The Machiavellian President; revered by some and loathed by many: A biography of former dictator Daniel Moi

Dante Mwandawiro
Written by Dante Mwandawiro

Moi was born in Kabarak village, Sacho division, Baringo County, and was raised by his paternal uncle Kimoi Chebii following the early death of his father. He went to school at Kapsabet High School, and later attended Tambach Teachers Training College in the then Keiyo District. He worked as a teacher from 1946 until 1955.

Moi was first elected Member of the Legislative Council (LEGCO) for Rift Valley in 1955. He was appointed the Minister of Education in the pre-independence government of 1960–1961. In 1960 he founded the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) with Ronald Ngala to challenge the Kenya African National Union (KANU) led by Jomo Kenyatta. The main ideology of KADU was federal government, while KANU was in favour of centralism. Due to its numerical strength, KANU, and the British government forced the deletion of all provisions of federalism in the constitution. Moi was elected to parliament in 1963 as MP for Baringo North. From 1966 until his retirement in 2002, he served as the Baringo Central MP.

Jomo Kenyatta promoting Moi to Minister for Home Affairs in 1964, and then to Vice-President in 1967. Moi faced opposition from the Kikuyu elite known as the Kiambu Mafia, who would have preferred one of their own to be eligible for the presidency. This resulted in an attempt by the constitutional drafting groups to change the constitution to prevent the vice-president from automatically assuming power in the event of the president’s death

When Jomo Kenyatta died on 22 August 1978, Moi became acting president. Per the Constitution, a special presidential election for the balance of Kenyatta’s term was to be held on 8 November, 90 days later. That never happened as the Cabinet held a Special Cabinet meeting without Moi and decided that no one else was interested and went around the country campaigning for him to be declared elected unopposed. He was therefore declared President of Kenya in September 1978.

In the beginning, Moi was popular, with widespread support all over Kenya. He toured the country and came into contact with the people everywhere, which was in great contrast to Kenyatta’s imperial style of governing behind closed doors. From the beginning, anticommunism was an important theme of Moi’s government. On 1 August 1982, lower-level Air Force personnel, led by Senior Private Grade-I Hezekiah Ochuka and backed by Raila Odinga and university students, attempted a coup d’état to oust Moi. The putsch was quickly suppressed by military and police forces commanded by Chief of Gen. Rt Staff Mahamoud Mohamed.

Moi took the opportunity to dismiss political opponents and consolidate his power. He reduced the influence of Kenyatta’s men in the cabinet through a long running judicial enquiry that resulted in the identification of key Kenyatta men as traitors. Moi pardoned them but not before establishing their traitor status in the public view. The main conspirators in the coup, including Ochuka were sentenced to death, marking the last judicial executions in Kenya. Sacred by the attempted coup, Moi appointed tribesmen and supporters to key roles and changed the constitution to formally make KANU the only legally permitted party in the country.

Universities and colleges became the epicenters of movements that sought to introduce democratic reforms. However, the dreaded Special Branch infiltrated these groups. Raila Odinga, Willy Mutunga, Mohamed Ibrahim, Gitobu Imanyara, Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia among others were incarcerated in prison. Kenya’s academics and other connoisseurs did not accept this one-party rule. Many members moved into exile, including Koigi Wa Wamwere, Kiraitu Murungi, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Gibson Kamau Kuria. Marxism could no longer be taught at Kenyan universities. Underground movements such as Mwakenya and Pambana, were born.

During the cold war, Kenya was viewed as a strategic regional outpost against communism. Moi received gracious foreign aid from the West. He was regarded as a legitimate leader and firmly in charge. The capitalist West deliberately overlooked his political repression, including the use of torture at the infamous Nyayo House torture chambers. After the end of the Cold War, Moi  was viewed as a despot. Foreign aid was withheld pending compliance with economic and political reforms. One of the key conditions imposed on his regime, especially by the United States through fiery ambassador Smith Hempstone, was the restoration of a multi-party system.

After the repeal of Section 2A that made Kenya a multiparty democracy, Moi won the first elections in 1992 and 1997, which were marred by political violence on both sides. He skillfully exploited Kenya’s ethnicity, especially smaller tribes’ fear of domination by the larger tribes. The opposition was disorganized and heavily divided, so Moi had no difficulty in winning. He always won the election with a minority vote of about 30% against the opposition who had a combined 70%, which was nonetheless of no consequence because it was subdivided among the opposition who had failed to unite.

From left: Daniel Moi, Nelson Mandela, Muamar Gaddafi and Yoweri Museveni

In 1999 the findings of NGOs like Amnesty International and a special investigation by the United Nation  were published which indicated that human rights abuses were prevalent in Kenya under the Moi regime. Reporting on corruption and human rights abuses by British reporter Mary Anne Fitzgerald from 1987–88 resulted in her being vilified by the government and finally deported. Moi was implicated in the 1990s Goldenberg scandal and subsequent cover-ups, where the Kenyan government subsidized exports of gold far in excess of the foreign currency earnings of exporters. The Goldenberg scandal cost Kenya the equivalent of more than 10% of the country’s annual GDP.

In October 2006, Moi was found by the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes to have taken a bribe from a Pakistani businessman, to award a monopoly of duty-free shops at the country’s international airports in Mombasa and Nairobi. On 31 August 2007, WikiLeaks published a secret report that laid bare a web of shell companies, secret trusts and front men that his entourage had used to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars into nearly 30 countries.

Former President Daniel Moi during a national function when he was the Head of State.

Moi was constitutionally barred from running in the 2002 presidential elections. Some of his supporters floated the idea of amending the constitution to allow him to run for a third term, but Moi preferred to retire, choosing Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Jomo Kenyatta, as his successor. His chosen successor was defeated by Mwai KUIbaki with a land slide. Moi handed over power in a poorly organized ceremony that had one of the largest crowds ever seen in Nairobi in attendance. The crowd was openly hostile to Moi and broke into the famous song, “Yote yawezekana bila Moi’’ (All things are possible without Moi).

After leaving office in December 2002, Moi lived in retirement until his death on 4 February 2020.

Tsomnyazi Wa Nganga ©2020