Not how long but how well may well apply to Daniel Arap Moi, the longest-serving President of Kenya from 1978 to 2002, who died on February 4, at the age of 95. He lived long, and was in power for a long time, but he left a legacy that didn’t justify his 24 years as president.
Moi entered politics in 1955, after training and working as a teacher. He was elected a member of the Legislative Council for Rift Valley. He participated in the Lancaster House Conferences in London that led to the drafting of Kenya’s first post-independence constitution.
With the approach of independence, Moi founded the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) in 1960. This move reflected his political strength.
After independence in 1963, Jomo Kenyatta of the rival Kenya African National Union (KANU), who became prime minister and later president of Kenya, collaborated with Moi to bring about a merger of their two parties.
Moi then joined the government in 1964, and became the country’s third vice-president in 1967. He became the country’s second president when Kenyatta died in 1978.
It was the Cold War era, and Moi enjoyed the support of the West because of his anticommunism. He was also popular among the people because his style differed from Kenyatta’s distant and imperial approach. Ironically, he was later criticised for being dictatorial, and even repressive.
An attempted military coup against his government in 1982 marked a turning point for Moi. The coup plotters were sentenced to death. It was an opportunity for him to crush his political opponents and strengthen his grip on power.
Fundamentally, he changed the constitution, making KANU the only legal party in the country. Kenya formally became a one-party state, which triggered opposition from pro-democracy forces, particularly in academia.
Repression of champions of democratic reforms was inevitable in the circumstances, leading to the emergence of several underground movements and forced exiles.
By the time the Cold War years ended in 1991, and the West no longer considered Kenya an anticommunist ally, there was increasing focus on mounting political repression under Moi.
The international community demanded economic and political reforms, especially a multi-party system. Under pressure, Moi proposed a constitutional amendment to allow multipartyism in 1991. Multi-party politics was re-established the following year.
Moi retained power after winning elections in 1992 and 1997, but political violence and suspected electoral fraud diminished his victories.
Significantly, in 1999 investigations by Amnesty International and the United Nations indicated that human rights abuses were prevalent in Kenya under Moi.
Corruption allegations also discredited him. He was implicated in the 1990s Goldenberg scandal where the Kenyan government fraudulently subsidised gold exports.
The International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, in 2006, found that Moi took a bribe, reportedly US$2 million in cash, to give government approval for duty-free shops at the country’s international airports in Mombasa and Nairobi.
In 2007, WikiLeaks published a secret report exposing shell companies, secret trusts and frontmen that his associates had used to funnel hundreds of millions of pounds into nearly 30 countries.
Although Moi was constitutionally barred from running in the 2002 presidential election, some of his supporters encouraged him to pursue a constitutional amendment to make him eligible for a third term.
It may well be a redeeming feature that he resisted the temptation and chose to retire.
Out of the limelight, he had enough time to reflect on his trajectory. He was symbolic of an era in African politics when the idea of developmental dictatorship was promoted by narrow-minded leaders and their followers.
The lesson of Moi’s life and times is that undemocratic democracies are an aberration and unacceptable.