Thursday, May 23, 2024

In life was the mighty baobab Mzee Moi a cruel dictator, and now in death a revered ancestor?

In elaborate rituals accompanying funeral activities for Mzee Moi, a few gestures stood out for their heavy symbolism. Firstly, President Uhuru Kenyatta issued a death proclamation by announcing the second president of Kenya would receive a state funeral befitting his role in the formation of a complex country. No surprise there because it was the deceased who over the years assiduously shepherded Uhuru’s rise to the presidency despite many a setback along the way. Then Raila Odinga, chanting a Luo death dirge brandished his totem of authority, a black fly whisk six times over the casket in farewell to the departed leader who once had him jailed for six years. Most profoundly Raila’s gesture was a repetition of exactly what his dad Jaramogi Oginga Odinga had in 1978 done over the coffin of founding president Jomo Kenyatta whom he had once served as vice president. Of the Moi sons, the most prominent is lawmaker called Gideon. Over the mortal remains of their father, elder brother Raymond, himself a legislator, formally handed over to his younger sibling the silver tipped ivory rungu or knobkerrie of honour which one of Africa’s last big men was never seen without.

That knobkerrie is reputed to be treated with potent charms and serves as a repository of power for whoever takes its custody. By so doing Raymond was voluntarily abdicating family, clan leadership as well as future political ambitions in Gideon’s favour. In one fell swoop the four men, representing the current generation of dynasties which had in turns ruled and fought to rule Kenya since 1963 were brothers united by grief for the fallen baobab. A columnist for The East African newspaper, Jeneral Ulimwengu was left wondering aloud; How Should We Mourn Our Dictators? I don’t have the answer but I know that as Africans we endow mysticism to dead elders because in old age they are considered an embodiment of wisdom. They represent the umbilical cord between the living and the world yonder. When an elder shuffles off his mortal coil, the spirit departs not to wander in eternal perdition but to join the esteemed assembly of ancestors who watch over us the living. This explains why some elderly folks laying on their death blankets have been known to hang on long enough to send for children from far afield for a final talk pep talk, which as soon as they give up the ghost, enjoys the status of a standing edict by which all must abide. In family gatherings the last words of the departed will always be quoted on matters merry or sorrowful. In fact a folk legend says Africans never rest. We work hard to scrabble a living from a tough continent. When we die instead of resting we take on the even more onerous duty of ancestors, dispensing wisdom and guidance where required. Or raining down curses and malignancy when offended. Ancestors have their work cut out for them. Besides possessing powers of divinity, they also send visions to the living and can be summoned where traditional healers and modern medicine has failed.

Ancestors are deities that live forever until other ancestors take their place, presumably as apprentices to learn the ropes of the game from the veterans. So The East Africa Times columnist raises a pertinent question by asking; how do we mourn our dictators especially for them to qualify as noble ancestors? As is well known, Africans are big on funeral rituals and even the most notorious village criminal cannot be sent off just like a stray dog. Rituals befitting a man of honour are also performed for a criminal who died in line of duty. Whether the criminal dying without honour is also accepted into the hallowed ranks of ancestors remains a matter of conjecture. The question of revered ancestor hood comes to mind following the death of Mzee Moi. Out of many countries on the motherland, Kenya has always held my most fascination and in the process I have visited there a few times. What I found was a well advanced country with impressive high rises and the kind of public infrastructure which those of us from these parts always associated with South Africa. Its vibrancy is in the media landscape of high quality newspapers, television and radio stations. Even the nightlife can make one stay on forever. But like all African countries it has a dark underbelly of poverty, inequalities and crime in certain areas where police are known to pre-empt fire with fire. Away from the informal ghettos, a city like Nairobi is so cosmopolitan with a kaleidoscope of yuppies who can fit and flourish anywhere in major metropolis of the world. However, Kenya’s recurring problem is politics conjoined with ethnic dimension. On my third visit I remarked to a friend that never was I asked for a bribe at the airport or at any place for that matter.

