Kenya’s Invisible Candidate

Special to The Times

In the end, it was all about Moi.

President Daniel Arap Moi was not even on the ballot in last week’s Kenyan elections, but citizens who for the first time in four decades voted the opposition into office were essentially sweeping out one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders.

“Kenyans said, ‘We’ve had enough,’ ” said John Githongo, a prominent political analyst. “Enough of corruption, enough of lies, enough of mismanagement.”

Across this East African nation, people held wild celebrations to mark the end of Moi’s rule after the Electoral Commission of Kenya officially declared opposition leader Mwai Kibaki the winner of the presidential election. In Kibaki’s hometown of Othaya, a coffee- and tea-growing region near Mt. Kenya, villagers chugged changaa, a potent local brew, as they danced around bonfires in the streets. In Nairobi, the capital, jubilant Kenyans rode in cramped trucks along Moi Avenue, shouting “Kibaki! Kibaki!”


Uhuru Kenyatta, whom Moi handpicked to be the candidate for the ruling Kenya African National Union, or KANU, conceded defeat after receiving 30% of the votes -- less than half of Kibaki’s tally.

“KANU and I will respect him in his position in accordance with our constitution,” said Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta.

Analysts say Uhuru Kenyatta’s defeat represented the rejection of Moi’s way of doing business. Moi, who assumed the presidency in 1978 on the death of the elder Kenyatta, was the only leader that the majority of Kenyans knew. And like his ubiquitous portraits hanging in all public offices and private businesses, Moi lorded over his people, determining which villages received water, which politicians tasted power and who benefited from the hundreds of millions of dollars he doled out from his presidential mansion.

Githongo and other analysts described Moi’s decision to accept the election results as a dramatic conversion to democracy.


“He has accepted the democratic will of the people, which was unstoppable,” said Githongo, who also heads the Kenyan chapter of Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog group. “Like Saul on the road to Damascus, it appears that he has finally seen the light.”

In the initial days of his rule, Moi was almost never described as enlightened. In the early 1980s, after senior members of the country’s air force tried to overthrow him in a coup, Moi adopted harsh measures, unleashing his secret police on journalists, human rights activists and political opponents. Many Kenyans were imprisoned for years with no charges filed against them. Moi’s decision to centralize power in the Office of the President meant that Kenyans from all walks of life -- from government ministers to people seeking basic government services -- found themselves beholden to him.

Binyavanga Wainaina, an author and playwright who was 7 years old when Moi became president, said the way Moi did business became Kenya’s way of doing business.

“I remember going to get my birth certificate and going through all sorts of problems from people who wanted me to cringe and crawl because of their perverted sense of self-importance,” Wainaina said in a recent article. “It was still a who-you-knew, who-you-are sort of thing. It was as if if you wanted to do anything in Kenya, you needed a godfather, who you would bow to and say, ‘Your holiness, please help me.’ Everywhere was broken down into small feudal spaces.”


But Moi’s rule was not to endure. Nearly two years ago, on a visit to the Kenyan capital, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell admonished Moi to fulfill his constitutional obligation and not seek reelection when his term expired in 2002.

His decision to leave peacefully could prod other African leaders to follow suit when their terms expire. Kenya, with unstable neighbors including Somalia, Sudan and Congo, is a popular destination for European and American tourists who come here for the country’s warm beaches and game parks teeming with wildlife.

The United States’ interest in Kenya has increased since the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

Kenya is among a few African countries named by President Bush as key strategic partners in his campaign against terror.


Kenya suffered its second major terrorist strike in four years when suicide bombers with alleged links to Al Qaeda blew up an Israeli-owned resort near Mombasa last month, killing at least 16 people, including 10 Kenyans. U.S. authorities say that in 1998, Al Qaeda was responsible for bombing the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and in Dar es Salaam, in nearby Tanzania, killing more that 200 people and injuring thousands.

Moi’s decision to handpick Kenyatta as KANU’s leader led to the party’s poor showing at the polls, analysts say. Kenyatta, according to some critics, was an insurance policy against post-election prosecution for alleged corruption of Moi and his cronies. Kenyatta, the argument went, would protect Moi’s riches because Moi, during his long tenure, had protected the Kenyatta family’s business empire.

It remains to be seen how Kibaki will handle pressure to prosecute senior members of Moi’s administration for alleged crimes ranging from corruption to murder.

Several leading KANU members, who had hoped to get a shot at the top job, defected to the opposition after Moi selected Kenyatta. And the National Rainbow Coalition, an alliance of Kenya’s previously splintered opposition parties, began to tap into widespread anti-Moi sentiment. “Everything is possible without Moi,” chanted huge crowds at opposition rallies across the country. Moi, who took charge of Kenyatta’s campaign, was booed and heckled when he appeared in some KANU strongholds. In some instances, crowds paid to attend KANU rallies would leave when the president took the stage.


Kenyans said they were simply fed up with seeing their quality of life deteriorate with little hope of improvement. Moi, reputed to be one of the richest men in East Africa, was out of touch with their problems, they said. In Othaya, 28-year-old Alan Mwangi, who cares for two children and five siblings, on Sunday exulted in Kibaki’s win. The president-elect has vowed to provide free primary education to all Kenyan children, a promise that secured Mwangi’s vote.

“Moi and his men looted all the money,” said Mwangi, who makes about $2.50 a day as a minibus taxi driver. “We have to forget about this period in our history. He is not a person who should be remembered. If Kenyatta had won, my children would have suffered as much as I have suffered my entire life.”

“They’ve eaten everything,” said Esther Murugi, a 72-year-old grandmother who cares for nine grandchildren orphaned by AIDS. “Even money that should go toward these poor children has been stolen.”

Analysts say a Kibaki administration will have to find money to deliver on some election promises, especially the pledge of free education. Kibaki will also have to quickly institute anti-corruption measures so that international lending agencies unlock hundreds of millions of dollars in loans. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund quit lending money to Moi’s government because large chunks of cash were funneled to senior government officials.


Kibaki, who once served as Moi’s vice president, promised Sunday to make sweeping changes.

Running a country “is not a matter of promoting the ego of a president,” the 71-year-old economist said to supporters gathered at his mansion in Nairobi. “A president should prove himself by things he’s going to do which change the life of ordinary Kenyans.”


Special correspondent Mwangi reported from Othaya and Times staff writer Maharaj from Los Angeles.