Kenya: The legend and legacy of Daniel Arap Moi

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi

Posted on Wednesday, 19 February 2020 13:46
Military officers carry the coffin of late former Kenya's President Daniel Arap Moi draped in the national flag after his memorial service at the Nyayo Stadium in Nairobi
Military officers carry the coffin of late former Kenya's President Daniel Arap Moi draped in the national flag after his memorial service at the Nyayo Stadium in Nairobi, Kenya February 11, 2020. REUTERS/Njeri Mwangi

As Kenya mourns the godfather of its political elites, the politicians have escalated their squabbles, and the economy keeps tanking.

The death of Daniel Arap Moi, who ruled Kenya for 24 years, marked the exit of the country’s most prominent and longest-serving leader.

But his genes, both biological and political, run strong in the country and continue to shape the current political climate.

Faced with a worsening economic downturn, stalled or failed projects, and other complications, Kenya’s current political elite is trying to change the narrative. And Moi, though dead, remains a big part of it.


Exit the King

Moi, who first became a legislator in the mid-1950s, was initially an opposition politician before he and the rest of his party switched sides to join the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU).

He was a founder member of the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), a federalist grouping of minority communities (and settlers), that lost the independence election to KANU. His major motivation for switching sides was that Kenya’s president at the time, Jomo Kenyatta, was falling out with his Vice President, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga who needed new allies.

Moi became the Odinga’s permanent replacement as Vice President in 1967, after the resignation of Joseph Murumbi, an art collector, who left his post after just 120 days in office. The only record shorter than that is of current opposition politician Musalia Mudavadi, who served as Moi’s last deputy for 60 days in late 2002.

Throughout his political career, from 1955 to 2002, Moi nurtured many political careers, particularly during his time in the presidency. Almost every politician of note in Kenya today owes some part of their political career either to being his mentee, or his rival, or both.

Moi fostered current President Uhuru Kenyatta’s career in politics from the mid-1990s, giving him his first postings, and eventually picking him as the ruling party’s candidate in 2002.

Moi also assisted Deputy President William Ruto’s career, after the now #2 joined the youth movement within the ruling party in 1992.

While Moi and Raila Odinga had an on-off relationship, with the former keeping the latter in detention for most of the 1980s, they eventually reconciled, formed a political alliance in the late 1990s, before falling out yet again.

Within his own family, Moi worked closely with his sons, one of whom succeeded him as legislator and as party leader of the independence party. Three of his five sons were candidates in 2007, but only the last born, Gideon Moi, 56, has consistently held office after succeeding his father in the legislature in 2002.

An episode in succession

At the state funeral, the elder brother, Raymond, passed the baton of leading the Moi family to Gideon. The baton, a permanent symbol throughout Moi’s leadership, is symbolic, but it is how it will play out in the country’s current politics that is most fascinating.

READ Kenya’s strong-arm second president Daniel Arap Moi dies

In a reality-TV kind-of-scenario, a big part of the analysis of Moi’s funeral rites was how his family, which he kept private for years after divorcing his wife in the mid-1970s, would re-enter public life. By the mid-1990s, Moi’s eight children were squabbling over wealth and other things, in what became a story fit for Succession, the TV soap opera.

“There is great rivalry among the Moi clan, not least due to the unflattering remarks made by Gideon Moi (his father’s favourite) about some of his brothers and sisters,” Africa Confidential wrote in 1998.

The publication also predicted that this “…competition may affect Kalenjin politics after Moi’s departure, and also his personal fortune estimated at over $3 billion (2.8 bn euro). The capital is held in trust by relatives and friends, and in front companies in Kenya, offshore tax havens, and several major international banks.”

These predictions were spot on. After Moi left office, his family stepped back, with Gideon taking over from his father, and his brothers and sisters disappearing mostly from public life.

While Gideon and Raymond are both legislators, albeit in different houses in the bicameral parliament, the former has established himself as his father’s successor, long before his family made it public.

Gideon and Philip, his brother who served in the military and whose claim to fame in the 2010s was a messy divorce case, took over the financial reins, navigating the post-Moi governments.

Part of the reason for the delay of Moi’s death announcement (according to several highly placed sources who spoke to The Africa Report) was to complete the process of moving assets from relatives and friends back to the family, as well as planning the internal succession.

