By Oduor Ong’wen
here was an outpouring of love, adoration and canonisation of former President Daniel arap Moi when his death was announced in February. I don’t begrudge those who attempted to sanitise the departed former president to portray him as a saint. They had every right to do so because that is how they knew him. In their tributes, many described Moi as “the best leader this country ever produced.” The Moi I knew doesn’t fit this description.
In African tradition, it is unacceptable to talk ill of the dead – more so if the deceased was an elder. So, I seek to not to condemn him but to describe the man as I knew him and let history do the judging. Those who have acknowledged that the departed former president was not a paragon of virtue have averred Moi was a good man and a democrat until the abortive coup of August 1982 and his oppressive mien emerged as a reaction to the putsch. That is a narrative I seek to debunk.
Those without memory lapses will recall that even before ascending to presidency, Moi was part of political assassinations and/or cover-ups of the same. In March 1975 when JM Kariuki was reported missing and before his body was discovered disfigured and dumped at the City Mortuary, then-Vice President Moi, without batting an eyelid, told Parliament that JM was alive and on a business trip to Zambia. It later transpired that very senior people in government – especially the police – were responsible to for the legislator’s execution and attempts at concealment. Moi lied to Kenya with a straight face.
On ascending to power in 1978, Moi sought to either kill or neuter any potential institutional challenge to his autocratic rule, however modest. Barely a year into his presidency, he, in 1979, banned the student union – the Nairobi University Students Organisation (NUSO) – and expelled the entire leadership comprising, among others, Rumba Kinuthia, Otieno Kajwang’, Mukhisa Kituyi, Josiah Omotto and Wafula Siakama. This was followed in quick succession by the proscription of University Staff Union (UASU) and the Kenya Union of Civil Servants in 1980. Simultaneously, the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) and Maendeleo ya Wanawake were co-opted and later made affiliates of Kanu, the only political party.
As if the killing of these institutions was not enough, Moi went ahead to politically harass individuals that were seen as posing real or perceived threats. In August 1980, Prof. Anyang’ Nyong’o was arrested twice in a move clearly aimed at intimidating the dons that had been at core of UASU leadership. Others subjected to routine harassment were Oki Ooko-Ombaka, Micere Mugo, Mukaru Ng’ang’a, Katama Mkangi and Shadrack Gutto. In May 1981, Moi ordered the expulsion of another lot of student leaders seeking to revive the student union. These included Odindo Opiata, Makau Mutua, Saulo Busolo, George Rubik, Dave Anyona and John Munuve among others. As this happened, Moi closed the university for close to five months and for the first time in the history of the university, we were ordered to report to chiefs on a weekly basis. Despotism had become a hallmark of Moi’s rule.
Parallel to this, and riding the populist crest of fighting tribalism, Moi banned socio-cultural organisations like the Gikuyu Embu Meru Association (GEMA), the New Akamba Union, Luo Union and others.
In May 1982, Jaramogi had made a widely publicised visit to the United Kingdom, where he addressed the British House of Commons, among other engagements. Jaramogi’s address was on “The Role of political Parties in Africa.” A firm believer in the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy, Jaramogi had fought all his adult life to institute and nurture the same in Kenya. This had put him on a permanent collision course with the colonial government (who ironically were practicing the same in their metropolis but subverting efforts to institute it in their colonies) and post-independence oligarchs. Jaramogi’s lecture received very positive coverage in the British press. The Kenyan print media took the cue from the British press but largely ignored the entire content of the address, only reporting that Jaramogi had announced his intention to launch a new political party to challenge KANU’s stranglehold on power.
On May 26, 1982, the Governing Council of the ruling party (composed of 12 members) instructed parliament, the Attorney General Joseph Kamere and Minister for Constitutional Affairs Charles Njonjo to prepare a bill amending the constitution such that Kenya would by law become a one-party state. The resulting bill also proposed to create a new office of the Chief Secretary to serve as head of the public service. On June 9, 1982, after less than one hour of debate, Parliament of 170 members voted 168 to 2 in favour of the amendment.
Between May and June 1982, Moi ordered a crackdown targeting university lecturers, This resulted in detention without trial of Kamoji Wachiira, Edward Oyugi, Mukaru Ng’ang’a and Al Amin Mazrui. Maina wa Kinyatti and Willy Mutunga were charged with trumped up sedition offences. Mutunga’s charges were later withdrawn as he was also detained. Kinyatti was later, on October 18, 1982, sentenced to six years in jail. Others like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Micere, Nyong’o, Gutto and Kimani Gicau had to flee the country into exile. In this crackdown, scribes were not spared.