The old stories we used to hear that you had to have some dollar bills between your travel documents at the airport never played out on me. At my usual base Western Meridian hotel in Nairobi Central no one ever claimed it was fully booked but if given some kitu kidogo a vacant room could be found. Not to say there is no corruption. Honestly, what would be Africa without corruption? Both are siamese twins for life and will be tied at the hip for as long as the village syndrome of, look, we no longer live in a mud hut, but in a mansion persists. For a country where almost everyone shares the lingua franca of Swahili, its baffling that politics is the cause of the most serious divisions in Kenya purely along ethnic lines. When I went twice for the initial 2017 polls, and the subsequent re-run , ethnic voting always reared its head. I did ofcourse meet many Kenyans who were more issue based, but a disturbing number only analysed possible outcomes through ethnic calculus. In his book Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, the historian Daniel Branch traces the rise of ethno nationalism to the 1950s struggle for freedom and land which was fought mainly from Central Highlands/ Mount Kenya by the Gikuyu community who bore the brunt of deprivations and dispossession by British settlers. When uhuru finally came the hardliner felt entitled to the spoils of victory more than anyone else in the new country. Kenyatta who was meant to be a unifying messiah is said to be have retorted to ministers from other communities complaining about unequal treatment, ‘My people have the milk in the morning, your tribes the milk in the afternoon’. In a land of so many indigenous communities it was invariable marginalized others would also mobilise behind ethnic warlords colloquially known as kingpins. In simple terms, the interest of tribe often driven by a fierce kingpin trumps that of nation state. Competition for resources such as power, land, jobs and influential positions have thus come to stereotype the average Kenyan character. And at election time tensions boil over into violence because defeat or victory can mean the difference between penury or lottery. Although Kenya embraced a multi party dispensation at independence in 1963 the country was effectively a de facto one party state until 1982 when KANU codified single party rule.

Jomo Kenyatta ran a tight ship and brooked no nonsense, suffocating the opposition and jailing dissenters most notably his founding vice president Jaramogi Odinga Oginga. Some opponents were coopted including a certain Daniel arap Moi who just a few years after uhuru, collapsed his KADU party into KANU, went into cabinet and became a loyalist. Upon Kenyatta’s ’s death in 1978 the power brokers tried to thwart Mzee Moi’s ambitions who had been appointed vice president in 1967 in a bid at ethnic diversity. But few had reckoned without the stealth and cunning of the former school teacher whose collection of scalps had started by pipping Tom Mboya to become Kenyatta’s heir apparent. Calling himself Professor of Politics he consolidated his grip on power by marginalizing Kenyatta loyalists indisposed to his rule, jailed them and for those who took part in the failed air force led coup of 1982 he sent to the gallows. As for the powerful Charles Njonjo, for long the power behind the Kenyatta throne but who as Attorney General had also orchestrated Moi’s rise to the apex office, but nonetheless still dismissed the new president as a passing cloud from a minority Kalenjin community not fit to rule. In this chaos the big man built schools, hospitals, empowered women and strove to keep the country united. But the day he removed his velvet glove and embarked on frightful purges with the likes of Njonjo lucky to live to tell the tale. For his part Raila Odinga was to spend the next six years in the notorious dungeons having also been implicated in the coup. Ironically Kenyatta had himself jailed Raila’s old man over ideological differences and trumped up charges of treason. Once ensconced in power Mzee Moi became monarch of all he surveyed for over 20 years until an economic downturn triggered demands from donor community, students, human rights groups and civil society formations for a return to multi party democracy. Despite state sponsored violence, which often carried ethnocentric undertones to scupper the democracy project, agitation grew so much so that the genie could not be put back in the bottle. With the Cold War over, the western powers needed no longer to mollycoddle Kenya. Nor could they continue turning a blind eye to rights abuses, illegal detentions, extra judicial killings and other terror tactics meted on citizens who dared speak out. Good governance and democracy became a pre-condition for economic aid. Painted in a corner Mzee Moi acceded to the cacophony of demands and late 1991 constitutional reforms begun to dismantle the one party state from which the president was dragged kicking and screaming, lamenting that democracy was a luxury Africans could ill afford. In his mind only a strong, centralized state could save Kenya from ethnic bloodshed and eventual collapse. Both Kenyatta and Moi were always stuck to the conviction that multi partyism would deepen ethnic fissures by promoting identity politics.

