Daniel arap Moi: Ruthless dictator or master of politics?

Daniel arap Moi: Ruthless dictator or master of politics?
  • PublishedFebruary 7, 2020

The death of Kenya’s former President Daniel arap Moi on 4 February 2020 drew mixed reactions from Kenyans – some remembered his 24-year rule as a period of stability and progress while others characterised it as a time of corruption and oppression. In this obituary, Anver Versi weighs up the President’s legacy.

Daniel arap Moi (1924-2020), born into a poor herder family in a remote village in Baringo, Western Kenya, rose to become Kenya’s unlikely second President and, against all odds, remained in office for a record period of 24 years (1978-2002).

In a country in which ethnicity is still perhaps the most important factor in power manipulation, he belonged to the relatively small and at the time, powerless Kalenjin group. His birth name was Toroitich arap (son of) Moi but he took the name of Daniel when he was sent to study at a Protestant missionary primary school.

He was a diligent, hardworking and popular student and according to anecdotal accounts, above average in intelligence. After finishing secondary school, he became a teacher before entering pre-independence politics.

In his authorised biography, Moi, the Making of an African Statesman by Andrew Motion, who also wrote the biography of the late UK Princess Diana, he says the difficulties of his early years had imbued him with considerable self-confidence and an unshakeable belief in his ‘special destiny’.

His first paid job was to relocate cattle for a missionary, spending three days on the road and living off wild fruits to earn two shillings which he spent on a copy of the Bible translated into Kalenjin.

He seemed to slip easily into the fringes of the political elite then agitating for the release of Jomo Kenyatta, detained by the British, and independence.

In 1960, in the run-up to Kenya’s independence, Moi and other politicians who represented the smaller ethnic groups left Kenyatta’s Kenya African National Union (KANU) to form the Kenya African Democratic Union, KADU. The aim was to neutralise the dominance of Kenya’s two main dominant ethnicities – the Kikuyu and the Luo.

KADU lost to KANU in the first general election in 1963 and the party was dissolved a year later, with the top cadres joining KANU. Moi was appointed Home Minister by Kenyatta in 1964 and promoted him to Vice-President in 1967.

Rise to the Presidency

With Kenyatta a towering figure on the political landscape, the role of the Vice-President was largely supportive and almost ceremonial. All this changed when Kenyatta’s health began to fail and the intense and ruthless infighting among the elite to succeed him began to unfold.

Some of the bitterest infighting was within the Kikuyu elite itself but on one issue, ‘The Kikuyu mafia’ – who dominated politics and the economy – were united: the Presidency had to remain ‘within the family’, i.e. the numerically superior Kikuyu.

But it was clear that Kenyatta, concerned about his legacy and determined to maintain stability following his passing, was grooming Moi to succeed him as he believed he could unite the various ethnic and other interests.

According to the constitution, the Vice-President would be declared President if the incumbent died in office and would remain so until fresh elections could be held. A faction plotted to change the constitution to prevent Moi succeeding Kenyatta but their plans were crushed by the Attorney General, the Anglophile Charles Njonjo.

Nevertheless, as Kenyatta’s health deteriorated and he spent more time in the coastal city of Mombasa, tension over the succession rose with all sorts of rumours flying around, including vows to kill Moi should he step into the top office.

I was a journalist attached to The Nation newspaper in Mombasa when Kenyatta died in 1978. The media coordinated the timing of the release of the news of his death to prevent a power grab and Njonjo swiftly moved to uphold the constitution and install Moi as President.

Kenya at this time was like a hive of competing and conflicting power bases and it was feared that without Kenyatta’s iron grip, the country would splinter and descend into violence. Would Moi be able to fill the enormous vacuum left by Kenyatta?

The Nyayo philosophy

His first pronouncement was to tell the nation that he would follow exactly in Kenyatta’s footsteps (nyayo in Kiswahili) to reassure both domestic and external players. He repeated his pledge to follow in Kenyatta’s footsteps in subsequent addresses and the media, worried that he would be seen as weak and not his own man, turned it into the ‘Nyayo philosophy’, which then stood for peace and unity.

Moi announced popular measures such as free milk and education for children, toured the country and pledged to bring in members of the minor ethnicities into various branches of government. He was elected unopposed and was sworn in as the country’s second President in 1978.

Once in office, the full implication of what being President of Kenya meant began to sink in and he had to learn very quickly how to manage and manipulate the various powerful factions, internal as well as external, snapping at this heels.

In the 1980s and 90s, Moi combined political nous with strong-arm tactics, jailing and detaining thousands without charge. His attitude hardened following a failed coup attempt in 1982. He was also accused of organising assassinations of potential rivals and he allowed new levels of corruption, linked to political fealty, to flourish. These are seen as the ‘lost decades’ when the economy stagnated, the press was muzzled and an atmosphere of fear of oppression was never far away.

Nevertheless he maintained political stability, effectively neutralised the power of the dominant ethnic groups and raised some marginal groups like his own Kalenjin. Some called him the ‘Master of Politics’.

Prevented from standing for elections in the 2002 polls, he had groomed the young Uhuru Kenyatta to take over after him but Kenyatta lost heavily to a coalition formed by veteran politician Mwai Kibaki.

Moi, although still influential behind the scenes, gradually withdrew from public life but he continued to be regarded as one of the region’s ‘wise men’ and asked to intervene in broader African disputes.


How will Moi be remembered? His supporters continued to pledge their loyalty to him to the end but many who lived through the times saw him as a ruthless, manipulative dictator. Some analysts argue that given the fluid political and economic environment at the time, he was indeed the right person at the right time.

At the height of his powers, however, one could saw of him what a character in William Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar said of the Roman dictator:

“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus; and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.”

Written By
Anver Versi

Award-winning journalist Anver Versi is the editor of New African magazine. He was born in Kenya and is currently based in London, UK.

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