In January, for example, a former top Moi aide once known as “God’s Banker” sold Transnational Bank to Nigeria’s Access Bank.

Part of the effect of Moi’s exit from politics in 2002 was the rise of William Ruto, who supported Uhuru Kenyatta’s first run at the presidency, switched to Raila Odinga in 2007, and then went back to Kenyatta in 2013.

Gideon’s succession, which began decades ago but was solidified by his father’s death, thus offers opportunity but also risk.

As the new head of one of Kenya’s political dynasties, Gideon offers President Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga a familiar name with which to navigate the foreseeable future.

Death by a thousand cuts

Most importantly for them, he offers the opportunity to fight Deputy President William Ruto among his primary support base. Senior personalities from the Rift Valley, specifically the Kalenjin group, are worried about how the rift could play out.

“Ruto is one of our senior politicians, but when it comes to leadership, there is the political and community leadership. We have not made anyone our community leader. He (Ruto) is just our political leader,” the retired Major John Seii told the Daily Nation.

Ruto managed to push out the Moi sons and become the voice of the region in the mid 2000s. The current political climate makes it almost certain that Gideon’s rise will not only be assisted by Kenyatta and Odinga, but also be deployed to open yet another front in the efforts to clip Ruto’s wings.

Kenyatta and Odinga, working hand in hand, have pushed for a referendum that could alter the Kenyan political landscape, and ultimately shape the next elections which are just over two years away.

While the referendum question is still unknown, it could be any one, or several, of the multiple issues covered in the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report, which include a proposal to change the structure of the political system.

Ruto was initially opposed to it, as well as the Kenyatta-Odinga detente, but he has since voiced his support, albeit unwillingly. Accepting it meant accepting the Kenyatta-Odinga deal by extension, which was made without his knowledge or involvement.

Before the end of the mourning period, a former Ruto ally, former Cabinet Secretary (CS) Rashid Echesa, was arrested on new corruption claims.

Echesa, who served as CS for Sports and Heritage from early 2018, was fired by President Kenyatta in March 2019. Since then, he has been vocal in his support of Ruto’s presidential bid, and has been arrested at least once.

His new arrest in mid-February, specifically on charges of swindling two contractors of a “consultancy fee” to get them a non-existent arms deal, led right back to the Deputy President’s office.

In quick responses, typical of Kenya’s current political chess game, the DP’s office fired back that the meeting (between DP Ruto, Echesa, and the contractors) had never happened.

What of the Man?

One risk Odinga and Kenyatta, and now Gideon Moi, run in fighting Ruto is that, in an economic slump with no clear solutions, Ruto’s political decisions could change the game for them.

A decade ago, during the last referendum, and after Odinga had fired Ruto from his Cabinet, the now Deputy President had opposed the new constitution.

Although he lost to the government of the day, he mobilized multiple entrenched interests, including religious groups (conservative Christians opposed to abortion in any context, for example), while consolidating the political grouping that gave him a solid footing to negotiate for the second most powerful seat in the country in the 2013 elections.

His allies are already pushing for him to do the same again, but the stakes are now far higher than they were in 2010.

Ruto has also reformed his image, which suffered throughout the 2010s, despite his election wins, as an ICC suspect and the allegations of corruption. Last December, he launched a leadership institute named for the Kenyan deputy president at Makerere University, East Africa’s oldest university.

Then, in January, he made a private visit to South Sudan. While the trip was officially about chickens, some pundits in Nairobi suggest that it may have been about consolidating regional networks.

He has also consolidated his media empire, buying a stake in Radio Africa Group, formerly owned by a Ghanaian. In the soap opera of Kenya’s politics, the big media houses are now either seen as pushing for either Kenyatta/Odinga/Moi interests, or Ruto’s.

Unlike the situation five decades ago where current president Kenyatta’s father fired Raila Odinga’s father and replaced him, eventually, with Gideon Moi’s father, President Kenyatta cannot constitutionally fire his deputy, but he can wear him out.

But Ruto, who styles himself as the “Hustler” who rose to sit at the same table with the sons of dynasties, probably has more space to manoeuvre with other ‘political outsiders’ than his old and new rivals.

Bottom line: How this game plays out over the next two years is hard to predict: a day in politics is a long time. But as Kenya’s politicians squabble over current and future positions, the country’s economic situation worsens.

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