Moi: The passing cloud that never left

For 12 years under Mzee he was patient, calm and calculating around powerful men as he waited for his chance to strike; ending up ruling Kenya for 24 years


Retired President Daniel arap Moi was an unlikely successor to Kenya’s first president, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. Many thought so.

Moi had spent 12 years under the President’s wing, and was nothing but the obedient and submissive principal assistant to the larger-than-life Head of State.

But things were to take a completely different turn when in the wee hours of August 22, 1978, President Kenyatta died, and Moi was sworn in as president 12 hours later in Nairobi.

The man who shepherded this process the then Attorney General Charles Njonjo, himself having designs on the presidency, ensured that the constitutional provisions on the transfer of power were strictly adhered to.

Thus Kenya had a smooth transition from the immediate post-colonial era, to a new era. At that point, not many African countries had managed to make that transition either successfully, or bloodlessly. Kenya managed both.

In 1979, President Moi was elected unopposed after the constitutional 90 days elapsed, again the process being midwifed by a triumvirate of Njonjo, then vice president Mwai Kibaki and Internal Security minister G G Kariuki, then a very close ally of Moi.

However, despite all this seemingly smooth march into power, many did not believe that Moi was destined to be anything more than a holding slot and a stop-gap measure . Indeed, a phrase was coined for him — The Passing Cloud — to describe the expectations of the time.

Later, it clearly emerged the man was merely bidding his time in the early days of his presidency, waiting for his chance to strike, and probably lulling all his “enemies” into a false sense of security. This would be vintage Moi.

This is a man who survived 12 years around a powerful cabal surrounding Mzee. Indeed, this cabal had carried out a noisy and intemperate campaign to have the constitution changed to stop the vice-president automatically assuming the presidency in the event of the president’s demise while in office.

Indeed, Moi was a patient man. And clearly, a calculating man. A man behind the mask.

But Moi’s moment came in 1982, when a group of Kenya Air Force soldiers attempted to overthrow the Government on August 1. When the coup plotters were crushed by forces loyal to him, Moi seized the opportunity that moment gave him to cement his rule.

He crushed all dissent, re-organised the armed forces and imposed his will through appointment of loyalists to him. A year later, he crushed Njonjo by dragging him through a commission of inquiry.

Njonjo resigned and went out of public life- defeated. Moi then moved to create his own power elite, having finally banished the powerful network that he inherited from Kenyatta’s regime. From then on, it was unbridled consolidation of power.

The Provincial Administration and Special Branch became part of the network keeping Moi in power, and dissidence in check. In the late 80s, his grip on Kenya was complete, and his word was law.

The carrot and stick approach was used on a massive scale, where loyalty was well rewarded, while dissent was dealt with .

However, his continued suppression of dissent and the increasing atrocities meted on Kenyans by his regime spurred a democratic reform movement driven by professionals and the clergy. It started challenging Moi’s authoritarian rule.

By the early 90s, a combination of unrelenting political activism and international pressure forced Moi to cave in, and he accepted to restore political freedoms including multi-partyism.

Moi had now entered a new era, where new skills were needed to surmount completely new challenges.

In the first multiparty elections held in 1992, Moi, deserted by allies in droves, looked all but vanquished. Not many expected him to survive the Opposition juggernaut that looked set to sweep him from power.

However, through a mixture of political chicanery, gerrymandering, and sheer political skills, Moi would go on to win two multiparty elections in 1992 and 1997 amid widespread outrage about rigging.

In 2002, he had to bow out of the presidential contest since the constitution that restored multiparty politics barred any candidate who had served two terms from running again. Moi thus bowed out in 2002, a full 24 years after he was sworn in for 90 days as an unsure vice-president thrust into greatness by fate.

The cloud that was supposed to have passed soon after it ascended, had warded off all the winds that would have forced it to move on, and drenched Kenyans for a whole two-and-a-half decades.

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