How President Moi played hard tackle with Western diplomats

Kabarak University chancellor Daniel Moi graces the institute's graduation ceremony in Nakuru on December 16, 2016. British intelligence engineered Moi’s political alliance with President Jomo Kenyatta. PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • The colonialists’ quest to have Moi in politics was informed by an assessment that he would be the best bridge-builder in the Rift Valley.
  • Kenya, at the bidding of the Americans, lobbied African countries to boycott the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.

Daniel arap Moi was persuaded to join politics by British colonialists when he was 31, about six decades ago.

His choice of career was teaching, while his pastor thought he would make a great preacher and "fisher of men".

Moi reluctantly quit teaching to become the African representative for the Rift Valley region in the colonial Legislative Council (Legco) in 1955.

The change of career came with rewards.

From a starting salary of Sh47 as a P3 teacher, and rising to be headmaster at a salary of Sh250, his pay was more than tripled to Sh833 when he joined politics.

It enabled him take a loan and buy his first car, a Land Rover, registration KFF 82.

The colonialists’ quest to have Moi in politics was informed by an assessment that he would be the best bridge-builder in the Rift Valley, the melting point of white-settler and multiethnic politics.

For the same reasons, come Independence in 1963, British intelligence engineered Moi’s political alliance with President Jomo Kenyatta, which saw him later appointed Vice-President.


Besides being a moderating factor in the volcanic Rift Valley politics, the fiercely pro-Western Moi would help Kenyatta neutralise the left-leaning wing of the ruling party Kanu in the early years of independence.

Moi would equally become the favourite of the US intelligence after the 1969 assassination of their right-hand man, Tom Mboya, who, in any case, had lost political value to Washington, after assassinations of his friends, President J.F. Kennedy and his brother Robert.

At the death of President Jomo Kenyatta in 1978, Vice-President Moi was the unanimous choice of the Western powers to take over.

He didn’t disappoint in returning a favour.


For instance, Kenya, at the bidding of the Americans, lobbied African countries to boycott the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.

Kenya would also successfully work with the US and other Western allies to deny Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi a chance to be chair of the Organisation of African Unity, the precursor to the African Union.

As long as the Cold War raged, the West was ready to turn a blind eye to undemocratic habits of African strongmen like Moi so long as they slammed the gates on communist influence.

But with communism on the decline in late 1980s, the West descended on Moi with demands that he change his ways lest they tighten the purse strings on his government.

Like a jilted spouse, Moi didn’t take it kindly.

Away from the cameras, Moi turned his anger on Nairobi-based Western diplomats and other emissaries sent to meet him.

Visiting Brussels on December 2001, the European Union Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, Poul Nielson, opened up to me about an occasion he had been sent to meet the Kenyan President in Nairobi, and had to abruptly terminate a session with Moi, convinced that the latter was about to hit him with his trade-mark cudgel (rungu).

He had been dispatched to Nairobi to tell Moi that EU would be reviewing development support for Kenya if the country didn’t arrest runaway corruption and allow a multiparty system of government.

He recalled Moi having welcomed him with clenched teeth, a signal that it would be a nasty session.


As they sat down, Moi intentionally placed his rungu pointing at the envoy as he began to lecture him:

"Why is it only now when you Europeans have discovered I am a dictator, and that there’s human rights abuse in Kenya! How come you never said that when I was helping you fight communists?"

Moi had fumed, not giving the EU emissary a chance to say his piece.

When he cooled down a bit, the emissary made his pitch, trying to impress on Moi that reforms in Kenya would be more for the good of its citizens than for anybody else.

That only made Moi hit the roof. He grabbed his rungu, and shouted as he pointed it at the envoy:

"That’s my biggest problem with you foreigners, you come all the way from Brussels and talk to me as if you know what is best for my country than I do! That is a provocation I won’t accept!"

Fearing it could spill into an ugly scene as Moi’s volcanic anger kept rising, Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Bethuel Kiplagat, who was seated next to the EU emissary, secretly stepped on his toe to signal to him it was time to leave.

"I let Kiplagat know I thought as much and he quickly ended the session, as I told the President I had heard him and would be coming back to see him," the envoy told me.

Then he asked, in stitches of laughter: "If it were you, would you return to a country where the head of state threatens to hit you with a traditional weapon? I have never been back to your country."
Early in 1987, Moi had a similar run-in with the US ambassador to Kenya, but backed down at the threat of war.

Throughout the year, Moi had foul coverage in leading US media outlets, which put him under increased pressure from both White House and the State department.

Moi sought to revenge in his own style. Mid November, some letter surfaced in Nairobi allegedly written by a Kenya-based American missionary.

In the letter to a friend back home, the missionary gave details on how he and four other colleagues in Kenya were working with the US racist movement, Ku Klax Klan, to overthrow Moi government.

The day the letter surfaced, the US ambassador to Kenya, a sharp-tongued lady called Eleanor Constable, whose father was the marine officer in charge of the aircraft carrier that delivered the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima during World War 2, sought appointment with Moi or the Foreign Ministry but in vain.

The following day, all three local dailies headlined with news about the anti-Moi "plot" by the Americans.

When the US ambassador finally got Foreign Affairs minister Zachary Onyonka on the phone, she went ballistic:

"I don’t give a damn what you guys publish in your stupid newspapers. You know well the letter they’re quoting is a forgery.

"But if you touch one American, you know it’s going to be war. I will pull out all the stops. You’ll be so sorry."


At that point Moi saw the red line and knew where to stop. He agreed to an immediate meeting with the enraged envoy.

At State House, the US envoy exploded: "Mr President, If you have a problem with me or my government, just call me here and say as much. What you’re doing now is an outrage. We can’t take it lying down."

The American missionaries who had since been arrested by Kenyan police were immediately set free.

Later, State House issued a media statement to say that no American missionary would be hurt.

Before her, Moi hadn’t been as charitable to another American ambassador, William Harrop, when he went to plead with Moi to be lenient in dealing with soldiers involved in the failed 1982 military coup attempt.

Moi had sharply cut short the US envoy: "Mr Ambassador, I am the President. I don’t take advice! I give it!"

But it is US ambassador to Kenya at the time multiparty politics came, the abrasive Smith Hempstone, who had more dramatic sessions with Moi than any other Western envoy.

Just within weeks of his arrival in Nairobi, Moi had ruefully reminded him that Americans had promised him a C-130 plane for his personal use but had not delivered it.

"I wasn’t aware of that, Mr President," the ambassador had said.

"Yes. They promised but I never got it."

To drive a hot knife through the wound, Moi added: "I was the first in Africa to fight communism. But now that the Cold War is over, you have no use for your old friends!"

When Hempstone publicly declared that Kenya should go multiparty, Moi cancelled an appointment to open the first-ever US/East Africa Trade fair scheduled for Nairobi.

Hempstone, who was under pressure from his government to have Moi at the function, had to use a back channel to have Moi coming.

He made a hand-written letter pleading with the Kenyan leader and had it delivered to him by the head of Kenya intelligence via the CIA, Nairobi station chief.

Hempstone would have his revenge when he arranged a walk-out on Moi by Western diplomats during the 1992 Jamhuri Day celebrations.


But Moi would square it off with the US envoy when, a few weeks on, the latter went to request him to appoint to his Cabinet some opposition MPs elected in that year’s election.

"I will do what I like, what I think is best for the country," Moi told him.

When Hempstone went to bid Moi farewell at the end of his term in Kenya, the President denied him the courtesy of meeting him inside his office and met him in the verandah with media cameras running.

"I had nothing against you until you sided with the opposition," were Moi’s last words.

Short of saying: good riddance.