Herdsboy to president

Young herdsboy/SHUTTERSTOCK

Young herdsboy/SHUTTERSTOCK

Former President Daniel arap Moi’s life is one of the most improbable political success stories of our time. The hapless herder boy from a hardscrabble Baringo village became a dedicated schoolteacher, then a wily politician who rose to become Kenya’s ruthless second president. Tall and imposing, he was never without his signature ivory rungu, signifying his regal ability to crush dissent.

Moi was the self-declared ‘Professor of Politics’, a fitting title for the master manipulator of people and ethnic tensions. He turned a moribund Kanu into a formidable take-no-prisoners political machine. 

Moi the dictator presided over an era of uncompromising state control, one-party politics and human rights abuses. Kenya, he said, was not yet ready for multiparty democracy. Eventually, however, he reluctantly yielded to Western pressure for multiparty politics, at least on paper. After a 24-year reign, Moi left a legacy of incurable ethnicity, nepotism, corruption and an economy on its knees.

Still, Moi was loved and respected by beneficiaries of his political favours and actions, such as building many schools. He introduced the 8-4-4 education system, youth and women’s empowerment programmes and expanded healthcare. His populist free milk programme and some other initiatives proved unsustainable. His was also a time of international pride. The changeover from Kenyatta to Moi was a first in Africa where no country had enjoyed a smooth political transition.

But the strongman was feared and loathed by many, especially those thrown into his dungeons for dissent and opposition. Some never came out. Some disappeared. There were spies. Fear was in the air. In his later years, however, he was painted as the beneficent elder statesman and politicians trooped to his Kabarak home to pay homage, kiss the ring and seek his blessings.

When his predecessor Mzee Jomo Kenyatta died, on August 22, 1978, Moi, the athletic long-serving deputy, got 90 days as acting President. When he was confirmed, in an election in which he was the sole candidate, he chose Nyayoism as his motto, declaring he would follow in the footsteps of Kenyatta.

Moi’s motto was Peace, Love and Unity.

Moi with Mama Ngina and Kibaki

Moi with Mama Ngina and Kibaki

He found 26 political detainees rotting in detention. But by Jamhuri Day, barely 110 days later, he had opened the prison gates and freed the likes of Martin Shikuku, Jean Marie Seroney, Wasonga Sijeyo, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Koigi Wamwere, Ngotho Kariuki, Katama Mkangi, Paul Amina (freelance journalist), Patrick Onyango (teacher) and lawyer Gibson Kamau Kuria. This was supposed to herald an era of reconciliation, but Moi made a U-turn, ordering one detention after another. The jails were soon teeming with  Moi’s own detainees.

Some, like Prof Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, would be arrested and their detention announced two months later, after police feigned ignorance of the whereabouts of the literature professor. But Moi would turn the police into spies. No conversation was safe. Spies listened to conversations in bars and social places. Fear was in the air. Some of his Cabinet ministers would boast that the spies could, if they wished, record couples’ pillow talk. Detainees were whipped with strips of car tyres, stripped naked and starved for days in flooded cells.

The professor of politics political patronage. Party youth wingers, university students and women’s groups were fair game. By the time he left office in 2002, Moi he had elevated political blackmail and skullduggery to an art. Political rivals he could not bribe, he would bankrupt, maim or worse.

Desperately insecure and plagued by fears of illegitimacy, Moi set about a manic push to tear down the Kenyatta coterie —the Kiambu mafia, the most formidable threat to grip on power. A personality cult turned the harambee, a noble national institution, into the life’s blood of corruption, the effects of which might take decades to eradicate.

The humble Sacho herds boy had morphed into a publicity-hungry demagogue — his word was final on any national debate. His court became the heart of influence peddling and the preserve of sycophants and yes-men. Moi was news and news was Moi. It did not help that only the government owned the electronic media – KBC radio and TV.


The humble boy from Kabarak village in Baringo county was born on September 2, 1924. He was raised by a single mother. Moi was sent to school by his paternal uncle partly because he was hopeless as a herdsboy. He let his flock stray, though years later he would not tolerate errant sheep. When word went around their rocky scrubland that recently arrived white missionaries was trudging around the villages in search of school candidates, his uncles were unanimous. It had to be Daniel. After all, his father had only recently died. The uncles needed any help they could get from an educated boy.

“On no day would he return home with a full herd: One or two animals would always be missing. The missionaries were God-sent as the elders immediately decided that that this boy should be given to them,”

Family member Joseph Chesire is quoted as saying.

Moi was the prime candidate to bequeath to white strangers and he adopted their Christianity wholeheartedly. He became a teacher with an enduring passion for education. He passed his London Matriculation Exam and got a public accounting certificate from London through a correspondence course. Knowledge planted ambition. His faith and belief in the new teachings won converts.

His teacher career would be jolted out of its predictable routine in 1954 by the sudden resignation of John ole Tameno, a respected veterinary officer from the Rift Valley who had represented the province in the Legislative Council (Legco). But It would take the persuasive skills of colonial-era school inspector Moses Mudavadi (ANC leader Musalia Mudavadi’s father), then working in Baringo, to convince headmaster Moi of Kabarnet Intermediate School to consider a career change.

In October 1955, an electoral college picked Moi from a list of eight nominees. The teaching chapter had come to an end. By October 18, 1955, he was one of the four African members of the Legco. One of Moi’s memorable motions in the Legco was agitating for African teachers to be allowed to form an association. This produced the Kenya National Union of Teachers in 1957.

Soon he was deeply involved in national politics. He formed Kadu, the Kenyan African Democratic Union, an early party in Ngong, together John Keen, Martin Shikuku, Coast supremo Ronald Ngala. Moi’s passion for education and his impoverished past persuaded Kenyatta to make him the first minister for Education in the pioneer Cabinet of 1963. The unpromising herdsboy had morphed into a political heavyweight with influence far beyond Baringo.

After Kadu resolved to join President Kenyatta’s Kanu, Moi’s star was rising. By 2002 when former President Mwai Kibaki ruined his well-laid plans to succeed himself by propping up Kenyatta, Moi had been in office for 24 years.

As he departed State House, a humbled Moi said,

“The people of Kenya have spoken, let me acknowledge Kanu’s defeat. You have exercised your democratic right.”