How Daniel Moi consolidated power by ruining opponents after succeeding Jomo Kenyatta.
Since we don’t learn from history – and because there is a lot of chest-thumping going around, let me tell you a story of how transitions bring in political bad manners, and sloganeering replaces reason.
In a March 1979 Kenya Gazette notice, somebody gazetted the word ‘Nyayo’ as part of the words protected by law and which could not be commercialised. It had joined other protected words: Jamhuri, Harambee, and Madaraka. With that simple act, and you can thank Attorney-General Charles Njonjo for this creativity, Nyayo sloganeering got some legal backing in the same Act that protects national emblems and our flag.
Dictatorship, if a nation doesn’t watch, is introduced in small tiny doses – and in many cases, the schemers end up as the first casualties. Here is a story.
Three days before Kenyatta died, the ever-scheming G.G Kariuki met with vice-president Daniel arap Moi. During the meeting, G.G, as he was better known, asked Moi to start planning on how he would rule Kenya once he became president. There were all signs, then, that Jomo was about to die.
Moi looked at G.G and, according to his autobiographer Andrew Morton, told him that he would “just get on and run the country…by his Christian faith and his belief in God’s guidance.” For 11 years, Moi had been Jomo Kenyatta’s vice-president – but like all vice-presidents in Kenya, he never exercised any real power besides the glamour of the office.
By the time Kenyatta died in August 1978, Moi was only 54. Politically, the oligarchs had eclipsed Moi and called shots in both the State House, the central government, and the powerful provincial administration. In the latter, we had the likes of Isaiah Mathenge, Eliud Mahihu, and Simeon Nyachae. The oligarchs had power and money and owned large businesses, banks, and farms. They, given a chance, topped it with some arrogance.
But this was a small coterie of tin gods. By standards, Moi was a poor politico. Besides some beer distribution business, thanks to Kenneth Matiba’s networks at East African Breweries, Moi had some choice farms that he had received to get the opposition Kadu to close shop and support Kenyatta’s single-party project. One of these was a scandalous 2,344-acre farm he had acquired in 1964 at Kampi-ya-Moto for Sh25 an acre.
Of course, to divert a bit, you cannot single out Moi for land notoriety because he was in good company with all the land-loving Kenyatta’s and their expansive Ruiru-to-Dandora empire. But, again, the entire Cabinet and senior government officials were knee-deep in the settlement mess. We know that Moi had taken advantage of the cross-over of Kadu members to Kanu to make more demands. For instance, in 1966, he wrote a letter to Peter Shiyukah, the PS in the Ministry of Lands and Settlement, demanding the allocation of former settler William Gunson’s house within the Perkera Irrigation Scheme in Eldama Ravine. The scheme was within the former Ravine Farm, where the Canadian farmer, well-known as “Gunny” in the colony, had been using the land for mixed farming.
Initially, Gunson’s house was left as a State Lodge, but Moi, by then a minister, had asked Shiyukah if he could get 100 acres “like most MPs and other prominent people.” What Moi was talking about was the Z-Plot scheme where all the notables in the Kenyatta government were allowed to buy, some for a song, 100 acres with farmhouses.
Moi did not know much about Gunson’s land. “All I know is that the value of the land surrounding this house is very poor, and I would like to buy it so that I can keep a few cattle on it.” This letter was handed over to Land and Settlement minister Jackson Angaine, who asked the Director of Settlement to check whether he could “demarcate 100 acres to make the house more attractive”. Moi finally got the land.
What we see from archival records is that Moi could have used the Kadu dissolution to gain some economic muscle that he could not have received within the Opposition Kadu. But, of course, his fervent Rift Valley critics thought he was a sell-out, and the most radical voice was Jean Marie Seroney, who was detained later with Martin Shikuku for claiming that Kanu was “dead.”
By the time Moi came to power in 1978, he had not managed to gather any major acquisitions after he became vice-president in 1967, the political heat in Kenya and the fear of assassins kept him busy looking over his shoulders. But through the connivance of Charles Njonjo and Mwai Kibaki – the bedrock of the Kanu-wing that had stood with Moi against the Kiambu clique, Moi managed to get to State House. The rest is history.
The story of how Moi consolidated his power in the 90-day period between Kenyatta’s death and his eventual installation as the second president is interesting. During this period, was witnessed the reconstruction of power around him. This reconstruction of power came in the form of ‘loyalty pledges’ and from politicians going to “convey condolences”.
That those who stood on Moi’s path would be targeted came soon – their loyalty pledges notwithstanding. The first salvo was openly thrown by assistant minister Okiki Omayo, who dismissed the assurances as “not genuine”.
A separate salvo was thrown by Minister for Planning, Dr Zachary Onyonka, who described the loyalty pledges as “mere attempts by the rich” to consolidate power once again. G.G Kariuki had emerged as the Mr Fixer. He was not alone. The target at first seemed to concentrate on the most influential insiders in the Kenyatta government, and then he went for those in his backyard.
It was on September 24, only a month after Kenyatta died, that Moi gave a stern warning to those opposed to him. “There are leaders who come to me during the day to pledge loyalty and then go off to attend illegal night meetings aimed at dividing peace-loving Kenyans,” said Moi. “I Know a lot of what may be going on among such leaders, and I warn that they should not blame me or the government if action is taken against them.”
People thought Moi would only target his fellow politicos. They got comfortable. Those who did not resign were edged out, and in the 1979 General Election, the first batch of powerful Kenyatta-era politicians fell. That is how the likes of Mbiyu Koinange, Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano, Dr Njoroge Mungai, and many others fell. Of course, people did not pay attention. He was dependent on the support of Njonjo, Kibaki, civil service head Geoffrey Kariithi, PS Jeremiah Kiereini, and Kariuki.
So powerful were Njonjo and Kariuki that they would ride inside the president’s limousine. I once asked G.G why they were doing that, and his answer was interesting. “Moi feared assassins, and we had to give him company.”
Moi’s first priority was to weaken those he thought were his most vociferous opponents. Under Njonjo’s direction, or on his motion, so many people were targeted. Kenyans watched as politicians were destroyed under Njonjo’s watch. The next targets were civil servants and security men. That’s the time the likes of Rift Valley police boss Joseph Mungai escaped while the Commissioner of Police, Bernard Hinga, was retired and replaced with Ben Gethi, a former commandant of the paramilitary General Service Unit.
Others dropped were Hinga’s personal assistant Superintendent David Nene. By the time Njonjo and G.G fell – there was no soft ground. Moi then targeted all the businesses owned by perceived opponents. Indigenous banks were closed – and forced to join today’s Consolidated Bank. With that, an economy was destroyed. By the time Moi was done, he was paranoid that he now went for university students and anybody identified as opposition.
History has the uncanny habit of repeating itself. And it all happens within the framework of sloganeering. Those who lived through the Nyayo regime know the story. And this powerplay happens at both the national and county level. Finally, Njonjo fell. G.G fell. Kibaki’s bank was closed. Kariithi and Kiereini were edged out. It took a generation to end the Nyayo errors. I end my story.
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