To them, for Africa only the one party state with a strongman in charge could work. They premised this doctrine on the fact that at independence practically all new countries on the continent were just a discordant collection of autonomous tribes without any idea of a national state and how it worked. But his fears notwithstanding, in 1992 Mzee Moi and KANU went onto win free multi party polls since independence against a fragmented opposition. Amid charges of irregularities and a new form of gerrymandering where certain migrant ethnic groups were violently relocated to ensure only a loyal vote remained behind, Mzee Moi seemed to have adapted like fish to water to this thing called democracy and thus claimed another victory in 1997. The end came in 2002 when the old war horse decided to put in a transition plan for his retirement due to term limits that prohibited him from contesting again. Perhaps not surprising for those who knew the workings between the Kenyatta and Moi families, the name that came out of the Mzee Moi’s hat as his successor was that of 42 year old Uhuru. The outgoing president had not forgotten his patron Kenyatta and 24 years later was returning a good turn with another. Incidentally upon taking power, Mzee Moi had proclaimed nyayo, meaning continuity in the footsteps of Kenyatta as his governing doctrine. The decision to fast track Uhuru wasn’t well received. Raila Odinga who had returned home to KANU after jail had assumed he was in pole position and realizing he had been overlooked for a greenhorn owing to opaque interests walked out. In a huff he joined forces with Moi’s ex vice president Mwai Kibaki who had quit KANU to form the opposition Democratic Party. With novice Uhuru on the ballot for the national movement founded by his father but which since 1963 had fatigued, brutalized and impoverished mwanawanchi, a thrashing was in the offing. Thus ended KANU’s by hook or crook 39 year stranglehold on power just when it was about to be inherited by the son of the founder. The book In The Footsteps of Mr Kurtz by Michaela Wrong provides an account of the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire. There is an incident where in the frantic final days, with the Leopard himself stricken by terminal illness, efforts are made to evacuate the fleeing president from his ancestral village of Gbadolite to exile in Morocco. The regime had long abandoned the capital city Kinshasa to the marauding mobs and unpaid soldiers engaged in a frenzy of looting and destruction. Remnants of government had retreated to the jungle as Mobutu and a dwindling entourage tried to rule the vast country from the village.

As the aeroplane commandeered from the collapsing state struggled to take off under the weight of family, hangers on, limousines and other conveniences for life in exile, it was peppered with gunfire from the erstwhile presidential guard now left to their devices. The moral of Mobutu’s travails is that cruel dictators meet an undignified end. Some are just fetched from some dank prison cell, lined up on the beach and executed by the new rulers. This fate befell the likes of William Tolbert in Liberia, his successor Samuel Doe and Kwame Nkurumah who like the typical African dictator always enjoys adulation abroad but not from those he governs. But the most macabre end was spared for Emperor Haile Selassie who in far off places like Jamaica, distant from the poverty, squalor and corruption of Ethiopia was worshipped as a God by the Rastafarian sect. It must be one of the mysteries of their religion why he was strangled to death by his own army and reportedly fed to the lions he kept in his personal zoo. Of the most gruesome and undignified endings was that of Colonel Muammar Gadaffi. At least Saddam Hussein faced the gallows like a general and declined an execution hood after his request to face a firing squad was turned down. Ultimately the final fate of the cruel dictator is either quiet retirement, flight into exile or an undignified death. How dictators meet their end determines if they become revered ancestors or not. Others like Robert Mugabe were ousted by comrades in a coup, fell sickly and the new rulers left nature to take its course. In a bizarre spectacle, Uncle Bob even shunned what was meant to be his crowning glory, to be buried in his pride of place at Heroes Acre, a monument conceived by himself at which he officiated every funeral of departed war comrades. Without question, Mzee Moi in his many years in office was a cruel dictator who like his predecessor Jomo Kenyatta believed only a strong, big man could rule Kenya and balance its many contradictions through a firm hand. But a calculating man he was, he had the mind not to hang onto power when his protégé Uhuru lost in 2002. He refused to countenance a coup to keep himself in office. Neither would he accept changes to allow him a third term ahead of the decisive elections Uhuru contrived to lose.

Years later in retirement, now rehabilitated in the eyes of many Kenyans, especially political elites he became the go to man for counsel, guidance and anointment when the big positions came up for contention. In death some African leaders have been consigned to their graves, either at home or in far off lands carrying the epithet of cruel dictators. If what we saw in Kenya the past few days is anything to go by with public displays of mourning, and feuding power dynasties grieving together then perhaps Mzee Moi , his excesses forgiven but not forgotten, has been elevated to revered ancestor. His longevity at all levels qualifies him to be one. He served as vice president for 11 years and number one citizen for 24 more. In fact his family say he actually died at age 105 and not the 95 years regularly cited. As we speak I will be in Kenya for the polls in two years time. But who knows what the mighty baobab, stricken in his dying days could have whispered to the men who performed rituals at his funeral service. It is common knowledge the four men who separately congregated on bended knee next to his bedside in the final days will decide the fate of Kenya. Can the departure of Daniel Toroitich arap Moi portend better things through the ongoing Building Bridges Initiative which may result in Kenya forging genuine national unity that will enable the country to fulfil its immense potential. History therefore awaits to judge Mzee Moi, his public career and the aftermath of his death which could herald a new era.


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