In apparent reaction to his audacity to stand against “Nyayo candidate” in a Nyeri Town parliamentary by election occasioned by the jailing of ex-freedom fighter Waruru Kanja for “violating foreign exchange laws,” journalist Wang’ondu Kariuki was charged with “possession of seditious publication” called Pambana and jailed for four-and-a half years. It is worth noting that by this time, the tyranny had become so entrenched that the despot had detained even the Deputy Director of Intelligence, Stephen Muriithi. It was at the height of this repression that junior cadres of the Kenya Air Force staged a poorly organized and executed coup. So, the coup was a consequence of Moi’s tyranny – not the converse.
The coup provided Moi with the opportunity and excuse to intensify crack down on lawyers, authors, activists, scientists, and (especially) university lecturers and students perceived to be critical of his authoritarian rule. I was among the more than 70 students arrested and detained at the GSU Training School, Embakasi. Having been held for two months incommunicado, 67 of us were eventually charged with “Sedition.” We were released six months later when the state could not manufacture evidence to convict us. But six amongst us – Jeff Mwangi, Tom Mutuse, Ong’ele Opalla, Wahinya Boore, Ephantus Kinyua and Kituyi Simiyu – were convicted sentenced to jail term of six years each. Raila Odinga, Prof. Otieno Osanya and Otieno Mak’Onyango who had been charged with treason also had their charges dropped as they had been detained without trial.
More than the foregoing, the attempted coup provided Moi with an arsenal to settle old scores and assert himself by systematically instituting an oppressive one-man state through consolidation, centralisation, and personalisation of power while neutralising disloyal elements, real and imagined. In his book, ‘African Successes’, David Leonard notes that the coup attempt was “a piece of good luck” for Moi. The attempt legitimised Moi’s reorganisation of the command structure of the armed forces and the police. Once the attempt had been made and suppressed, he was able to remove leaders from positions that were most threatening. The armed forces and the police “were neutralised”.
Ben Gethi, the Commissioner of Police, for instance, was detained at Kamiti and later retired “in public interest”. Moi also eliminated Kikuyu and Luo officers from the military and put in Kalenjin and non-ethnic challengers. It was then that he named General Mahmoud Mohammed — an ethnic Somali — the army chief of general staff.
With the disciplined forces in the hands of handpicked loyalists, the political structure was next. President Moi had a Bill enacted that granted him emergency powers, and the provincial administration and civil service came under the Office of the President, for the first time in post-independence Kenya. In effect, a DC could stop an MP from addressing his constituents.
Next was Parliament, whose privilege to access information from the Office of the President was revoked, thus subordinating it to the presidency. The Legislature could only rubber-stamp — not check — the excesses of the Executive. That is how, in 1986, it imposed limitations on the independence of the Judiciary.
Two expatriate judges — Derek Schofield and Patrick O’Connor — resigned, lamenting that the judicial system was “blatantly contravened by those who are supposed to be its supreme guardians.” Parliament also gave police powers to detain critics of Moi’s authoritarian regime. It did not end there. The freedoms of the press, expression, association, and movement were curtailed. In effect, Kenya became a police state.
President Moi ensured that his presence was felt everywhere; he stared at you from the currency in your wallet and mandatory portraits in every business premise. Streets, schools, a stadium, university, airport, and monuments were named after him. He gobbled half the news time on radio and TV, where he was always the first bulletin item. Ministers wore lapel pins with his photo on them. Indeed, one Cabinet minister in the Moi government was said to have had a dozen suits, each with its own pin lapel – just in case he forgot and wore the wrong suit!
Moi was felt in the education system, in which students recited a loyalty pledge, learnt about the Nyayo philosophy in GHC, and drank Nyayo milk. In the remotest parts of the country, the local chief was the president’s eyes and ears.
Kanu replaced the secret ballot with a system where voters lined up behind candidates in 1986. Parliamentary candidates who secured more than 70 per cent of the votes did not have to go through the process of the secret ballot in the General Election in what was more or less a “selection within an election. “Take the case of Kiambu coffee picker Mukora Muthiora. He “defeated” the late Njenga Karume for the Kanu sub-branch chairmanship. Karume was then a former assistant minister for Cooperative Development. Provincial Commissioner Victor Musoga declared Muthiora the winner, yet he never participated in the election. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
On the morning of March 27, 1986, Moi stopped at the gates of Kipsigis Girls High School where I was a teacher on his way to Kisii Teachers College to preside over a graduation ceremony. He arrived a few minutes to ten o’clock. Perched on the sunroof of his limousine, the President praised the school and told the students how fond of the school he was. He told them that it was due to his love for the school that he had given them big land and dairy cattle. He spotted me and warned that I should not teach subversion. “I have sent you good teachers like the Secretary General here, but he should desist from teaching subversive behaviour.” And with that pronouncement, I knew my goose was cooked.
