In his days of power, President Daniel arap Moi was omnipresent in every household, thanks to the national radio and television that had him as the first item in prime news every evening.
Mark you, the State-owned channels were for the better part of his administration the only broadcasters in the country.
Moi, too, had a style of keeping himself in the news such that even independent newspapers found it hard to ignore him.
When there was no official function in the diary, he would create something to keep him in the limelight. He would suddenly stop to buy vegetables at the Kangemi roadside market, or drop by to have tea and mandazi at a mabati kiosk in Nairobi’s Industrial area. On a dry Saturday, there would be a wedding for him to attend.
Never mind even if it was one of a niece to aunt of a sister-in-law to a neighbour Moi knew many years ago when he lived at a village called Sacho in Baringo County.
Now you can understand why panic gripped the country and the diplomatic community when Moi suddenly went out of circulation in the last week of January 1995.
Even the political opposition that loved to spar with him had reason to worry.
With all rehearsals they had been left to punch on an empty bag. The diplomatic community, too, had reason to be concerned. Much as Moi wasn’t their cup of tea, they wanted him around at least as a sort of stabilising factor in a volatile region. As usual, Somalia was up in flames as was the larger Sudan. Rwanda was only a year out of genocide and Uganda’s President Museveni was yet to be trusted in the Western capitals. And so Moi was inevitably the best among the worst.
TROUBLE IN PARADISE
But much as the international community wanted to live with Moi, occasionally they reined in on him when they felt he had crossed the red line and needed taming.
One way of doing so was to deny him budget-support funds in those days when government revenue collections were at the lowest, and foreign funding was a must component of the national budget.
In November 1991, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), through a consortium of donor countries known as the Paris Club, had put brakes on funding to Kenya to force Moi to accept political pluralism in the country.
Up to the beginning of 1995, the funding hadn’t resumed, putting Moi in a desperate mode as his government stared at a shut-down. After much pleading, it was agreed that an IMF delegation visit Kenya in mid-February 1995 on a fact-finding mission from which a decision would be made on whether or not to resume funding for the country.
Besides the stalemate with the international community, another headache confronted Moi on the home front. After out-foxing the opposition to win the first presidential multi-party election in 1992, in early 1995 the Young Turks in the opposition ranks had teamed up with the civil society in a new initiative to take on Moi.
They called it the Mwangaza Trust and was fronted by, among others, Paul Muite, Anyang’ Nyong’o and journalist/political activist Robert Shaw. Others were Mukhisa Kituyi, Kivutha Kibwana and Kiraitu Murungi.
President Moi saw trouble ahead as the new initiative promised to achieve the elusive opposition unity. With a united opposition, Moi knew his days in power would be numbered.
More worrying to him was also the enthusiasm foreign NGOs, especially in the US and Germany, were showing in Mwangaza Trust.
Moi also had received intelligence that then influential Richard Leakey was on his way to team up with the Young Turks. Moi had to use every trick to scuttle the new threat to his grip on power.
TRICK MADE AT STATE HOUSE
With two weeks to the arrival of the IMF delegation in Nairobi and Mwangaza Trust having gone to court to demand registration, Moi went “missing”.
Then rumours flew. It was not hard to tell where the rumours originated. In those days, the State intelligence agents specialised in such mischief. Everybody was in panic.
A group of opposition MPs called a press conference to demand that the State issue a statement on the whereabouts of the President, terming it a matter of national interest.
The timid opposition MPs opted to inundate media offices with inquiries about the goings-on. I remember one such MP telephoning and asking me to meet him at a private place to discuss a “very sensitive matter” he couldn’t mention on the phone.
Of course, I could tell what it was but played into the charade of going to meet him. He gave me so many detailed clinical aspects of the “disease’’ Moi supposedly suffered from that I almost asked him where he “studied’ his medicine. Never mind, he was a maize farmer-turned-politician.
As anxiety took the country hostage, then US Ambassador to Kenya Aurelia Brazeal requested a routine call on Cabinet Minister and Kanu secretary-general Joseph Kamotho.
The latter would tell me years later that while the ambassador had indicated they were only to discuss matters to do with education, which was Kamotho’s ministerial docket, once seated, the ambassador ambushed him with queries on the whereabouts and well-being of the President.
The ambassador also cleverly tagged along a battery of international journalists with a secret arrangement that a journalist from the Voice of America raise the question of the rumours circulating on the person of the President.
APPEARANCE IN CITY STREETS
Moi was at the top of his game. He had got the opposition and the diplomatic community to panic – and reckon who the boss was, after all!
Within an hour of the US ambassador leaving Minister Kamotho’s office at Jogoo House on Harambee Avenue, the presidential motorcade pulled up a few metres away at the Harambee House office of the President. Within minutes, word spread that Moi was in town and working from his city centre office. From nowhere, a huge crowd gathered to fill every empty space near Harambee House. Hundreds others craned out their necks from the buildings within the vicinity of the President’s office, all eager and excited to see the man who had gone missing.
About 40 minutes later, Moi emerged from his office smiling widely and majestically walking towards the crowd as he shook hands. He was enjoying every moment of it.
“Do I look a sick man? Do I look like one who has come back from the dead?” he posed to ululating crowds pushing to shake his hand.
To prove he was as fit as a fiddle, the picture of good health, he asked the crowd to walk with him the about 100 metres stretch from his office to the gate of Parliament Buildings. Then he headed to the busy Langata Road, to Hurlingham shopping centre, and drove past the crowded Kenyatta Market.
In a few words, he was saying the big man was back in circulation and everybody can sleep soundly. It was Moi’s way of rubbing it in on the opposition and show all and sundry who had the numbers.
But State House wasn’t yet done with scare-mongering to scuttle the resurgent opposition as well as goad the donor community into opening bank vaults for Moi. Just two days after Moi resurfaced, State House released a statement to the effect that a guerrilla movement was secretly training in Uganda with the aim to destabilise Kenya and eventually overthrow the government.
The outfit, by name February Eighteen Movement (FEM) and its resistance army FERA, the statement said, was led by one “Brigadier” John Odongo, alias Stephen Ochieng Omoke, alias Hussein Kashmir, alias Augustin Simba.
For a soundbite in western media, the government statement said “Brig” Odongo was “an avowed communist” with intentions to destroy all Western interests in the country.
As if to give an excuse for a crackdown on the opposition, the civil society and the media, the government statement said “Brig” Odongo was working in cahoots with politicians, chiefly Paul Muite, the head of the Anglican Church Bishop David Gitari, and a senior journalist with the Nation group of newspapers.”
With that, Muite’s Mwangaza Trust was denied registration and scattered to the four winds. The donor community, fearful of losing an important ally to alleged communists, loosened purses on Moi.
The self-declared “professor of politics” had pulled yet another fast one on his adversaries.