When Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi, the second president of Kenya and a leader who ruled the East African nation for 24 years with an iron fist, passed away on Feb. 4, Kenyans from every walk of life expressed various sentiments regarding his rule.
Moi, who was in office from 1978 to 2002, has been a controversial figure in Kenyan political history. Coming to power unexpectedly and against all odds in 1978, he would go on to serve the longest in the presidency in the history of the country, leading a brutal crackdown on the country's democratic aspirations in the '80s and '90s. He oversaw some of the most horrendous state violence Kenya has ever seen yet eventually handed over power peacefully in 2002.
This being the case since he passed away, his legacy has been contested and equally scrutinized in the Kenyan media and all over the world. For starters, the man the Western media dubbed a "professor of politics" was unpredictable – a ruthless anti-socialist political strategist and conservative Kenyan nationalist who viewed political authority as supreme and unquestionable.
The 'Rungu' rule of Moi
Having grown up in Baringo County in the country's Rift Valley region, Moi 's style of rule was largely symbolized by his "Rungu." This wooden baton, traditionally used for combat or hunting and a symbol of authority and power that Moi always carried with him, was indeed metaphorically emblematic of Moi’s political praxis and its subsequent totalitarian excesses.
His tenure as the president of Kenya has been referred to, in Kenya’s political historical lexicons and in popular culture, as the "Nyayo Error" (rather than "era"). And indeed it was an error. Moi had promised to follow in the Nyayo – "the footsteps" in Kiswahili – of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of an independent Kenya. Under his rule, Moi embraced, entrenched and continued the one-party rule of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party and its totalitarian legacy inherited from Kenyatta.
Under Moi’s kleptocracy, any hopes for democratic rule were dashed. The nation descended into a brutal doldrum. Activists and intellectuals deemed subversive were jailed en masse – leading to a massive brain-drain in the '80s and '90s. The globally renowned Novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Nobel laureate Wangari Mathai, among many others, languished in prisons during his tenure. Moreover, corruption and nepotism flourished in state institutions.
Most tragically, Kenya witnessed under his rule the Garissa massacre of 1980 and Wagalla massacre of 1984, in which ethnic Somalis in the northern parts of the country were systematically targeted by security forces – approximately 5,000 Kenyan citizens lost their lives in these operations. In addition to this, Moi consolidated his powers in the elections of 1992 and 1997 through tribal mobilization and electoral rigging, spurring ethnic violence and animosities that persist in Kenyan politics to this very day.
Moi stayed in power for a long time – partly with the help and backing from the capitalist West as a vanguard against the democratic socialism that was thriving in neighboring Tanzania and Somalia and the communism over which the Derg presided in Ethiopia in the '70s and '80s.
Sanitizing a brutal legacy
The death of the former president has opened old wounds and expressions of sorrow and mourning have been raise from all over the nation. Opinions over his legacy and rule are contested in the Kenyan media and in among politicians and activist circles. However, what is certain is that his contested legacy and his political mode of governance will haunt Kenya’s political psyche for a long time. The brutalities, trauma and pain of his rule are yet to addressed and redressed in Kenya.
In the last week, aside from mourning the late president, the country's media and political establishment took no time to race one another scrambling to sanitize the legacy of his rule. The Nation media group, the largest media house in Kenya, eulogized Moi is a press release stating, ‘‘For the 24 years that he ruled, President Moi touched many lives’’ – utterly ignoring the many lives he also destroyed. Morning talk shows glorified the repressive leader. Ironically, Moi was allergic to freedom of press and freedom of speech. He jailed journalists and intellectuals at the drop of a hat. Indeed, writer and activist Nanjala Nyabola lamented that: ‘‘When you see Kenyan journalists squandering the freedom that their seniors risked everything to gain in the face of people like this, it breaks your heart."
Moi was a significant political leader in Kenya’s history; he stabilized and united the nation in the 90s while neighbors like Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia descended into civil wars; and he handed over power peacefully in 2002 – hence why many Kenyans have duly mourned his death. However, we have a responsibility to remember and honor the Kenyans who suffered gross human rights violations under his rule. Whitewashing Moi’s legacy won’t help Kenya and Kenyans. The onus is on us to remember them and say "never again." Indeed, on Feb. 10 surviving victims and residents in Wajir County marked the anniversary of the 1984 Wagalla massacre, while Moi’s body laid in the Parliament for public viewings.
Mass media all over the African countries, and Kenya in particular, over the past week have not been obliged to reverberate with sanitizing hagiographies of "strong men" who terrorized their citizens and the press alike. To foster accountability and responsibility in our political cultures, our media and press have to tread a path that projects critical, objective and nuanced narratives and facts to the masses. In the last week, the Kenyan media absolved itself of its responsibilities to informed and critical journalism and decided to remain amnesiac to Moi’s totalitarianism and brutal crackdowns on activists and journalists.
The legacy of Moi will remain contested in the annals of Kenyan historiography. There are constructive lessons to be drawn from his 24-year rule of Kenya – both good and bad. After all, Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi was a human being: He will remain a national hero for many and unrelenting villain for just as many.
*Graduate student and a teaching fellow at the Sociology Department of Ibn Haldun University
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