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Daniel arap Moi: The legacy of an autocrat

Philipp Sandner
February 4, 2020

The rule of Kenya's second president, Daniel arap Moi, was marked by a deepening of corruption and nepotism. Moi, who came from simple pastoral roots and ruled for decades, died on Tuesday at the age of 95.

Daniel Arap Moi
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Joe

"Kirungu" — the one with the staff. That's what Kenyans jokingly called their second president, Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, who served the republic for 24 years.

He did so mostly with the trademark rungu staff, which denotes leadership among his people.

Read more: Is Africa's thumbs down to media freedom a case of follow the leader?

Moi was born in the village of Kurieng'wo in the country's Rift Valley Province on 2 September, 1924. The name Toroitich refers to his roots as the son of a cattle herder. Moi's father died when he was four and an uncle took him in, allowing him to attend school and qualify as a teacher. 

He went on to become one of the few Kenyans elected to serve in the British constitutional council in 1955.  He was not directly involved in the bloody Mau Mau independence rebellion of the 1950s. However, Moi sympathized with the movement and one of its prominent supporters, Jomo Kenyatta, even visiting the country's eventual first post-independence president in prison. 

Dedan Kimathi
The Kenyan Mau Mau rebel leader Dedan Kimathi, who was captured and executed in the 1950s, was a hero of South Africa's anti-Apartheid icon Nelson Mandela Image: Imago Images/United Archives

Moi was a member of the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), campaigning in contrast to Kenyatta's Kenyan African National Union (KANU) for a federal system. Furthermore, Moi's party concerned itself with the interests of his own ethnic group, the Kalenjin, and other smaller groups in ethnically diverse Kenya. Kenyatta was a member of the more populous ethnic Kikuyu group.

When Britain bowed to massive resistance in 1963 and gave up its colonial rule, Kenyatta convinced his rival Moi to merge the parties. Kenya effectively became a de facto one-party state. Moi was named interior minister and, in 1967, Kenyatta appointed him as vice president — despite resistance from the influential Kikuyu elite. After the death of Kenyatta at age 84 in 1978, Moi was elected — as sole candidate — as president. Three years later, he decreed Kenya a constitutional one-party state.

Hard actions against opponents

Unlike his predecessor, Moi sought contact with citizens and regularly traveled across the country. At the same time, he did all he could to ensure government positions and properties for ethnic Kalenjin.

Press freedom shrank under his presidency, which Kenyans until recently claimed led to Moi holding shares in one of the largest media concerns in the country.

When forces loyal to the government foiled a coup in 1982, Moi's reaction was heavy-handed. The coup attempt left more than 120 people dead and led to the arrest of around 900 more, with 12 coup plotters sentenced to death.

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Kenia Währung Schilling Geldscheine
Kenya recently introduced new bank notes in a bid to smoke out the hoarders of ill-gotten cash sumsImage: Getty Images/AFP/S. Maina

The president also clamped down hard on opponents within his party. Moi accused the then justice minister Charles Mugane Njonjo of betrayal. After legal proceedings, Njonjo was forced to resign for trying to force Moi from office. The internationally-esteemed foreign minister, Robert Ouko, was brutally killed after he publically denounced the abuse of office and called for a probe into corruption allegations. Ten years later, and after many aborted attempts, a parliamentary inquiry determined that Ouko was killed in Moi's residence. Several witnesses to the incident had in the meantime died in mysterious circumstances, the inquiry found. Meanwhile, other opponents such as Kenneth Matiba and Raila Odinga were jailed without trial.

On 7 July 1990, police and the military violently broke up the first demonstration to call for a multi-party political system. More than 20 people were killed in what became known as the "Saba Saba" (Seven, Seven in Kiswahili) Day.

Competition for the KANU

Massive international pressure ultimately forced Moi to introduce a multi-party system in 1991 and at the end of the following year, Kenyans cast their ballots in a general election involving different parties.

However, a divided opposition played into Moi's hands. There was also talk of electoral fraud and the vote was accompanied by excessive violence.

Read more: Smoking out the dirty money in Kenya

Five years later, a similar situation prevailed during elections. Moi emerged the winner — despite a majority of votes against him — because the opposition had failed to agree on a candidate.

Moi provoked fierce international protest in 2002, when he sought to delay parliamentary elections to negotiate a new constitution that would extend his stay in power. However, the election went ahead and Moi's decision to ensure to put forward the young and politically inexperienced son of Kenyatta, Uhuru Kenyatta, as a presidential candidate was cause for much internal party debate.

Indeed, Moi's strategy of ensuring a majority for KANU via a Kikuyu candidate backfired  His protégé was to win the top job only 11 years later. Instead, Mwai Kibaki of the National Rainbow Coalition was elected president in 2002.

Moi's 24 years in office ended on 30 December 2002, but the consequences of widespread corruption and nepotism during that time continue to haunt Kenya today.