Untypically, former President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, who died on February 4, 2020, at 95, will be remembered as one of the most influential figures in 20th century Africa. He was also one of the principal architects of Kenya’s foreign policy in the turbulent Cold War era.
The story of Moi’s encounter with the world of diplomacy starts after 1945. The rise of America as the leader of the West hastened decolonisation and the dismantling of European colonial empires dramatised by the February 3, 1960 “Wind of Change” speech by British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan.
In the twilight of their Empire in Africa, the British colonialists embarked on propping dependable leaders as allies in a strategy to manage the process of decolonisation.
Moi became one of the key figures in Kenya’s decolonisation. One of his assets was an enduring friendship with Britain. Young Moi was selected by British officials to attend a course at the Jeans School (Kenya Institute of Administration) in 1950 and a special civics course in 1953, and persuaded to join politics at 31.
The British encouraged Moi to forge a political alliance with President Jomo Kenyatta. On October 26, 1959, Moi travelled to Lodwar to visit Kenyatta, and took an iconic photo with Kenyatta and his Kapenguria Six colleagues.
Moi attended the constitutional talks held in London in the 1960s that paved the way for Kenya’s independence in 1963.
Moi emerged as a fiercely pro-West leader in the Cold War era. In 1964, Moi merged his Kenya African Democratic Union (Kadu) with Jomo Kenyatta's Kenya African National Union (Kanu), helping Kenyatta to neutralise the left-leaning wing of the ruling party. In January 1967, Moi became Kenyatta’s Vice President.
Three factors put Moi at the heart of Kenya’s diplomacy. In a recent biography, Wealth and Prosperity, (September 2018), Dr Njoroge Mungai, Kenyatta’s minister, confidant and personal physician, says Kenyatta had flight and height phobia. He never made more than three trips outside the country. Moi represented him in almost all international forums. Second, Moi filled the gap left by Tom Mboya, America’s right-hand man in Kenya who was assassinated in 1969. Mboya’s influence in Washington had diminished following the assassinations of his friends, President J.F. Kennedy and his brother Robert. Third, from the 1970s, the United States overtook Britain as the leading source of Kenya’s economic aid and military equipment.
In May 1969, Kenyatta dispatched Moi to White House to meet President Richard Nixon (1969- 1974) to seek US support for Kenya to contain threats of invasion from Somalia, Uganda and the growing Soviet Union influence in the region. As Vice President, Moi also met President Jimmy Carter in Washington in 1978.
At the time of Kenyatta’s death in August 1978, Moi was the unanimous choice of Western powers to take over. Under Moi, Kenya, along with Nigeria and South Africa, formed part of Washington’s triad of pivotal or “anchor states” in sub-Saharan Africa.
In return, Moi offered the United States military and naval bases in Kenya. Moi increasingly became the West’s blue-eyed boy. President Ronald Reagan invited him to visit the US in 1981. Reagan was particularly intrigued by Moi’s slogan, Nyayo (also his nickname). The same year, Moi also met Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in London.
The year 1985 was particularly a good one for Kenya’s diplomacy. Moi hosted Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth II and Pope John Paul II.
But Moi’s lasting legacy is political stability. The New York Times (February 4, 2020) eulogised him as the leader who “oversaw an island of political stability in Africa for decades”. He extended his Nyayo philosophy, consisting of the principles of good neighbourliness, non-alignment and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, to mediate conflicts and stabilised the Horn.
Moi renewed the defensive alliance with the Marxist-Leninist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia in 1980 and 1987. When rebels took over Addis Ababa in 1991, Moi mediated an agreement between Meles Zenawi who took the reins of power as Prime Minister in Ethiopia and Isaias Afwerki who became the president of Eritrea.
On the African scene, Kenya joined the Common Wealth Monitoring Force in Zimbabwe (CMFZ) in 1979-80 to facilitate Zimbabwe’s smooth transition to independence, including safe elections. Moi will be remembered as the only President to serve as OAU chairman for two consecutive terms, between June 24, 1981 and June 6, 1983.
Globally, Kenya became a leading peace-keeping and peace-building nation, contributing to almost 20 UN missions all over the globe in the decade between 1988 and 1998. Kenya was twice elected to represent Africa in the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member in 1973-74 and 1997-98. However, Kenya and the world changed in 1989. As the wind of democratic change washed over Africa, one-party authoritarian states like Moi’s Kenya came under pressure to open up the democratic space. Kenya’s position as a strategic nation declined, and relations with the West grew increasingly frosty.
In 1987, Washington cancelled Moi’s scheduled appointments during a trip to the US to meet Reagan following a media exposé by Washington Post’s Africa Correspondent, Blaine Harden, painting Kenya as a police state. An appointment with UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar in New York was also cancelled. Moi’s Cold War rendezvous with the West was over. In early 1987, US ambassador to Kenya, Eleanor Greer Constable (1986–89), even threatened war. And Smith Hempstone, who replaced Constable, masterminded a walk-out on Moi by Western diplomats during the 1992 Jamhuri Day celebrations. In the Cold war, Moi was the star, but in the 1990s the Sun came: a new crop of Africa’s “new leaders” eclipsed Moi and Kenya. Kenya looked east, to Eastern Europe, India and China to make up for reduced economic aid and to counter-balance the West.
Adieu Mzee Moi.
Professor Peter Kagwanja is the Chief Executive of Africa Policy Institute.