Moi Day Special: Kenya’s second president

On the occasion of Moi Day, the Nairobi Chronicle recalls milestones of the Moi presidency. For better and for worse, Moi’s 24 year presidency will influence Kenyans for a long time to come.

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Daniel arap Moi. Picture by CNN.

Daniel arap Moi. Picture by CNN.

Whereas Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was a transitional leader, managing change from colonialism to African majority rule, Moi got into power when Kenya had become a truly African state. With time, Moi’s actions and policies came to resemble those of neighboring states from which Kenya had distinguished itself with its relatively sophisticated socio-economic and political structures.

Moi’s presidency was a contradiction of sorts: on one hand he craved the awe which Jomo Kenyatta got from the public. On the other hand, he wanted to be different from Kenyatta, by being more in touch with the average man in the village.

When he assumed the reigns of government, Moi started traveling in a Volkswagen Kombi, raising eyebrows. As it was argued, such types of conveyance are for ordinary folk, not for a President. However, Moi was determined to get his people. The Kombi was the only vehicle which could grapple with the country’s difficult terrain – dusty roads, hairpin bends, precarious cliffs, unbeaten tracks.

One time, while on his way from Kisumu to Nakuru, Moi expressed the wish to use a short-cut from Sondu through Sigowet to Kericho town. His aides condemned the route as impassable. “Are there people living in the area where this road passes?” he asked and declared he had to tackle the road, passable or otherwise.

After ascending to the presidency on 14th October 1978, Moi pledged to maintain the stability that Kenya had enjoyed since independence. He sought to assure apprehensive citizens, investors and diplomats that he would follow the footsteps of Mzee Kenyatta. But it soon became clear that Moi had his own ideas for the country. Whereas Kenyatta practiced a hands-off style of leadership, Moi preferred hands-on management. He famously said, “Those who want to lead the country must wait their turn … I am the President and every minister must sing like a parrot to my tune.”

While emphasizing national unity, Moi laid great emphasis on the need for dynamism in a globalizing world. Moi can be credited for introducing changes that would have been virtually impossible under the Kenyatta era. Moi’s critics say his initiatives were expensive experiments culminating in failure. However, Moi’s critics are mostly Kenyattaists and had they been in power, the country would have petrified in stagnation. The fact that some of Moi’s programmes did not succeed could be attributed to sabotage by Kenyatta loyalists inherited by Moi’s administration.

As president, Moi’s first decision was to release political detainees from the Kenyatta era. These were politicians, academics, university students and journalists detained for criticizing Kenyatta’s government. Several of them had been in detention so long that they were in a critical condition requiring advanced medical treatment.

During Kenyatta’s presidency, the civil service, security forces and state corporations came to be dominated by members of Kenyatta’s tribe, the Kikuyu. This was not a deliberate policy on Kenyatta’s part but a product of historical circumstances that placed the Kikuyu at an advantage in work skills and entrepreneurial ability. Moi set about creating ethnic balance in government organs by appointing more people from other communities. Eventually, Moi’s Kalenjin tribe dominated the civil service and this evoked resentment among other Kenyans.

Unlike Kenyatta’s appointees, Moi’s tribesmen had little training for their new jobs. Matters were worsened by Moi’s tendency of picking individuals from lowly positions, transforming them into overnight power brokers and later dumping them when they became too big-headed for their own usefulness. Because of this, Moi had neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies. He was loyal to nobody but himself – a true Machiavellian characteristic.

Moi’s most serious challenge was the coup attempt of 1st August 1982. The poorly planned coup attempt by junior officers of the Kenya Airforce was crushed by Army and paramilitary units within a matter of hours. However the coup is said to have awakened Moi to the risks of power and from that day onwards, he took on a higher measure of political self-preservation. After the coup attempt, the security forces were purged of Kenyattaists who were replaced by Moi loyalists. In subsequent elections, politicians whose allegiance was doubtful lost their seats through political machinations engineered by the President’s henchmen.

