The dark days of Daniel Moi: A trail of brutal fascism

Dante Mwandawiro
Written by Dante Mwandawiro

Former President Daniel Arap Moi’s death marks an end of a critical era in Kenyan political chapter, which will forever be engraved in the books of history of this nation. The man from Sacho, Baringo initially served as Kenyatta’s Vice-President from 1966 – 1978. In those days, and perhaps as it is today, the political ambit had been subjugated by Kiambu Mafia: a small coterie of elites from the then Kiambu District, who were undermining Kenyatta’s nationalism and populism ideologies. Moi came from Tugen subtribe of the Kalenjin community.

A protester being clobbered mercilessly by the police

While Kenyans deemed Moi as the right candidate to coxswain the country away from ethnic hegemony, his ascendancy to the presidency faced a herculean task from the influential Kiambu Mafia, who had fashioned themselves into ‘Change the Constitution Movement’.  Its main objective was to stop Moi from taking over the presidency. The group called for a review of the constitutional clause which conferred automatic ascendancy to the Presidency by the Vice President, should the office fall vacant. The movement failed, mainly after Moi’s ally, Attorney General Charles Njonjo tactically thwarted its scheme. After Moi succeeded in taking over the presidency following the demise of Jomo Kenyatta, he systematically established a fascistic and oppressive rule. Daniel Moi centralized and personalized power and started laying the foundation for a despotic and autocratic regime, engulfed in despicable inestimable human rights violation.

former Attorney General of Kenya (1963 – 1979), and Minister for Constitutional Affairs (1980 – 1983). Charles Njonjo is also popularly referred to as “The Duke of Kabeteshire”. He was instrumental in Moi’s rise to the Presidenccy

In 1982, when Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and George Anyona tried to register a socialistic political party, Moi responded back by making the country a de jure one party state. Competitive politics and criticism were made serious seditious offenses. The police force, was used to suppress any disparagement against his regime. The dreaded Special Branch infiltrated every institution and organization in Kenya. When some junior personnel in the Kenya Air force, aided by University of Nairobi Students staged a coup in the same year, it was immediately put down at a cost of thousands of lives. The then Attorney General Charles Njonjo and minister for constitutional affairs, a person who had facilitated Moi’s rise to the Presidency, became the first casualty of repression. He was dragged through a judicial inquiry, which made a verdict that Njonjo had abused office, and tried to take over power from Moi. He was forced to resign, which ended his political career. Moi banned all ethnic-centered welfare associations including the Luo Union, the Gikuyu, Embu, and Meru Association (GEMA), and the Abaluhya Union. He also outlawed the Civil Servants Union (CSU) and the Nairobi University Academic Staff Union (UASU).

After UASU was banned, University of Nairobi faculty members, Willy Mutunga and Katama Mukangi, were detained for what Moi called “over-indulgence in politics”. Passports of lecturers considered to be critical of his rule were seized. Moi’s actions were meant to silence the intelligentsia perceived to be critical of his authoritarian rule. In 1986 Moi gave a directive for the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organization (MYWO), a national non-governmental organization for women, to be affiliated to KANU, and in 1987 officially changed its name to KANU-MYWO. The Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU), became an ally of KANU for more than two decades, with most of its top leadership frequently selected by KANU(COTU Secretary General Francis Atwoli,  in his condolences to Moi’s family reveled that he is still a life member of KANU). To bolster his grip on power, Moi also embarked on the gradual Kalenjinization of the public and private sectors.

Willy Mutunga after his arrest in 1982. He later became the Chief Justice.

London based clandestine movement, Mwakenya, emerged. This set the stage for more widespread human rights violations by Daniel Moi. In 1986 alone, 100 people were arrested and detained for their alleged association with Mwakenya.  The movement had been started by some Kenyans who had fled into exile. Moi also alleged the existence of the February Eighteenth Movement (FEM) which he accused of planning attacks on Kenya to be launched from Uganda.

