As the vagaries of time took their toll and the frequency of his hospital visits rose, a few people began to reassess their views of former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi.
“He was a pillar of stability while countries around Kenya crumbled,” some said. “He had his faults,” others chimed in, “but no one is perfect.” Others took an instrumentalist view, pointing to the economic growth under his regime.
The image painted by this reassessment is of a benevolent grandfather – Baba Moi – carrying Kenyan grandchildren in his lap, feeding them Nyayo milk and gently rocking them to peaceful sleep.
Now that Moi has died – at the ripe old age of 95 – it is vital that such hagiographical reminiscing, often justified by claims that it is ‘unAfrican’ to speak ill of the dead, must be urgently confronted.
Moi must be seen for what he really was: A violent and corrupt autocrat who brooked no dissent, jailed and tortured journalists and political opponents, and went to great lengths, and with considerable success, to match the kleptomania of his predecessor, Jomo Kenyatta.
The written and unwritten apologia for Moi goes somewhat like this: That he took power in contested circumstances, was soon faced with a coup attempt, and therefore, had to rule with a strong arm; and that he did this successfully considering Kenya’s economic growth and relative stability.
This argument, with its feet of clay, washes away as soon as the tide carries in the truth. The oft-referenced ‘stability’ in Kenya had a lot more to do with the invisible hand of Empire protecting its capital than with the former school teacher it allowed to run the regional branch. Kenya was relatively stable in spite of Moi, not because of him.
That the country erupted in ethnic violence only five years after Moi left power wasn’t a testament to his ability to hold the country together for 24 years or to the inability of his successors.
The volcanic eruption in Kenya in 2007/2008 was the inevitable outcome of decades of native disenfranchisement that began with the colonialists before being commandeered by the post-independence elite.
Moi’s genius, to use the word loosely, was in recognising that his game was up – his KANU cockerel cooked, so to speak – and opting to relinquish power in 2002 in exchange for a quiet amnesty for him and his henchmen.
This peace-for-justice deal did not last long. As we’ve seen, the historical injustices, particularly the land grabbing masterminded by all colonial and post-colonial Kenyan governments, flared up shortly after.
Ethnic chauvinism among the political elite added fuel to the flames and later sabotaged attempts to build a new political consensus around a new Constitution. These questions remain unanswered and continue to reverberate through the country’s politics.
The pursuit of justice and accountability, or the lack thereof, was telling. First, Kenya’s Environment and Land courts have, for many years, been kept busy with civil claims against illegal dispossession. Having been stripped of his presidential immunity, Moi often found himself a defendant, as did many of his acolytes.
Yet the criminal courts have been notable for their loud silence. After Moi left office, stories began emerging of the terrible things his goons had done to people at Nyayo House.
A few years ago, my friend Christine Mungai, a talented and clever Kenyan journalist, started documenting and curating, on Twitter, many of these stories of arrest and torture. She was so distraught by the pain and darkness she found in the stories from the blood-soaked Nyayo House basement she had to abandon the project to save herself from descending into the pits of depression.
But there were no criminal justice proceedings for what Moi and his men did. No accountability.
Apart from the pesky civil lawsuits, they continued to live large on the proceeds of their crimes as untouchable and even respected senior citizens. Like Francisco Franco, Augusto Pinochet and even Idi Amin, Moi lived the long and happy life he denied many others.
The culture of impunity by Kenya’s colonial and post-colonial ruling elite continues to manifest itself in small, but important and pervasive ways: Unresolved assassinations; grand larceny of public funds; a brazenly corrupt police and civil service, and so on. Ordinary Kenyans are advised to “accept and move on”, or dared, utado – local slang for ‘what will you do about it?’
It is unAfrican to speak ill of the dead. But it is also unAfrican to detain and torture political opponents, steal from the poor, sick and hungry and rule via lies and repression. And Kenya’s experience under this fallen not-so-strong-any-more-man, is widespread across the region and Africa.
Moi, like many of the African leaders falling over themselves to say nice things following his death, did terrible things to his people. We must resist them in life, as in death.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter.