Why former President Moi is a political genius

Saturday March 30 2013



It could be concluded that former President Daniel arap Moi is Kenya’s most influential politician.

He easily outranks Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, President Mwai Kibaki, opposition doyen Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, and Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

The man is simply a political genius.

That’s because he has combined patronage and political wizardry in more potent combinations than any other Kenyan leader, dead or alive.

He’s outsmarted and outfoxed, everybody. Yes – accept it. Mr Moi has no political equal. The question is why.

The man from Baringo isn’t possessed of enormous “raw natural intelligence”. But his “political instincts” are truly unparalleled.

The only true measure of a man’s greatness is his legacy. That’s measured either by ideas produced, or “political” and “intellectual” children sired.

Mr Moi’s footprint on Kenya isn’t in tomes written or in speeches that will echo on the pages of history. No; he isn’t a man of ideas.

There are only scant forgettable and mundane witticisms associated with his name. Some head-scratchers are “fuata nyayo” (follow Mzee Kenyatta’s footsteps), the “philosophy” of “love, peace and unity,” or “professor of politics” (referring to himself). He’s never uttered a memorable idea.

So how did a man of limited formal education – a rural naive – come to bestride Kenya like a colossus? The answer lies in one word – “project”. Mr Moi knew very early on that nothing succeeds better than a “political project”. He embraced conformity and shunned dissent and opposition to authority.

The young Moi knew that you get ahead by joining – and manipulating – the status quo. That’s why he turned himself into a project, first of the British colonialists, and later of Mzee Kenyatta.

Shrewd mind

History is clear that his Kadu party was a front for British settler interests against the more radical Kanu.

But Mr Moi showed a shrewd political mind when he turned his defeat by Kanu in the 1963 elections to his advantage.

He quickly merged Kadu with Kanu. That’s why Mzee Kenyatta appointed him Vice-President in 1967.

He had leveraged Kadu into a position of power for himself. The powerful Kenyatta kitchen Cabinet – the Kiambu Mafia – had nothing but contempt for the “Kalenjin herds-boy”.

Stories are legend – mostly recorded by historians – of the humiliations that VP Moi suffered at the hands of the Kikuyu elite.

There were even reports of physical assaults on the man. It’s said that his access to Mr Kenyatta was limited by the Kiambu power cabal of ministers Mbiyu Koinange, Dr Njoroge Mungai, Njenga Karume, Attorney-General Charles Njonjo, and other power brokers.

The autobiography of Mzee Kenyatta’s confidante Duncan Ndegwa, Walking in Kenyatta’s Struggles, offers priceless nuggets of Mr Moi’s vulnerability at the centre of power.

This is in spite of the fact that Mr Moi had helped Mr Kenyatta and political star Tom Mboya take down Mr Odinga. But Mr Moi kept his head down, and bided his time.

Mr Moi survived a plot by the Kiambu Mafia to change the Constitution and block his automatic succession in the event of Mzee Kenyatta’s death.

Mr Njonjo was instrumental in stopping the machinations against Mr Moi. That’s why Mr Moi ascended to the presidency upon Mr Kenyatta’s sudden demise in 1978. Mr Njonjo outmanoeuvred his fellow Kikuyu elite and installed Mr Moi in State House.

Then Mr Moi’s cunning – which he had always hidden – came out in the open. He dismantled the Kiambu Mafia, and then turned his cudgel against Mr Njonjo, the “kingmaker.”

He then quickly concentrated all power in his hands after the 1982 coup attempt. That’s when he earnestly set about creating his own political legacy.

So what’s Mr Moi’s legacy?

The man’s imprint on Kenya’s soul is evident on two fronts.

The first is the corruption of the body politic. In his 24 years in power, Mr Moi took the tribalisation of the State – engineered by Mzee Kenyatta – and normalised it.

Mr Moi cemented the role of the tribe as the pivotal centre of Kenyan politics. Mediocrity, material corruption, and state repression turned Kenya into a gangster state.

Blunted the opposition

Some historic scandals – like Goldenberg – defined his era. He blunted the opposition – and the struggle for a democratic constitution – until he was barred by term limits from running again in 2002. He left Kenya literally on its knees when he exited power.

But even larger than the corruption of the body politic were the “political children” that Mr Moi sired. In my view, they are Mr Moi’s greatest legacy. The political landscape is ringed everywhere with his “human landmines”.

Two of his political scions will continue to have disproportionate influence on Kenya for decades to come. Yes, you guessed it.

Jubilee leaders Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto may have a chokehold on Kenyan politics for a long time. Most people mistakenly think that Mr Kenyatta – because he’s a Kenyatta – was a political shoo-in.

In fact it was Mr Moi who plucked him from political obscurity in 2001 and started him on the path to State House. Mr Kenyatta is a “Moi project”.

Mr Kenyatta couldn’t even win his father’s parliamentary seat in Gatundu South in 1997 against little-known Nairobi architect Moses Mwihia, a political non-entity. In 2002, Mr Kenyatta was trounced handily by Mr Kibaki in the presidential polls. That outcome led to Kanu’s death.

Mr Ruto, Mr Kenyatta’s Jubilee partner, owes his career to Mr Moi’s tutelage. The “professor of politics” identified the talented Mr Ruto who more than proved himself in the notorious pogroms by the Youth for Kanu ’92.

Mr Moi may be gone from active politics, but his political scions could rule for decades.

Makau Mutua is Dean and SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of the KHRC; Twitter @makaumutua