I first heard of former president Moi’s demise from a guard. I was entering my workplace early in the morning, just before 7:00 am. As I approached the gate, one of the guards was haggling over the matter with his colleagues, insisting to them that the former president was dead. While frisking me, he asked if I had any information about this momentous affair, eager to have me vindicate him before his mates.
Given that, as I learnt later, the old man had given up the ghost around 5:00 am, I had no idea about it then. So I told the guard as much, adding for effect that I am not in the habit of listening to the news while asleep. However, thirty minutes later, during Mass, I commended Moi’s soul to God’s mercy, conditioning this on the possibility that the news was true.
With the benefit of hindsight, I think this was a good call, because the old man was, indeed, quite dead. But it was also the last time I bothered much about the matter. I did not stay updated about who was doing what, or the colourfulness of the ceremony of the state burial. Short of reading a smattering of topical tweets, I did not actively seek any news about his obsequies.
I do not say this proudly. Nor do I attach any normative weight to it, as if I would have been happy if everyone else had been as aloof as I was. On the contrary, I think it would have been quite beneficial for me to keep tabs with events, considering that this was an important occurrence in the history of the country. Only one second president of independent Kenya will ever die.
However, as a late millennial, who became aware of Moi in the waning years of his rule (I was in class three when he left office in 2002), I think it would be too much for me to be expected to muster any emotional energy to invest in the matter of his death. In addition, I think I got numbed by the immense number of deaths, both of public figures and of people quite close to me, that I experienced last year. Bob Collymore’s death, for instance, affected me in a manner I had never considered possible.
In my efforts to catch up with Moi’s send-off, I have realised that I can only approach him, in his death, from a perspective that is mostly analytical and intellectual. But I do not discount the experiences of those who have had more emotional reactions. Assuming they are honest, I think all the tributes and castigations he received from those whose lives he touched are valid. Their experiences count for something.
For this reason, I can debate declarations of Moi as a “visionary,” but I cannot question whether he was caring. I can dispute his characterisation as a peacemaker, but I cannot contest whether he was a loving father. I can talk about his public legacy as a president, who once had charge over the direction of this country, but I cannot debate about him in his private capacity as a man who had personal relationships with the people around him.
Over the weekend just before the funeral, I travelled to my village, some kilometres west of Kisumu. I met my dad at the local shopping centre, reading a newspaper. After the customary greetings, he told me that they (speaking here for everyone with whom I could identify him) were “just mourning Moi.” I nodded. Then I had a mischievous idea. “Are you really mourning him?” I asked. He thought briefly, and then responded that he actually wasn’t. Nobody was.
You see, Moi’s legacy this side of town isn’t exactly grey, as many have characterised it elsewhere. It is unequivocally black. As black as most of the people who live here. Even in his death, this cannot be denied. And that’s saying a lot, because no one in this country respects the dead more than we do. When he started talking, my father told me how Moi, like Kenyatta before him, brutalised the people of the lakeside region, trying to beat them into submission.
He gave me the example of the late Minister of Foreign Affairs, Robert Ouko, who was murdered at the orders of Moi. He told me of the very publicly-noted chain of assassinations that then followed Ouko’s to cover it up. He told the names of those who had been killed, from the herds-boy who discovered the body to the pilot who unknowingly dropped it. He told me of what they had been doing before their death, where they had lived, and who their relatives and friends had been.
This wasn’t the only case, and nobody in my father’s generation can forget any of them. I know enough to know that if I had written this article up to this point in the days of Moi’s rule, I would have had reason to fear for my life. The outspoken people who scampered before Moi’s tyrannical reach, fleeing to exile all over the world, are very well known. Many of them are still alive.
Some of them forgave and reconciled with Moi. Others, who still have the temerity to speak against the government of the day, which is made up of the political scions of Moi, have been drugged and deported to their homes of exile. Their experiences are valid too. We will have to take them all into account if we are to construct an accurate record of Moi’s time as the most powerful man in Kenya. Like all work that requires balance, this will be tough. But it must be done.
Like all of us, he was certainly a complex man. His virtues and weaknesses were amplified by the office he occupied, because they affected everyone in Kenya. As a president, I think Moi failed terribly. A litany of his political, social and economic failings would stretch to the moon. As a man, though, I cannot say what he was. Only his conscience, and now God, can judge him on that front. He may have been everything that everyone said about him.
I do not mean this in some abstract way. The chapel in which I conditionally prayed for Moi’s soul on the morning he died is located at the heart of the central building of Strathmore University. At the entrance of that building, on the wall, there is a marble plaque. The block letters engraved on it proclaim that it was opened by H.E. Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi.
Before he opened the building though, his government had donated the piece of land on which it stands, and facilitated the European donation of the funds with which it was constructed.
Feature image: Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
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