Modest but cunning, no one played better political chess than Daniel arap Moi
Daniel arap Moi probably does not know the exact day, month or year of his birth — for he comes from a time and clime when Africa’s bucolic people did not put any premium on birthdays.
We can, nevertheless, agree that on Tuesday the former president of Kenya will have clocked 90 years.
Why? Because, from records, from circumstantial happenstances and from many of his own statements, we can accurately calculate that Moi’s birthday coincided — give or take a handful of years — with the British government’s declaration of Kenya as a Crown Colony in 1920.
What that means is that when Kenya’s colonial and post-colonial history comes to be written comprehensively, Moi’s name will loom much larger than practically everybody else’s. He will be seen to have made the most spectacular escape from the most dangerous political game park.
Despite his many shortcomings and failings, Moi will stand out in a cut-throat environment. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga — one of Moi’s most important later adversaries — was the first person to remark upon Moi’s “fitness” to survive in the ruthlessness of such a Darwinian terrain.
Said Jaramogi: “Moi is like a giraffe: he sees very far.” It was a powerful metaphor.
The giraffe’s tall neck enables it, among other things, to see its environmental enemies from very far away.
Moi’s well-placed political “eyes” could also be likened to the antelope’s environmental alertness.
It was what enabled the young man to arrive so safely at the apex of power in 1978 and rule for a quarter of a century in a political Amboseli infested with some of the world’s most dangerous predators.
However, good luck also frequently intervened. Indeed, luck was what triggered the rise to the top of this humble stripling, wielding nothing more than bucolic cunning.
In a situation where the European form of education had become all-important for career and for preferment into colonywide leadership, Moi was armed with nothing more than primary education and only a smattering of English.
Many commentators do not see that this was a blessing in disguise. His years as a herdsboy in a predatory terrain were what had put him in excellent stead. They had equipped him with the alertness which most of his later competitors had lost through too much European-style classroom and book learning.
NEVER LOOKED BACK
This was what the British government itself did not see when, reacting to the rising indigenous pressure for franchise and to the Mau Mau fillip it had received in 1952, London ordered the colonial regime in 1955 to nominate a handful of indigenes into the whites-only Legislative Council.
London assumed that their lack of academic learning would make them safe as legislators. Moi — a semi-literate lad — was among the nominees.
But he arrived in Nairobi never to look back. In 1958, the nationalists scored a constitutional mark when eight indigenes were elected by direct franchise. They included Tom Mboya, Masinde Muliro, Ronald Ngala, Jaramogi and Moi.
But in 1960 colonywide nationalist parties were first legitimised. The Kenya African National Union (Kanu) was formed with Jaramogi, Mboya, Arthur Ochwada and James Gichuru (standing in for Jomo Kenyatta, the chairman in absentia).
But Ngala, Moi, Muliro and others walked out to form their own Kenya African Democratic Union (Kadu).
Their claim was that, through Kanu, the “big tribes” — the Kikuyu and the Luo — had ganged up to grab power with which to suppress the “small tribes” after Independence.
London, a master divide-and-rule tactician, rushed in to dredge this rift, openly favouring Kadu against Kenyatta’s more genuinely nationalistic Kanu. But a mere year after independence in December 1963, Kanu had so tampered with the Lancaster Constitution that majimbo — the Kadu-sponsored provincial interests which dominated it — had been scrapped.
The majimbo system had been imposed against Kanu’s preference for an all-powerful central authority with only a ministry of local government (itself controlled from Nairobi). The majimbo document was verily akin to the present 2010 Constitution, only that — as the personification of devolved power — the eight provinces have been replaced by 47 counties.
In 1964, Kadu was dissolved and its leaders decamped back to Kanu. In the meantime, within Kanu itself, the conflicting personal ambitions of the leftist vice-president Jaramogi and the right-wing Mboya had also come to a head. Jaramogi came off worse, and Moi was the chief beneficiary.
A DEATHLY BLOW
In 1969, after Mboya had played the most crucial role in expelling Jaramogi from the sanctum sanctorum of power, Mboya himself was dealt a deathly blow. But, although Kenyatta appointed Joseph Murumbi as the vice-president, it was Moi who replaced Jaramogi at the sensitive Home office.
In this way, Moi had embarked upon the final leg of his journey to State House. But, in the same process, he had also acquired the most redoubtable opposition in his political career. According to pundits, it was through then Attorney-General Charles Njonjo that London prevailed on Kenyatta to appoint Moi as the next VP when Murumbi resigned.
Moi’s longevity in that position worried what came to be denigrated as “the Kiambu Mafia”. Kenyatta was getting on in years, and people had begun to discuss his succession, despite Njonjo’s ban on such talk.
It was in that climate that something called Change-the-Constitution Movement was announced by leaders of an equally new name Gema (an acronym for the consanguine Gikuyu, Embu and Meru ethnic communities), demanding an immediate change in the constitution.
Spearheaded by Jackson Angaine, Njenga Karume, Kihika Kimani, Mbiyu Koinange, Njoroge Mungai and Paul Ngei, their chief aim appeared to be to remove the constitutional section which said that, if anything happened to the president — such as death — the vice-president would act for 90 days to organise the next presidential election.
But most observers interpreted the Change-the-Constitution Movement as motivated only by fear that if given even a mere week, an acting president would ensure he remained in that position.
What both sides did not seem to appreciate was that “Kiambu” was not one vast landscape of Lassallean homogeneity. At least one centrally placed administrative giant — AG Njonjo — saw things quite differently and was determined to follow the law.
The assumption seemed to be that even if Moi became the successor, he seemed too deficient in intellectual resources to last for long in that post, and any clever king-maker could use Moi as the ladder for self-promotion. Thus Koinange had described Moi’s ascendancy as a “passing cloud”.
PERSONIFICATION OF MOI’S TYRANNY
But Moi, who had been keen never to show his hand in this deadly game of cards, accepted Njonjo’s help and thereafter even made him his de facto prime minister.
Njonjo went on to throw his weight about so tactlessly that he, not Moi, became the personification of the tyranny that soon characterised the regime.
For his part, Moi seemed to be deploying the practical wisdom he had acquired as a herdsboy to purposefully give Njonjo enough rope to hang himself.
It was only when he thought the time was ripe that Moi used others to raise the “traitor” issue in the early 1980s in which Njonjo was finally found guilty — rightly or wrongly — of planning to overthrow the government, among other things.
Njonjo’s misfortunes raised Moi’s image for a time. But, meanwhile, the president had turned Kanu into a personality cult machine, through which he expelled all possible challengers and, given the single-party law, silenced them.
This finally led to the anti-Moi rebellion that culminated in the Saba Saba contretemps of 1991 and a constitutional change reinstating multiparty politics.
In 2002, Moi and Kanu were swept from power by Mwai Kibaki’s Narc. But history has a way of recapturing some of its own past. That election locked out a candidate alleged to be Moi’s. But in 2013 that candidate romped squarely into State House: his name is Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta.
Daniel Toroitich arap Moi’s Press Secretary Lee Njiru has worked for the former Head of State for just over 36 years. On Tuesday when Mr Moi turns 90, read Mr Njiru’s interview of the 24-year presidency that shaped a nation and the dramatic moments in Mr Moi’s involvement in international diplomacy as told by former Vice President and one-time Moi Cabinet minister Kalonzo Musyoka.