Moi accused advocates of multiparty politics of subversion, and started arbitrary detention of these perceived dissidents. Koigi Wa Wamwere, John Khaminwa, Raila Odinga, Mohammed Ibrahim, Gitobu Imanyara, Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia and others, were detained under callous conditions and without trial. Human rights lawyers, Gibson Kamau Kuria and Kiraitu Murungi, fled to the United States to avoid being jailed. Arrests and detentions often followed Moi’s warning against his denigrators. Koigi Wa Wamwere and Raila Odinga fled to Norway after their release. Suppression of freedom of the press, assembly, association, expression and movement and other fundamental rights of individuals were extended to the press, and nongovernmental organizations. In 1991 Moi banned the production of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Ngugi Wa Thiong’s play Ngaahika Ndeenda (Kikuyu for, “I Will Marry When I Want”) considered by the regime to be subversive.

The church too became the central locus of dissent against the Moi’s brutal regime. Pro-democracy and human rights movements using cathedrals and the compounds of churches as venues for expressing their views and drawing plans for action, were persistently arrested and harassed.  When Anglican Bishop Alexander K. Muge emphasized that the church had a moral obligation to protest when God-given rights and liberties are violated and to give voice to the voiceless, he was killed in mysterious car crash on August 14, 1990. He had earlier been warned by then Minister for Labor Mr. Peter Okondo not to set foot in Busia. However, Muge defied the ban and traveled to Busia. On the way back, he lost his life in a road accident near Kipkaren. In another onslaught on the Clergy, Presbyterian Church minister Rev. Timothy Njoya was arrested in 1988 for suggesting that Kenyans should hold discussions on critical questions affecting the country.  Demands for competitive elections and an end to detention without trial were amplified when Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Dr. Robert Ouko, was assassinated in February 1990. Calls to reveal his real murders augmented those for pluralism and respect for human rights.

Bishop Alexander Kipsang Muge died in a mysterious accident on August 14, 1990.

The crackdown intensified during the Saba Saba (July 7) 1990 meeting, organized by the pro-democracy and human rights advocates. Some of these leaders later founded the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD). The forum advocated an end to jailing dissenters without trial. An attempt by the American embassy to broker a negotiated permission for FORD to hold its first public meeting scheduled for 16 November, 1991 failed. The government refused to issue a permit and instead arrested Oginga Odinga and Gitobu Imanyara. Others like Masinde Muliro, Martin Shikuku, James Orengo, and Paul Muite managed to go into hiding. The FORD leaders, however, later went ahead with the meeting, but were arrested by the police who forcefully dispersed the gathering.

Rev. Timothy Njoya after being clobbered by Jeshi La Mzee goons.

The US Congress, concerned with human rights violations and corruption, passed the Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Act of 1991 requiring Kenya to meet certain conditions before $15 million in economic and military aid could be disbursed. These conditions were based on the provisions that Kenya charge and try or release all prisoners, including any persons detained for political reasons; cease any physical abuse or mistreatment of prisoners; restore the independence of the judiciary; and restore freedoms of expression. US Congressional concerns gained momentum in the 1990s, culminating in a fact-finding mission to Kenya by high ranking Senators. As a result, Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia, Raila Odinga, and Gitobu Imanyara were released from detention.

On June 10, 1999, the police, complemented by a squad of KANU youth and the infamous ‘Jeshi la Mzee’, violently disrupted a peaceful rally organized by religious and civil society groups to protest the government’s handling of the constitutional review process. A number of people, including the Reverend Timothy Njoya were clobbered mercilessly and seriously injured. The ‘Jeshi La Mzee’ was allegedly sponsored by the then Assistant Minister in the Office of the President, Fred Gumo.

Moi’s atrocities came to the open during Kibaki’s regime, when the infamous torture chambers inside Nyayo House were declassified and the evidence of brutal treatment of those who were in detention made public. Kenneth Matiba’s health never recovered after his incarceration and torture. While we mourn the former head of state, the scars inflicted by his Machiavellian regime will forever be embossed in the minds of generations to come.

Tsomnyazi Wa Nganga ©2020