[Editorial Note: I wrote a draft of this post before Daniel arap Moi’s death last week. I have revised the last portion to reflect the news of Moi’s passing.]
[Update: See “How Not to Run a Country; Further Reflections on Moi’s Presidency” by Kwamchetsi Makokha in The Elephant and “Moi and the Simplification of the Kenyan Mind” by Wandia Njoya.]
During the years of the Moi dictatorship in Kenya many of the brave voices for decency and freedom came from church leaders–including several of the “unsolved” assassinations and “accidental deaths”.
For the United States at a governmental level, however, in the years of the Cold War American foreign policy in Africa was primarily focused on the perceived “geopolitics” of “great power competition” with the Soviet Union. Moi, like Kenyatta before him, was a convenient ally and there was little appetite for going too much beyond that. I have written here over the years about how we came to send F-5 fighters requested by Jomo Kenyatta under President Ford and start training his Kenya Police Service in 1977 under President Carter, and then under Moi acquire Navy basing rights at Mombasa later in the Carter years.
Jimmy Carter was and is a conspicuously evangelical “born again” Christian who cared about a lot of things beyond the Cold War, including an explicit start of formal incorporation of “human rights” in our foreign policy and State Department organization, but he was also a Cold Warrior president, politician and former officer in the nuclear Navy. Moi sought protection from Somalia’s Siad Barre as Carter sought to maintain the alliance with Moi’s Kenya. Carter sought to counter the Soviets and Cubans in Ethiopia under Mengistu and build a “substitute” relationship with Somalia, while also restraining Barre in his attempt to take the Ogaden from Ethiopia and any other expansionist endeavors in Kenya or Djibouti.
And so on through the Reagan years and early George H.W. Bush years, as Americans concerned with democratization in Kenya specifically, and with Moi’s repression and use of torture, and his egregious corruption and looting from the poor, had a limited place at the high tables of foreign policy. After the establishment of the National Endowment for Democracy in 1983 some media programs were started and the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute started doing some seminars and broad regional training, but we also continued backing and arming Savimbi’s UNITA in Angola, in particular, which influenced our relationship with the apartheid regime in South Africa, and with Mobutu in Zaire, and also shaped our relationships with nondemocratic Nigeria and Kenya as well.
It had escaped my attention at the time, when I was a College Republican state leader during the Reagan-Bush years when National Chairman Jack Abramoff and others were internationally promoting Savimbi as a “freedom fighter” against the Cubans and the Soviet-supported MPLA which naturally involved the issue of suppression of religious practice under a Communist regime, but apparently some involved in supporting Savimbi in the Christian Right in Washington also posited Savimbi as a Christian leader himself in some fashion in spite of his brutality. This surprised me when I learned of it recently and it is something I would be interested to learn more about.
It was only later when the Berlin Wall came down and the United States wanted to focus on facilitating on a cooperative basis the Russian withdrawal from ideology-driven engagements in Africa that then Asst. State Herman Cohen sought and received permission from George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of State James Baker to more generally promote African democratization as an element of our foreign policy. And thus we were willing to push Moi to legalize opposition to KANU and gave some support to those who needed to flee the country to avoid detention and torture for political reasons. Politically appointed Ambassador Smith Hempstone “pushed the envelope” to step on Moi’s toes to give some real aid and comfort to “the Second Liberation“.
Moi like any good politician made good friends, and some of my friends in recent years were his friends. Some of them are fellow Christians who were close enough to him to see personal human qualities that are not accessible to me since I know him only as a figure in history. Some of them were hurt badly by Moi. For me, I was not interested in Moi as a Christian in particular because Kenya is a predominantly Christian country with no shortage of Christians in politics and Moi seemed much more singular and noteworthy for his use of repression than for matters of faith, and it has always been a limit on my own imagination to understand how a purposeful Christian could really steal massively from the poor as I have understood Moi to have in effect done.
I did meet President Moi briefly to shake hands at the Embassy 4th of July party at the Ambassador’s residence shortly after my arrival in 2007. I was told Moi was not part of the official receiving line with Interior Minister John Michuki who was representing President Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta, the “leader of the Official Opposition” (in other words on paper Moi’s party boss as Secretary General of KANU). Nonetheless, he positioned himself as an experienced and opportunistic politician might be expected to anchor the end of the line. He was a little like the embarrassing uncle at the family reunion—everyone wanted to treat him correctly and get along, but the fact that he maybe did some things for a living that no one wanted to talk about made you want to keep your distance and certainly not let him “chat up” the kids.
Shortly thereafter, Moi was appointed by Kibaki as his envoy for Southern Sudan for the talks regarding the implementation of the “Comprehensive Peace Agreement” from 2005. He also crossed over to endorse Kibaki’s re-election also, and brought with him KANU as a whole and Uhuru himself. This abandonment of the opposition role proved to be a hugely debilitating blow to KANU as a political party with, at the time, still the largest numbers in Parliament of any one party, but it let Uhuru get re-elected to his own Kikuyu-dominated Central Province constituency.
In a casual dinner conversation later with someone who was not involved with our government to the best of my knowledge I was told that Ambassador Ranneberger had brokered getting Kibaki’s Southern Sudan appointment for Moi “to get him out of politics” for the upcoming election. While I knew that Ranneberger was most favorable to Kibaki in the election and had expected him to win as late as that October when we discussed the latest IRI polling results, I did not know until many years later, (2018) through the Freedom of Information Act, that Ranneberger had by April 2007 described to Washington in a cable a policy of “building capital with Kibaki” (as opposed to what I had understood from USAID program documents from 2005 when we were pushing reforms in the context of Anglo Leasing corruption and reacting to the Artur Brothers and the Michuki’s Standard raid from early 2006). So I cannot help but wonder if getting Moi and Uhuru on board for Kibaki’s re-election was part of the agreement for the Sudan diplomatic appointment and whether such helped induce Ranneberger and perhaps others in my government to be initially complacent about Kibaki’s political standing during the campaign.
The thing that struck me in spending a little time with Rift Valley politics and candidates in mid-2007 is that Moi just did not seem to be that popular, and people then did not seem to have much nostalgia for his era, and in fact were quite relieved to be so much freer in general even if there was not something specific for them in the latest political alignment of the day. If people were looking to Moi for an endorsement of guidance on “the way ahead” they were not open about it. So Moi endorsing Kibaki did not seem to me to be something that would move a lot of votes from the “ODM wave” in the Rift Valley. (Although the Moi’s could provide huge sums of money if they chose.)
Now that Moi has passed another dozen years later, I can understand the desire of many Kenyans to find things to celebrate out of a 24-year block of the young nation’s history, and of his friends and family to mourn him as a real person in the way that we do, remembering now the good and not the bad. And that is all well and good, but it is anther part of his legacy of Nyayo, and his continuing to tread in the path of tribe and fear and presidential accumulation of property and resources of the Jomo Kenyatta year, that in Kenya of today as before, funerals are always used by politicians for political purposes. And apparently this is now “traditional” because during the years of single party repression a funeral was one of the only places one might get away with a bit of political “free speech”.
So condolences to the friends and family of “retired” President Daniel arap Moi, but also to so many Kenyans who have had less, and who have suffered, because their leaders were not better.