The departed second president of Kenya ruled for 24 years. In that period, he became synonymous with the country, with an entire generation being born and growing up under Moism. Kamau Ngotho gives us his perspective of the man he saw in public and in private.
“I first saw President Daniel arap Moi on January 4, 1979, only four months into his presidency.
He had come to my home village, Sipili, in Laikipia West, for the first harambee since his inauguration as Head of State in October the previous year.
And there lies a story: Why come to Laikipia that early in his reign? He came courtesy of assistant minister GG Kariuki, who would rise to become a powerful minister of state in the Office of the President before he was shoved into the political dustbin.
Another story there: How did GG rise so high and then suddenly be hauled into the dumps?
While Charles Njonjo was playing Moi’s kingmaker, GG was what Jubilee Secretary-General Raphael Tuju calls “mtu wa mkono” (the spanner boy).
Njonjo would devise the strategy then leave it to GG to dirty his hands. In those early days of the Moi presidency, Njonjo and GG would ride in the president’s limousine, which earned it the nickname the “President’s matatu”.
And so Moi came to my home village. I remember my father hoisting me up onto his shoulders for me to see the Big Man.
The President was in a three-piece suit and looked overweight at the age of 55. That was before Dr David Silverstein coached him on how to watch his waistline.
My reflection from that first public encounter is that Moi was a smart politician.
He wanted GG to feel very important, even while knowing he would cook him for dinner one day. GG would years later write his memoirs, which he aptly titled Illusion of Power.
He told me that his experience with Moi inspired him to do the book and go back to university in his old age to study political science.
While Moi was what he told us – a self-made professor of politics – I got the impression he was challenged in matters to do with the economy, as seen on February 27, 1990, when he launched the Kenyan-made car at the Kasarani Sports Complex, a function I covered as a journalist.
In his peculiar understanding of economics, Moi had challenged local university dons to “invent” a Kenyan car and make the country a First World economy.
Instead of advising the Head of State that it would not make economic sense to manufacture a Kenyan car, the dons came up with three contraptions they called Nyayo Pioneer car.
Two of them couldn’t start. I watched from close quarters as Moi took to the steering wheel of the only contraption that moved.
The man was excited. Kenya had overnight “become” a Japan and we would replace all Toyotas on our roads with the Nyayo car!
At the launching ramp, I overheard Mwai Kibaki, then the minister for Health, whisper to assistant minister John Gacui in vernacular: “From outside the thing looks like a car!”
This reflection came from an event in January 1998. Politically instigated clashes had erupted in Nakuru and Laikipia in the aftermath of a general election. The international community was alarmed.
One-time US presidential candidate and human rights crusader Rev Jesse Jackson visited the country and toured Nakuru.
He shed tears on seeing survivors admitted in hospital with arrowheads lodged in their bodies.
A day after the visit, Moi made an impromptu tour of the clashes-torn areas, an event I covered. He sought to undo the public image dent created by Rev Jackson.
In Nakuru, I ambushed the Head of State with the question whether Kenya was headed to a Rwanda-like genocide.
He blew his top and would have smashed my skull with his rungu. The presidential guards surged forward to whisk me away but he stopped them.
He fast composed himself and engaged me. He said the international press was predicting doom for Kenya out of ignorance and because they had never wished Kenya well in the first place.
“So you are completely in control and Kenya won’t go the Rwanda way?” I asked him.
“I am fully, totally in charge”, he replied. “Thank you so much your excellency, sir!”
That pleased him, and I was out of trouble. I got the impression Moi was great at PR. He wouldn’t allow his security to manhandle me as cameras from local and international media rolled, and that at a time when he was already getting barbecued for the ethnic killings.
A few months later, I again witnessed the PR guru in Moi when the comptroller of State House Wilson Chepkwony, who knew me, invited me to a luncheon at State House on Kenyatta Day, now Mashujaa Day.
My first impulse was to decline the invitation, fearing I might bump into somebody I may have offended in my work as a journalist and be “disappeared”.
The comptroller, however, assured me he had cleared my invitation where it mattered and no one would harass me.
I guessed the President wanted me, a journalist with an opposition-leaning newspaper, to have lunch at State House and see for myself that he had no horns in his head as the media may have thought!
This I came to know in October 2002 when I met with Moi in private, first at his city residence then at State House.
At his home he struck me as a down-to-earth, fatherly figure. He had a way of connecting with you to a point that you felt he was an old buddy.
When I told him I was a journalist with the Nation Media Group, he told me he was a personal friend of the company’s principal shareholder, The Aga Khan, and that next time he was in the country he would tell him he had “a young friend working at Nation Centre”.
Of course, I knew he would not do so – and I would have blushed if he did. It is never wise to fly too close to the sun when you are a junior!
Next, he asked about “my wife and children”. I told him I wasn’t yet married but would soon be.
He laughed and told me to remember to invite him to my wedding. My girlfriend Margaret was pleased to hear the President wished to grace our wedding. Anyway, no wedding took place.
At the follow-up meeting at State House a few days later, when I took him a draft of a booklet we had agreed that I’d do, we again chatted like we were old buddies, even haggling over what I would charge him for the job.
He put the money I asked for plus “something small” in a briefcase and whispered to me in a conspiratorial tone: “I have put it in the briefcase so that people won’t know what are carrying.”
I guess he also wanted to see whether this holier-than-thou journalist could accept a briefcase from State House.
I saw Moi at public functions twice after he left office.
The first time was two months into his retirement, when he attended the burial of the wife of Kiambu politician Njenga Karume.
While only a few weeks earlier the youth had sung that “all is possible without Moi”, when he showed up at Karume’s home in Cianda village, the crowd went into a frenzy, with loud ululations.
I waited to see if President Kibaki would get the same, but his cheers were subdued. While Moi loved crowds, Kibaki was aloof, even cold.
I hardly remember seeing him smile in public, let alone do a jig, even with his dear wife.
The other time I saw Moi in public during his retirement was at the burial of his former wife Lena, early in 2004.
Although they had lived separately for 30 years, Moi looked deeply affected by her demise. He didn’t talk at the burial.
The day after the funeral I attended a church service at the Kabarak School chapel. Moi came with his sons Gideon and John Mark.
He was carrying a Bible and a Golden Bells hymn book. He made a brief speech to thank everyone who had condoled with his family. It was the only time I heard Moi utter the words “my wife”.
A few weeks before Moi retired in December 2002, he attended church service at Citam on Valley Road to say bye.
He was in his element as a Christian. He quoted Bible verses off-head. He said he had done his best, but acknowledged, like all of us, he had his failures, and may have offended some people.
He asked for forgiveness. I watched him closely and saw, from body language, tone and choice of words, he meant it.
In this column last October, I mentioned that occasion and wished Mzee Moi to live to be a centenarian.
Although officially known to have been 95 years old when he died this week, I heard his son Raymond and his press secretary Lee Njiru say Moi was actually over 100.
In that case, my prayer had been answered long before I said it. May God rest his soul in eternal peace.
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