Between 1982 and the early 1990s, Moi was determined to keep a tab on the opposition and resorted to tactics varying from detention without trial, torture, electronic surveillance, intimidation and outright thuggery. There has never been any direct evidence personally linking Moi with any of these acts and its possible he was misinformed about threats to his administration.

Moi’s political maneuvres provoked a backlash against the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU). Moi, eager to strengthen the party, had talked Parliament into enacting a constitutional amendment that made KANU the only legal political party. By the late 1980s there were demands for reintroducing multiparty democracy from the growing ranks of politicians seeking alternative avenues for contesting political office. Demands for multipartyism, coupled with pent-up frustration with Moi, led to riots in Kenya’s major towns in July 1990.

The riots were crushed; several dozen people lost their lives. International financiers and Western nations pressurized Moi to open up the political frontiers. Monetary assistance was scaled down – a devastating blow for a government that had 30% of its budget financed from foreign assistance. The international media went on a feeding frenzy and described Moi as a typical African dictator. In December 1991, Moi asked Parliament to amend the constitution and legalize opposition parties for the first time in ten years.

It would be another ten years before opposition parties could win power but only because Moi was no longer a candidate in the 2002 elections. Moi was unbeatable because his opponents often underestimated his intelligence by virtue of his rural-poor origins and heavily accented English.

Among the reasons Moi gave for opposing multipartyism was incitement to ethnic nationalism. Soon after the opposition was legalized, tribal clashes erupted in the Rift Valley and persist to this day. The clashes were sparked by Cabinet Ministers who declared the Rift Valley – Moi’s home province – out of bounds to the opposition. Ethnic groups thought to be sympathetic to the opposition were attacked by Moi’s Kalenjin tribe, houses burnt and farms forcefully occupied. The clashes caused major economic losses as property was destroyed, trading activities disrupted and agricultural production ruined.

Upon the re-introduction of multipartyism in 1992 until the close of his presidency in 2003, Moi stopped being development conscious. Moi devoted his time and energies exclusively to politics because of legalized competition for his job. Political intrigues intensified as politicians sought presidential patronage – and the cash that went with it. Financial scandals became routine in Moi’s government throughout the 1990s as his cronies devised means of acquiring wealth in the shortest possible time.

Moi turned state functions into full time campaign rallies and these were held, not only on weekends, but at anytime during the week. Cabinet ministers and members of parliament, eager to win the favor of the president, tagged along wherever he went. The result: possibly one of the longest Presidential motorcades of an African president. A typical motorcade accompanying Moi consisted of at least 50 limousines with cabinet ministers, heads of state corporations, security chiefs and several diplomats.

Among the notable successes of the Moi presidency was reform of the education system. By the early 1980s, a Canadian educationist said that education should stop producing white-collar graduates. The educationist said the future of labor was one of uncertainty, making it necessary to equip graduates with practical skills that are easily transferable across different work environments. Despite criticism, Moi went ahead and implemented the recommendations.

School children were introduced to home science, business education, agriculture, arts, crafts and music. In high schools, students were taught power mechanics, electricity, accounting, metal work, carpentry, social ethics and sex education. Today, education experts acknowledge the wisdom of imparting practical skills on children, in a world where retraining and career shifts has become the accepted norm.

During Moi’s presidency, thousands of schools sprang up across the country while four additional public universities were built to create a skilled work force.

Regardless of what is said about Daniel arap Moi, the former teacher, legislator, cabinet minister, President and Member of Parliament has left his mark not only on Kenyans but also in international affairs. He initiated peace efforts across Africa most of which were successful. These include Namibia’s independence, Uganda’s civil war negotiations that began the Yoweri Museveni era and the Southern Sudan peace process. Moi’s advice was greatly sought by world leaders such as US President Ronald Reagan, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany.

Moi’s presidency began in 1978 with a promise to follow the footsteps of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. It can be said that Moi fulfilled his ambition of becoming a defining standard. “President Moi has made his own footprints in the sands of time,” said Mrs Thatcher.

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With references from Lee Njiru’s article: “The Making of a President.” Kenya Times, December 11, 1997
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