Human Rights Abuse in Kenya under Daniel Arap Moi, 1978-2001
by Korwa G. Adar and Issac M. Munyae
Jomo Kenyatta, the founding president of Kenya, passed away in August 1978 after fourteen years as head of state. His successor, Daniel Arap Moi, served as Kenyattas vice-president from 1966 – 1978. During Kenyatta’s presidency, the political realm was dominated by a small Kikuyu elite, the so-called Kiambu Mafia, from Kenyata’s home district. This group undermined Kenyatta’s nationalist and populist background, alienating other ethnic groups, as well as many non-conforming Kikuyus. Although Moi was loyal to Kenyatta, he was never accepted into Kenyatta’s inner circle. He also came from a small community–the Kalenjin. He was regarded by Kenyans to be the right candidate to steer the country towards a more accommodating human rights era, without ethnic dominance.
This general perception of Moi by Kenyans was reinforced by the decisions and promises he made immediately he took over the presidency. In December 1978 Moi released all twenty-six political detainees across the ethnic spectrum, most of whom had been languishing in jails for years . He also reassured Kenyans that his administration would not condone drunkenness, “tribalism”, corruption, and smuggling, problems already deeply entrenched in Kenya . His administration also took quick actions against top civil servants accused of corruption, culminating in the resignations of officials including the Police Commissioner, Bernard Hinga. These actions were interpreted by Kenyans as an indication of the dawn of a new era, a conducive environment for adherence to democracy and human rights.
In due course, however, Moi became more interested in neutralizing those perceived to be against his leadership. The issues of corruption, “tribalism” and human rights per se became distant concerns. Instead, Moi began to centralize and personalize power when he took over the presidency. He pledged to follow Kenyatta’s nyayo (Swahili for “footsteps”). He wanted ordinary Kenyans to perceive him as a true nationalist in his own right, and as a close confidant of Kenyatta. He traveled constantly throughout the country addressing many prearranged or ad hoc public gatherings. He popularized nyayo within the context of what he called “love, peace and unity” . His grand design turned out to be a strategy geared toward the achievement of specific objectives, namely, the control of the state, the consolidation of power, the legitimization of his leadership, and the broadening of his political base and popular support. It turned out this strategy called for little respect of human rights.
Initially, Moi’s ascendancy to the presidency faced a major handicap because of the dissension against his leadership from within the ranks of the ruling party, Kenya African National Union (KANU). This came from the influential “Kiamba Mafia” that had constituted themselves into what became known as the Change the Constitution Movement . The main objective of the movement was to bar Moi from taking over the presidency. The group called for the amendment of the Kenyan constitutional clause which conferred rights on the Vice-President to take over the presidency for ninety days pending the general elections should the office of the president fall vacant . The movement failed, mainly due to the opposition it faced from Moi’s ally, attorney general Charles Njonjo. Moi succeeded in assuming the presidency and thereafter began to systematically institute an authoritarian and oppressive one-man state rule.
Kenyatta’s style of restraint and steering the country as a de facto one-party state did not conform to Moi’s leadership and behavioral characteristics. Moi’s style — the centralization and personalization of power — gradually laid the foundation for a dictatorship and innumerable human rights violations by his administration. When Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and George Anyona sought to register a socialist opposition party in 1982, Moi struck back by making the country a de jure one party state. He criminalized competitive politics and criticism of his leadership . Throughout the 1980s to 1990s the security forces, particularly the police, were used to suppress any criticism of his regime.
To ensure his grip on power, Moi systematically usurped the functions of the other institutions of governance to the extent that the principle of the separation of powers was rendered ineffectual. A few days after releasing all the political detainees, he rushed a bill through Kenya’s parliament which granted the president emergency powers for the first time in Kenya’s post-independence history. Moi associated insecurity and instability with open criticisms and challenge to his policies and style of leadership. Patronage and loyalty therefore has remained characteristic of Moi’s leadership style which has enabled him to centralize and personalize his rule . For more than two decades as Kenya’s head of state, the second longest serving president in Sub-Saharan Africa — Moi has remained what has been described as a “tribal paramount chief writ large” . In return for patronage, he enjoys praise from civil servants and KANU officials to an embarrassing degree. For example, in one of the numerous public functions he attended, a senior minister stated while pointing at him: “There, is enshrined in human form the popular will … Even lobsters and fishes of the sea, out to the 200- mile limit and even beyond, pay obeisance to our great president the Honorable Daniel Arap Moi” .
This article deals with the manner in which the autocratic patronage system established by Moi has undermined the rule of law and respect for human rights in Kenya. It is an authoritarian system in which the president delegates no responsibilities and becomes personally involved in almost everything in the country, particularly issues concerning the rights of individual Kenya citizens to speak their minds, assemble without hindrance, write and publish without being molested.
Korwa G. Adar is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations, in the International Studies Unit, in the Political Studies Department, at Rhodes University.
Isaac M Munyae recently completed his MA in International Studies, International Studies Unit, Political Studies Department, Rhodes University. The authors are indebted to the African Studies Quarterly review committee for their helpful comments.