On Monday April 14, 1986 at around 7.00 p.m., I was picked up by the Special Branch after a three-hour search in my house. After 16 days of torture at the basement and 24th Floor of Nyayo House, I was sent to Kamiti maximum Prison for a four-year stint as Moi’s state guest.
Moi’s vindictiveness did not stop at the so-called dissidents. Their kith and kin were also guilty by association. None personifies this than Ida Betty Odinga. A young woman in her thirties with three children, the eldest of whom was barely nine years old, Ida Odinga was thrown into the deep end of the pool of life by Moi’s police state and expected to swim through. This was at a time when Moi had placed her father-in-law, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, under house arrest. When Raila was arrested and falsely charged with treason, she proclaimed her husband’s innocence and went on to seek for him the best legal representation locally and internationally. This struck mortal fear into the face and heart of Raila Odinga’s tormentors. Ida was determined that her husband got justice. The State was bent on perpetrating a sham trial on treason charges then hang Raila. To them this young woman was a nuisance. But they were forced to make a quick retreat. Since they had no evidence to sustain a charge of treason, they had no option but to withdraw the charges and place Raila Odinga in preventive detention. Because she had shown that she could fight for justice, she was no longer just another teacher – a public servant. Because of her association with “an enemy of the State,” Mrs Odinga was now “a person of interest.” Even though she tried to do her best in her job as a teacher at the Kenya High School and bring up her young children as a lone parent, the Moi government would use security officers to constantly harass her with a hope of breaking her. She was eventually retired “in the public interest.”
Maina wa Kinyatti, having been jailed on October 18, 1982 and sentenced to six years in jail continued to be tortured in jail by various methods, including being held naked and without food for up to seven days at a time, living with mental patients, subjected to arbitrary anal searches and being beaten with sticks while being forced to do physical exercises. The torture, in different forms, was extended to his wife Mumbi. She became a marked person. Her interactions with her students were watched, her shopping analysed and her correspondences intercepted in the post office and read. On April 11, 1987 Mumbi was arrested while attending a Drama Festival in Embu. She was driven back to Nairobi and locked up overnight. In an interview with the New York Times published on April 27, Mumbi said that during a total of seven hours of questioning, the police accused her of giving money to Mwakenya, organising exiles outside of the country and planning to train members of Mwakenya as guerrilla fighters.
Winnie Muga was a student at Kenyatta University College at the time her husband, Muga K’Olale, was arrested from their house in Umoja Estate. At the time of K’Olale’s arrest, Winnie had just given birth to their firstborn girl the previous week. As they arrested K’Olale, the officers turned their house inside out – throwing nappies around, moving furniture, and even ransacking the cradle. Leaving things strewn on the floor in both their two bedrooms, kitchen and the living room, Special Branch took K’Olale with him. Restoring order in that house was left to this woman that had just given birth a few days earlier. The police chaps did not tell Winnie Muga where they were taking her husband. The young woman was to spend the next four months combing police stations and the Kenya Police headquarters in Nairobi without a clue as to where her husband had been taken. After fifteen agonizing weeks of waiting to know the whereabouts of her husband, Winnie Muga was somehow relieved to know that the husband was alive but at the same time hit by a sentence of ten years in jail slapped on K’Olale after “an own plea” of guilt to a charge of Sedition. It was alleged that K’Olale knew about the coup plot and actively participated in its
planning and execution.
Koigi wa Wamwere’s wife Nduta, and Koigi’s entire family had to endure intimidation and harassment by police on numerous occasions. Nduta eventually left Kenya in 1988 to join her husband who had fled Kenya after detention and was now living in exile in Norway. Koigi’s mother, Monica Wangu Wamwere, had her house surrounded and searched by the police on several occasions and demolished twice. In January 1995, the police once again surrounded Monica Wangu’s home while a service was being held there in memory of her husband, who had died a year earlier. She had refused to bury her husband until her two sons were allowed out of prison to attend his funeral.
Josephine Nyawira Ngengi, sister of G.G. Njuguna Ngengi, who was on trial with Koigi, was arrested in May 1994 in Nakuru. She had been actively involved in the campaign for the release of political prisoners incarcerated by Moi and participated in the Mothers’ hunger strike in 1992. Nyawira was held incommunicado for 22 days before being charged with robbery with violence, which carries the death penalty. Two other women, Ann Wambui Ng’ang’a and Tabitha Mumbi, along with 16 men, were charged with the same offence. All the three women complained that they were tortured while in police custody. Nyawira stated that she was beaten and that blunt objects were forced into her genitalia until she bled.
Whil others canonise Moi and talk of his legacy, this is the Moi I knew. To rephrase Mark Anthony in Shakespeare’s’ ‘Julius Caesar’, “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” So be it for Moi.