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Daniel Arap Moi: the Making of a Kenyan ‘big Man’

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Daniel arap Moi – Kenya’s president from 1978 to 2002 – has died at the grand age of 95. The only extended biography of Kenya’s longest-serving president was written by Andrew Morton, made famous for his account of the world’s glitterati – from Princess Diana and Madonna to David and Victoria Beckham.


In Moi: The Making of an African Statesman, Morton portrays Moi as a “traditional” African elder who understood the complexities of leading, uniting and developing a poor and predominantly rural community composed of at least 42 “tribes”.

Unsurprisingly, this exculpatory portrait never became a bestseller.

Moi is widely held responsible for a regime that bore witness to, and benefited from, violence, corruption and discrimination. Kenya’s Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission found that between 1978 and 2002, Moi’s government was responsible for numerous gross human rights violations. These included massacres, unlawful detentions and torture.

But rather than focus on the ills of the Moi regime, I want to look at how he rose to power in the first place and what insights that rise can provide. Particularly because – unlike many other post-independence African leaders – Moi was not particularly well connected.

Moi was not educated abroad, nor did he rise through the ranks of the military. He was from a small and relatively marginal community: the Tugen, a sub-group of the Kalenjin.

Despite such odds, Moi succeeded Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, in 1978. And unlike Kenyatta, who benefited from being the “father of the nation” and from the immediate economic gains of independence, Moi rose to power when the Kenyan economy was beginning to stagnate. He soon faced increasing dissent and an attempted coup.

In this context, Moi oversaw an increasingly authoritarian regime in which he – as the “Big Man” – depended on a network of loyal supporters. But how was Moi’s leadership shaped by his formative years?

The teacher

Moi was born in 1924, when Kenya was a British colony. He was chosen by his uncle, a local chief, to attend the Christian Africa Inland Mission school in 1934. This turned him into a staunch lifelong follower of the Evangelical church.

After school, Moi opted to go to a teacher training college. This seemed to ossify his religiosity and the importance he attached to discipline and order, which would characterise his regime.


Through his role as a teacher and then head teacher, together with his regular church attendance and position on various boards and committees, Moi quickly developed a reputation with colonial officials for hard work and sobriety, and thus as a potential “moderate” African leader.

Moi was selected by British officials to attend a special civics course in 1953. This was at a time when opposition to colonial rule had reached new heights. Two years later he became one of eight Africans nominated to be a member of the colonial government’s legislative council.

Moi was to remain a member of the Kenyan legislature – first as a nominated member, then as an elected member – for 47 years.

Early entry

His early entry into politics bestowed two crucial advantages. First, when other Kalenjin politicians joined him in the legislative council, he was in a real sense their elder. This helped to entrench him as the Kalenjin spokesperson.

Second, Moi used his political position to take advantage of the new opportunities for African citizens and to advance himself economically. This allowed him to accumulate resources for political campaigns.

Yet these factors cannot alone explain Moi’s longevity and continued rise.

In parliamentary elections in 1957, the first in which Africans could be elected, Moi was one of just two African incumbent members of the legislative council to secure election. In the first decade following colonial rule, many heroes of the independence period and wealthy sons of independence fell by the wayside.

As I have argued in I Say To You: Ethnic Politics and the Kalenjin in Kenya, Moi had the ability at key historical junctures – notably at independence and with the return to multi-party politics in the early 1990s – to articulate the grievances of his fellow Kalenjin.

These included widespread fears of political marginalisation and historical narratives of injustice with regard to land, which also appealed to a number of other communities.

In addition, Moi’s financial generosity to local fundraisers, frequent tours of the countryside, and excellent memory for names and faces kept him popular with many across the country.


Ethnic alliances

Then there was his political acumen, which included an ability to build cross-ethnic alliances.

From the beginning, Moi – later nicknamed the “professor of politics” – showed great insight when, on joining the ruling party in 1964, he became a loyal ally of the then president, Jomo Kenyatta.

This loyalty, together with his position as the preeminent Kalenjin politician, goes a long way to explain Kenyatta’s decision to appoint Moi as his vice-president in 1967. He wasn’t seen as a threatening figure and this helped him rise to the presidency on Kenyatta’s death.

We must also recognise Moi’s ability, often through the strategic use of patronage and sanctions, to preempt and undermine his opponents. He had the tendency to act decisively and ruthlessly against former allies and later reconcile with former foes.

This gave Moi great political flexibility and enabled him to enter new alliances and to rehabilitate, recycle, or swap allies.

This dynamism helped him to keep ahead of opponents and limited the entrenchment of potential rivals in the short term.

But in the longer term his direct intervention in elections and repression of dissent led a growing number of popular politicians to form new alliances with church leaders and civil society activists to call for his removal.

This group was first successful in their push for multi-party politics in the early 1990s. Then on Moi’s retirement in 2002, they secured victory – through the broad-based alliance that was the National Rainbow Coalition – over his chosen successor (and Jomo Kenyatta’s son and current president), Uhuru Kenyatta.

Moi’s legacy is mixed.

His supporters can point to Kenya’s relative stability during the 1980s, his decision to reintroduce multi-party politics in the early 1990s and the peaceful handover of power in 2002.


In contrast, his critics can point to the problems that his regime oversaw and to the centralisation of power, culture of impunity and sense of an ethnically biased state with which Kenyans still grapple today.

This article draws from Gabrielle Lynch (2008) Moi: The Making of an African ‘Big-Man’ and Gabrielle Lynch (2011) I Say to You: Ethnic Politics and the Kalenjin in Kenya.

Source: The Conversation


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