? Why did the voices of the few who chose to be pragmatic during the morning period die in the din of praise and ululation of Moi? Why did Moi have the last laugh?

Save for the fact that it is not African to speak ill of the dead and even the elderly in their sunset, a few other things conspired to give Mzee Moi enigma status in his twilight times. 

Echoes of a failed dream

For over 20 years, Opposition politics portrayed President Moi as the single stumbling block to Kenya’s prosperity. This platitude became the rallying call, the war cry for the resistance against Moi and KANU. It was hammered in the psyche of the masses long enough for it to become the petrol that fuelled, steadily, the resistance engine. The belief by the masses, on December 30, 2002, that a new dawn had indeed come was genuine, exemplified by how the public, a month later, arrested a traffic police officer along Waiyaki Way in Nairobi for taking a bribe and frog matched her to a police station. Corruption, Kenyans believed, had ended with Moi. 

They were in for a rude shock.  

A vicious power wrangle, for instance, broke out immediately Kibaki formed his first Cabinet that crippled his government for the entire first term. It was also during this period that some of the biggest economic crimes, of unprecedented proportions including Anglo Leasing, were hatched and pulled off with government patronage.

People who had been in opposition politics all their lives, spewing over-the-sky shadow blue prints, including dons from universities that Moi had locked out of public service, got opportunities to serve in plum jobs in President Kibaki’s Government including in Cabinet. Other than being big let downs, most became as corrupt as it had never been witnessed before. Skewed appointments, especially of the President’s tribesmen into government reached a cresendo especially in Narc’s first term in power. The more things changed, the more they remained the same for the worse. 

And then Kenyans began missing Moi.

True, Kibaki turned around the economy in his second term. The turnaround, however, was dotted with mega corruption whose architects, just like in Moi’s KANU regime, walked scot-free. The effects of the economic turnaround were also lost in the suffering of the bloodbath that won Kibaki his second term of the 2007/2008 post election violence. 

Then came Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto’s Jubilee Government in 2013 and Kenya turned a corner for the worst, especially with an economic meltdown that we could have done without. The economic crimes of the Jubilee Government’s era will go down history as one of Kenya’s darkest times ever. Besides extra-judicial killings and other State terror plots against the citizenry, appointment into top government positions, for the better part of the Jubilee Government, have been skewed in favour of the two tribes of the President and his Deputy. Then President Kenyatta has had a penchant for retaining and even employing octogenarians in state jobs where the youth are better qualified. 

Kenyans have had nearly nothing to celebrate in these two regimes of Kibaki and Uhuru. In fact, in some areas of governance, particularly security, both internal and external, Kibaki and Uhuru’s governments have underperformed Moi’s and as years went by, Kenyans gradually began seeing the strengths of Moi viz-a-vis the regimes that came after him.

The Uhuru factor

But if there is something that worked for Moi in securing his legacy and ensuring a befitting send off after his demise, it was the ascension of Uhuru Kenyatta to power. Had Moi died under Kibaki’s regime, he would not have been accorded the respect, colour and pomp Uhuru’s Government gave him in his burial. That is not to say that Kibaki would have disrespected him, he would just not have matched what Kenyatta did.

President Uhuru Kenyatta owes it all to Moi. He picked him from oblivion in mid 90s and in a carefully choreographed scheme, plunged him into the field of politics. He nominated him KANU branch chairman in 1995, appointed him chair of the Kenya Tourism Board and the National Disaster Relief Fund in 1999, nominated him to Parliament in 2001 and immediately appointed him Cabinet Minister Local Government. In the same year Uhuru was elected First Vice Chair, and in 2002, Moi threw caution to the wind and orchestrated Uhuru’s nomination as KANU’s preferred presidential candidate for the 2002 General Election, a move that tore the independency party apart.  KANU performed dismally and Uhuru lost to the Opposition’s Kibaki. Moi had done all in his power to put Uhuru on a path that would open his way to the big office.

Even though Uhuru chatted his own political way thereafter, Moi was definitely in the background to offer guidance.

Besides, when Uhuru’s father, the nation’s first President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta passed on in 1978, it is Moi who was the second in command and as such the onus fell on him to give the founding father a good send off and he did. The two families went way back.

When the former president died on February 4, Uhuru did not disappoint. He took charge and made several far-reaching orders, including for the nation to observe a period of national mourning to the day of the burial; for the former head of state to be accorded a State Funeral, with all appropriate civilian and military honours being rendered and observed. The public mass at fully packed Nyayo stadium was pulled off meticulously and the military funeral procession from State House had the nation gripped on national TV.

Uhuru outdid himself. This will sure be part of his legacy when he finally vacates office.

There were many people who would have wished, understandably so, that Moi was not accorded this honour, who wished that Moi died like most of the other African despots lonely and deserted or like Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, slipped into oblivion in exile. They watched with horror at how their tormentor and villain had it smooth all the way after retirement to his grave with a 19-gun salute to boot.

Moi kept fit to the very end. He maintained a solid family that was always besides him. Moi had thousands of those he mentored and sponsored mainly in education, from every corner of the nation that poured out their hearts when he died.

It is not in question that Moi’s regime meted atrocities on Kenyans that those that it did not affect directly may never be able to fathom. He apologized for it at the tail end of his regime. Even if not unreservedly, he did nevertheless. He handed over the country to regimes that have gone on to bury it, almost literally. Some of his contemporaries, like Mobutu and Robert Mugabe, left nearly nothing. 

For those that his regime affected, in whichever measure, forgetting may be difficult, but forging ahead needs forgiveness. It has welcome therapy to it.

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