On the day former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi was buried, I asked three Kenyan women with whom I was sharing a lunch table in Mombasa what they made of him.
The women are in their 30s. One is a top political journalist, the other is a senior officer in marine conservation, and the third a leader in civil society.
Their answer was unanimous: he was a good leader.
The journalist, with a warm smile, said she enjoyed Moi’s free milk in school. The marine conservationist said the presidents who have come since Moi’s departure in 2002 have not built as much stuff – roads, schools — as he did and they have not been strong leaders. The civil society woman said that under Moi there was order in Kenya with no traffic snarl-ups, for example, and he was indisputably in charge of the state.
There was consensus that Moi was some sort of institution, the embodiment of the Kenyan state. This may be accurate because the man stayed longer — 24 years — as president than any of his successors thus far. For about half of that time he had no multi-party politics to contend with, having declared Kenya a one-party state.
Plus, he was ruthless in responding to any form of dissent. Dissenters either ended up in jail or in exile.
In death, it turns out, much of Kenya has showered glowing tribute to the man. It may be that we are more forgiving of the dead, especially the powerful dead.
But, also, it helps that the 17 years between leaving power and dying has allowed Kenyans to move on, begin to see their former autocrat in new light. Time does that sort of thing.
For my lunchmates, they were too young for much of the time Moi was in power. They came of age in a time of massive corruption scandals, traffic jams, and heavily disputed elections. In this light, the past of Nyayo school milk and not Nyayo House torture chambers seems to resonate. It is more like, if Moi was that bad, you the good ones what have you done for us? Not that they want Nyayo House’s ugly basement to resurrect.
But what exactly happened underneath Nyayo House? Here is journalist and former detainee Paul Amina writing in The Star newspaper of February 11, 2020: “Nyayo House experience is unspeakable, to say the least. I will not forget a day that I was led to the 26th floor at Nyayo House naked. There was an attempt to serve me tea in the nude state. When I declined the offer, I was blindfolded and led back to the cells in the dungeon. I could not be served food because I had refused tea. The rest that happened in prison is a story for another day.”
Mr Amina was detained for belonging to “clandestine movements, Mwakenya and December 12 Movement” and for using his “journalistic skills to chronicle human rights violations to the hostile media, including Amnesty International.”
No matter, the political class has been particularly effusive of Moi. To them, all has been forgotten, if not forgiven. Or it is all calculated hypocrisy to gain some political points.
President Museveni did not miss out, and for some reason the clip of his eulogy made rounds quite a bit on Kenyan social media. He lauded Moi for being a Kenyan patriot who, together with Jomo Kenyatta, correctly diagnosed Kenya’s problems and provided the right medicine. He said that was a true mark of leadership. He also praised his former counterpart for being a champion of the revival of the East African Community.
Finally, he said when early on in his presidency Kenya closed the border, the two men sat down at a primary school on the Kenya side and sorted things out, making Moi a conciliator.
If you read quite a bit into this last point, you could say Mr Museveni was taking a subtle dig at president Paul Kagame, who was present, for closing the border and remaining stubborn about it for a year now despite talks between the two men.
I was a school kid in Tororo in 1987, not far from the Malaba border, when Moi drove into town. We lined the streets to welcome him, waving, clapping, cheering. He was standing in an open-roof car. He waved back. First and last time to catch a glimpse of the man.
He should rest in peace, warts and all. Like we all will, somehow.
Bernard Tabaire is a media trainer and commentator on public affairs based in Kampala.