In Every Day is for the Thief, Teju Cole’s brilliant account of his return to Lagos after a long exile in Europe and the United States, there is a memorable account of the author’s visit to the National Museum of Nigeria.
Cole writes of the great anticipation he had before visiting, which was based on a distant memory of the place during school trips.
He was, however, dismayed by what he found on his return as an adult.
The poverty of the collections revealed to Cole the true extent of the plunder by British colonialists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
He was dismayed to find only passing references to slavery. But he was just as angered by the displays dedicated to Nigeria’s post-colonial political history, which were ‘sycophantic, inaccurate, uncritical, and desperately outdated, as if each dictator was sent a form to fill in with his “achievements” and it was left at that.’
I have been much reminded of Cole’s words on several occasions over the past week when reading and watching coverage of Daniel arap Moi’s 90th birthday.
To show respect and deference to one’s elders is commendable, but the tone of much of the coverage of Moi’s birthday has been galling.
Writing in The Standard, Kipyego Cheluget celebrated the former president’s generosity and called on his readers to “celebrate Mzee’s birthday and good deeds he did.”
Kinuthia Mbugua, governor of Nakuru County, went further. He told The Standard that Moi, a leader whose most trivial words and actions led the evening news every night for decades, showed him that “you need to be humble.”
Mbugua continued to recall that “He used to preach on the dangers of tribalism and on the need for peace.”
Perhaps Mbugua should speak to some of the residents of Nakuru County that lived through the 1990s to find out about their experiences of Moi’s attitude towards tribalism and peace.
Mbugua parroted Moi’s mantra of peace, love and unity.
Much of the rest of the coverage of the former President’s birthday has been marked by a similar uncritical repetition of familiar tropes.
The commitment to regional peace is widely recalled and various populist, but short-lived policies, are fondly remembered. Most articles have reminded readers of Moi’s nickname: The Professor of Politics.
Of all the mischaracterisations of Moi, this is perhaps the most startling for its longevity.
It was an appropriate nickname at first. He made good use of the support by British settlers for Kadu and later the British High Commission of the moderates in Kanu.
One by one, he outsmarted his rivals in the struggle to succeed Jomo Kenyatta. And then he turned on his allies in that struggle, dismantling their local support bases as he did so.
But having won the presidency, there was nothing subtle, sophisticated or intelligent about the way Moi kept hold of power.
He took a sledgehammer to the Constitution, wrecked the economy and set Kenyan against Kenyan as he attempted to cling on to power by whatever means he had at his disposal.
This is hardly undocumented. As I write this column, I can see on my bookshelves the Ndungu report, the inquiries in the ethnic violence of the 1990s, a book of testimonies of survivors of Nyayo House, the memoirs of other political prisoners, and studies of the Ouko murder. Each reminds us of the true nature of Moi’s rule.
While the exact extent of his legal responsibility for the crimes committed during his presidency is unproven, Moi’s political responsibility as head of state during these turbulent times is unquestionable.
The argument that Kenyans should be grateful for his retirement in 2002 and his decision not to disobey the Constitution is absurd.
Only Moi need feel grateful. He has escaped investigation into the corruption and violence that so marked his final decade in office.
Moi will eventually die a rich and free man. Far too many Kenyans that lived under him were denied such dignities at the end of their lives.
What would Robert Ouko, for instance, have done with his life had he, too, lived to enjoy his retirement?
Towards the end of his account of his trip to the museum, Cole writes of his concern for “a country that has no use for history”.
I was left wondering much the same when reading through the sycophantic accounts of Moi’s birthday celebrations.
Kenya has no need for the sort of museum exhibit that Cole hoped to find in Lagos.
Moi’s vanity and the brutality of his regime left perfect, permanent artefacts in the form of Nyayo House and the Nyayo Monument.
Together with the neighbouring old District Commissioner’s office and Kipande House, these buildings remind us of the terrible consequences of colonial and post-colonial rulers, who relied on fear and autocracy to remain in power.
Prof Branch teaches at Warwick University, UK, and has written extensively on Kenya. [email protected]