Singing the song of Daniel arap Moi

Eighteen years after Moi stepped down, Kenya still cannot shake off his destructive legacy.

Daniel Arap Moi
President Daniel arap Moi raises his baton to salute Kenyans during the 34th independence day celebrations in Nairobi, Kenya on December 12, 1997 [File: Reuters/George Mulala]

The death of former Kenyan president, Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, in a private hospital in the capital, Nairobi, is bound to reopen old wounds in the country’s national psyche. Having presided over a brutal, 24-year kleptocracy that terrorised, murdered and tortured thousands and impoverished millions, history is unlikely to be kind to him.

His tenure is referred to by many Kenyans as the Nyayo Error, nyayo being Swahili for “footsteps”. Nyayo was his rallying call when he ascended to the presidency in 1978 following the death of his predecessor, Jomo Kenyatta, father of the current president, Uhuru Kenyatta. Moi vowed to follow in the elder Kenyatta’s ways and was true to his word – utilising the resources of the state to vastly enrich himself, his family and his cronies, while at the same time ruthlessly crushing any opposition.

His approach to government was encapsulated in a famous declaration he made in 1984: “I call on all ministers, assistant ministers and every other person to sing like parrots. During the Mzee Kenyatta period, I persistently sang the Kenyatta tune … If I had sung another song, do you think Kenyatta would have left me alone? Therefore, you ought to sing the song I sing. If I put a full stop, you should put a full stop. This is how the country will move forward. The day you become a big person, you will have the liberty to sing your own song and everybody will sing it too.”

Today, in death, the former dictator has not only escaped justice but has left behind a country that still sings his song. More than 17 years after he was forced from office, Kenya remains a country where power is primarily exercised for the benefit of those who wield it rather than for the sake of its citizens.

It is a nation of nearly 50 million disposable people where the richest one percent, the vast majority either politicians or closely linked to them, may control anywhere between half and two-thirds of the nation’s wealth. It is a country made in his image where a Kenyan official, who gets one of the highest salaries for a member of parliament in the world, can brazenly shoot a citizen in a nightclub.

Yet, despite the scores of public records documenting Moi’s tyranny, including the report of a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, there will be little in the way of official recognition of the Nyayo Error.

Already, the Kenyan media and government are hard at work attempting to sanitise his legacy. President Kenyatta has set the ball rolling, issuing a proclamation declaring “a period of national mourning from today until the day of his funeral” and stating that Kenyans and Africans “were immensely blessed by the dedication and service of the Late Mzee Moi; who spent almost his entire adult life serving Kenya and Africa”.

Kenyatta’s eulogising of the “steady hand [that] guided Kenya through the restoration of multi-partyism” conveniently does away with the fact that Moi jailed, tortured, exiled and killed those who demanded an end to his single-party dictatorship.

After he was forced by local and international pressure to allow opposition parties, he fomented violence under the guise of “tribal clashes” to ensure his re-election, killing hundreds and displacing hundreds of thousands.

Kenyan media is largely following Kenyatta’s lead in whitewashing this past. The Nation Media Group in a statement has declared that Moi’s “defining legacy was the introduction of multi-party politics”, rather than his opposition to it. Morning shows have lionised him as a great statesman and as one who made Kenya “an island of peace in a sea of chaos”, again conveniently ignoring the many massacres of civilians during his tenure in places like Wagalla and Garissa.

However, there is some resistance to this call to national amnesia. Many members of the famously vocal Kenyans on Twitter #KOT are refusing to dance to the official tune. There, some are choosing to remember the Nyayo Error as it actually was – a benighted period characterised by fear and pain and death. 

They are choosing to remember that the current crop of politicians, including some who fought Moi – turned into his protectors once he was out of power. In 2006, for example, Kenyatta’s nemesis-turned-friend, Raila Odinga, publicly proclaimed that he had saved Moi “when the Government wanted to take away his houses and sue him over Goldenberg during my days as the Minister for Roads”, referring to one of the biggest corruption scandals of the Nyayo Error in which an estimated $1bn was paid out between 1991 and 1993 as compensation for fictitious gold and diamond exports.

This refusal by Kenya’s ruling classes to allow for a national reckoning with the past is partly what lies at the root of the inability of the country to overcome the legacy of Moi. Instead, they are faithfully following in his footsteps and stepping into his shoes. Having stolen Kenya’s future, they are now attempting to steal its past through the institution of an “official history” which, given their record, will be little more than a whitewashing of tyranny.

Coinciding as it does with the 135th anniversary of the Berlin Conference which fractured Africa into colonial fiefdoms, Moi’s passing should be a moment of deep reflection about the path the state has followed ever since. Yet that will not happen until Kenyans muster up the courage to be clear-eyed about the past. As noted analyst and researcher, Rashid Abdi tweeted, “Resisting the sanitisation of dictatorship and the official #Moi hagiography spiel today is a revolutionary act”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.