The death of a person is a sad moment. It reminds us of our mortality and forces us to reflect on life’s meaning.
The death of Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, Kenya’s former ruler, has saddened me more deeply than I thought it would. No, not because he has died. At 95, he has had good innings, and earned his right to go the way we all must go. To have died surrounded by his family, in one of Africa’s well-appointed hospitals, with his personal doctor and a large team of experts in attendance, is a privilege that invites gratitude from Moi’s children and grandchildren.
Moi, walking his final steps of his earthly journey, enjoyed a privilege that many people were denied by the man himself or by his courtiers during his 24 years on the Kenyan throne.
The name that immediately comes to mind is that of Dr Robert Ouko, Kenya’s minister of Foreign Affairs, who was grabbed from his home exactly 30 years tomorrow, only to show up dead, his charred body full of bullet holes and fractures, all of which the Moi regime ascribed to suicide.
Then there was Bishop Alexander Kipsang Muge of Eldoret, a peaceful critic of the Moi regime, killed by a truck that struck his car a day after he had been informed by a government cabinet minister that violent death awaited him.
These, of course, were just two of the famous men whose deaths made the headlines. Many more met their deaths at the hands of Moi’s enforcers, killed in an orgy of torture in the basement of Nyayo House, before being pushed off the roof of that terrifying building in central Nairobi, to fake their deaths as suicides.
The families of Moi’s victims, men and women whose crimes appear to have been mostly their belief in human rights and freedom, never had the privilege of saying goodbye to their loved ones, or to experience the joy of parenthood, grandparenthood, old age and all that a journey through life allows.
Then there were the political prisoners, incarcerated and tortured simply because they demanded their basic rights, advocated for multiparty democracy, a treasonable phrase in Moi’s Kenya that was as dangerous as “people power” is in Uganda today.
George Anyona, Timothy Njoya, Raila Odinga, Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia, Alamin Mazrui, Koigi wa Wamwere, Gitobu Imanyara, Maina wa Kinyatti, Gibson Kamau Kuria, John Khaminwa, Mirugi Kariuki, Willy Mutunga …… these are a few of the famous Kenyan political prisoners that fell afoul of a power-intoxicated and frightened Moi.
Under Moi, Kenya, the country to which hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighbouring countries had run in the 1970s and 1980s, became a major exporter of refugees. By the end of Moi’s long reign, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans had fled from a ruthless authoritarian kleptocracy that was presiding over the decimation of a great country.
As Joe Khamisi recounts in Looters and Grabbers: 54 Years of Corruption and Plunder by the Elite, 1963-2017, the list of Moi’s transgressions included “extreme human rights abuse, grand corruption, dictatorial tendencies, mismanagement of State affairs, abuse of office, money-laundering, looting, and greed.”
Khamisi continues: “Because he expropriated so much land for himself, family, and his allies, critics called him a land grabber, an accidental Big Man, from whom all power, privilege, and wealth derive… a tribal paramount chief writ large. His presidential style of leadership centred on the power to control, dominate, command, and give directives.”
Under Moi, the personalisation of power was so complete that Parliament, the Judiciary, the police and other armed branches of the State, became his private instruments of control. He was a ruler who told his subordinates, including his vice president and senior cabinet ministers, that he wanted everyone to sing like a parrot.
“You ought to sing the song I sing,” Moi directed Kenya’s elected leaders in 1984. “You will have no ideas or opinions of your own,” he lectured. “Your ideas are those of the party. Those who think they have ideas of their own are free to quit.” Everyone understood, of course, that the party was Moi and he was the party.
And sing they did. According to Smith Hempstone, a former US ambassador to Kenya, Agriculture Minister Elijah Mwangale once pointed at Moi and declared: “There, enshrined in human form, is the popular will. Even the lobsters and the fishes of the sea, out to the 200-mile limit and beyond, pay obeisance to our great President, the Honourable Daniel arap Moi.”
Then there was this gem by Education minister Peter Oloo Aringo in 1990: “Moi is a Prince of Peace who has been sent to this country as a prophet to maintain peace.”
In other words, Nyayo had now become Jesus Christ. All this in a country whose economy was in a steep nose-dive; its infrastructure rapidly decaying; its potholed roads a nightmare experience for motorists; its once promising social services in full retreat; and worsening human rights abuse.
Had the Americans not forced Moi to surrender the throne, Kenya would have sunk deeper than it did. It was by God’s grace that Mwai Kibaki came in to rescue his country in 2002. The foundations of a renewed Kenya were laid, and the hopes of East Africa’s largest economy were restored.
Of course, Kibaki had his own weaknesses and failures, and soiled his legacy with undemocratic behaviour that led to extreme bloodshed after the 2007 elections. But unlike Moi, he was a leader, not a ruler, whom history will probably judge more kindly than his predecessor.
I am saddened by Moi’s death because he has gone without acknowledging his crimes and misdemeanors. I am saddened because, in spite of the evidence, Moi is now being praised by the current president of Kenya as an “iconic leader”, a “great son of Kenya”, who led his country “with dignity and honour.”
Even in death, Moi, through these revisionist accolades, is dancing on the graves of the Oukos and Muges and the nameless victims of the worst regime in post-independent Kenya. He is laughing at his surviving victims who are still living with the wounds inflicted on the nation by this Prince of Darkness who, like many other autocrats in his neighbourhood, was essentially a very insecure man.
To his family, my condolences. To all Kenyans, solidarity. To all Africans, hope.