By Sam Nkire
This month marks the first anniversary of the passing of Kenya’s second President, Daniel Arap Moi, who was buried in his home, Karabak, on February 12, 2019, at the ripe age of 95.
Moi was third Vice-President to Kenya’s founding President Jomo Kenyatta with Oginga Odinga and Joseph Murumbi being the first and second. The interest of this author and writer in the affairs of this strategic East African country grew after encountering a bunch of Kenyan journalists and literary sharp minds on the campus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, South Extension, New-Delhi, in the late 1970s.
Kenyan-born journalist Peter Wakarugi, my classmate, was most eager to show me round his country’s places of interest as we boarded a Kenya Airways flight headed to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, from New Delhi, at the completion of our course, late in April 1980. The estimated 11-day sight-seeing trip overlapped to early May, when President Moi delivered his classic May Day address at the famous Uhuru Park to the admiration of this journalist who was on his way to Lagos after bagging a postgraduate diploma in journalism from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication.
My other Kenyan classmates, who included Matu Nguri and Paul Kivila, had also told me a lot about the very many historical sites and notable events of interest for which Kenya was known on the tourism map of the world. Some of them included the Massai Mara wild beast migration villages, Kenya’s war of independence or the Mau Mau rebellion and, of course, a famous institution of mutual professional interest, the Daily Nation Newspaper, which was to Kenya what the Daily Times was to Nigeria.
President Moi, who ascended Kenyan presidency in 1978, did not hide his ability to hold his own as a political communicator by his captivating eloquence and convincing oratory, as memebers of the labour movement, students and the general public listened to promises upon promises from the fairly new President who committed to leaving Kenya and its people better than the first President Nzee Jomo Kenyatta left them. These were some of his earliest promises to his countrymen, which he hardly kept.
My Kenyan friends, just like most African journalists of the last century, drank plenty of alcohol. Before this writer headed out to New Delhi from Jos, he was not unaware that heavy drinking, especially at press centres, was a known pastime among African journalists and their friends. Just a few months before embarking on the Indian trip, this journalist and a few others engaged a prominent Nigerian politician, Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim, in a deadly bout of whiskey drinking at the Jos press centre, near the Hill Station Hotel. While others went home without complaint, this writer ended up in hospital the following day.
However, that was nothing to compare to what followed the night of President Moi’s Uhuru Park address. Of all my Kenyan friends who I met in India, Matu Nguri was the heaviest drinker. Notwithstanding his excessive love for the bottle, Matu had earlier earned a first-class degree in literature from the University of Deresalam, Tanzania. You needed to flip through his notebook to respect his intellect, even if you disrespected his drinking habit.
As soon as we got to Nairobi from Delhi, Matu Nguri and Paul Kivila disengaged, leaving me in the hands of Peter Wakarugi, the lesser evil, who took me on the seemingly endless safari, part of which was the encounter with Moi. The night after the famous Uhuru Park speech was a harrowing experience for me particularly.
Way back in New Delhi, Peter Wagarugi had hinted of his best possession, an Alpha-Romeo car that he yearned to have his Nigerian friend ride at the earliest. Most of the day was spent in drinking parlours and bars where roasted meat and Tusker lager beer served as food and water. Boiled beans mixed with maize was my closest to Nigerian home food.
The worst of that fateful night came when Kenya police arrested me for sleeping in an abandoned car in the wee hours of the morning, having been forgotten by my Kenyan friend who was later fished out of a dinggy room in Nairobi’s ‘red light’ district, off Tom Mboya Street. I must have been very tired from the marathon drinking of the day and slept off in the car while Peter got out of the car and wandered into the night, ending up in the room where the police later found him. I was, however, let off the hook once it was established I was in the country legally.
President Moi lived a quiet life in retirement, preferring to offer advice when approached to do so. Who would have thought that former President Moi and an President Mwai Kibaki would once in a while sit together to talk about Kenya, considering the fight for succession that followed at the end of Moi’s regime?
Moi never wanted to hand over power to his one-time Vice-President, Kibaki, with whom he had a long-standing feud, preferring Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of his former boss. But that was not to be as Kibaki had a superior plan, which he successfully executed via a rainbow coalition that made him the third President of the Republic of Kenya. President Moi and his preferred candidate Uhuru Kenyata kissed the dust and Kibaki was victorious even though with much bruises. But a win is a win, they say.
The African Big Man, as he was called, remained in the background all through President Kibaki’s 10-year rule, which ended in 2013. Their historical rivalry notwithstanding, Moi recognized power when he saw a powerful man and Kibaki gave him the respect due a former boss.
The two rivals were to make up about the middle of Kibaki’s regime and Baba Moi, more or less, became Kenya’s most distinguished ambassador, especially within the African continent, at the behest of President Kibaki.
Many Kenyans say the Moi years are better defined by monuments of massacre, torture and corruption. His predecessor, Jomo Kenyatta, in whose footsteps he pledged to follow at his inauguration, was said to be autocratic and corrupt but Moi was much worse.
President Moi gave the impression he was a religious man. At his invitation, the Catholic pontiff, Pope John Paul II, visited Kenya in early May 1980, making it the first African country to be visited by a Roman Catholic Pope. In fact, the same Pope visited Kenya a total of three times during the reign of President Moi in 1980, 1985 and 1995, before the death of the Pope 10 years later in 2005. On May 6, 1980, this writer had his Lagos-bound Kenya Airways flight cancelled due to the multitude of crowd that swarmed to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to herald the arrival of the first Pope on African soil, after many years of Catholicism.
Today’s economy of Kenya may be growing or doing better than it was doing during the 24 years of Moi, but that is not to say that the economy is free from the stranglehold of the descendants of past rulers of Kenya. The current President of Kenya, Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s first President, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, is said to be one of Kenya’s richest men. So also is Gideon Moi, son of Kenya’s second President, Arap Moi. The richest families in Kenya include the Kenyatta family, the Moi family, the Kibaki family, with mother of the current President, Mama Ngina Kenyatta, as the richest woman in Kenya. While some people feel nostalgic over the recent death of Kenya’s longest serving President, many remember him for several massacres and tortures, including that of Waalla Garissa in north-eastern Kenya. Many will also not forget some of his draconian legislations, one of which led to Kenya becoming a one-party state once and, maybe, for all.
Moi had many chances of restitution for his many torture victims, especially at Nyanyo House, but could not take any or reconcile with relatives of his massacred victims during his 24 years of autocratic rule.
It is not impossible that former President Moi may have reconciled with his maker in the ‘great beyond,’ knowing that God is ever merciful.