Daniel arap Moi: How Kenyans learnt to laugh at the president

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As the state funeral of Kenya's former President Daniel arap Moi takes place, veteran journalist Joseph Warungu recalls that he was once an all-powerful leader but people learnt to laugh at him as his influence waned.

Such was the impact of the late president on the Kenyan psyche that some never imagined he would leave the political scene, or the Earth itself.

But last week, the country's longest-serving leader died at the age of 95 - nearly two decades after leaving office.

In a public display of affection, tens of thousands attended his state funeral on Tuesday. For the previous three days, long queues formed at parliament buildings for the viewing of Mr Moi's body as it lay in state. But some came to verify for themselves that the former head of state had indeed died.

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image captionPeople were able to buy commemorative badges as they queued to view his body

Mr Moi has proved as divisive in death as he was in life.

He was once described, by his political enemies, as a "passing cloud". But once he took over the presidency in 1978 from founding father Jomo Kenyatta, he became a permanent clear blue sky that was omnipresent and alert, looking down with eagle eyes on every Kenyan and every corner of the country.

'Status of a deity'

As journalists we became used to the presence of special branch officers who trailed us everywhere while making a very poor effort of undercover policing.

As he solidified his grip on power, provoking reactions of awe and deep fear in equal measure, he ceased to be a mere president and assumed the status of a deity.

Kenyans began to refer to him officially as Mtukufu, which is the Swahili translation of "His Excellency" but which is normally a term used in reference to God.

There was nothing holy about Mr Moi's 24-year reign.

media captionWatch some of Daniel arap Moi's key moments

Political dissent - and there was plenty of it, especially after the attempted coup in 1982 - was met with forceful patriotic defence of Mtukufu.

Many people were detained, a few fled to exile, some were disappeared and others, including a key cabinet minister, killed.

The rest of the nation was persuaded to embrace a hero through praise and the constant recital of a loyalty pledge.

Kenyan patriotic songs were penned with the president and his signature ivory club in a starring role.

'Moi was everywhere'

Many of us can still recall the words of these songs in our sleep.

Christians say God inhabits the praises of his people. Mr Moi inhabited the lives of his people.

He was everywhere - on bank notes, in office portraits staring down at the workers, in statues, in the names of airports, sports stadiums, roads, colleges, milk, buses, schools and hospitals.

He stared at you through the numerous eyes of the secret police.

Politicians became court poets competing to see who was more loyal to President Moi.

image copyrightAFP
image captionPresident Moi's portrait could be seen everywhere

Sycophants struggled to outpace each other in praising Mtukufu, with one Education Minister, Peter Oloo Aringo, describing him as "the prince of peace".

Musicians composed songs, some which stated that the animals on the ground and the birds in the air were full of reverence and praise for Mr Moi.

Mr Aringo, one of the most famous court jesters, became known for his eloquence. He unleashed his words at public rallies that would not be out of place in love songs.

"Your Excellency, even the trees, the maize and plants sway to the sound of nyayo nyayo," he once said referring to the Swahili word for "footsteps", which was used as a term of endearment for the president.

This stifling atmosphere of political patronage, hero worship and the ease with which one could end up in a police cell did not leave any room for criticism of Mr Moi.

That was until satire arrived.

image copyrightSociety/Maddo

The first caricature of President Moi to be published was in November 1992.

With the first multi-party elections after a change in the constitution just around the corner that year, veteran Kenyan cartoonist Paul Kelemba, popularly known as Maddo, joined hands with Pius Nyamora, editor of Society magazine, and decided to test the waters.

The magazine published a full-colour cartoon showing the president winning a race on the track by putting hurdles in the way of his opponents.

Maddo recalled people's reactions to the daring cartoon.

"There was sheer excitement. Some people were in shock, while others became apprehensive about purchasing a copy because one could be arrested for carrying a seditious publication," he told arts journalist Kimani wa Wanjiru.

'Chink in Moi's armour'

After publication the editor and his cartoonist waited with bated breath. But nothing happened. No calls, no arrests.

Neither did Mr Moi's agents go around buying up all the copies like they had done before with publications they perceived as harmful to Kenyans.

Reflecting on why he took such a risk, Maddo said the time was ripe.

"The thing that was on my mind as I sketched the cartoon was that we were on the threshold of Moi's final years of absolute political control.

"I was convinced that he'd lose the election and if I was locked up, it wouldn't be long before I was free again."

President Daniel Arap Moi raises his baton to salute Kenyans during the 34th independence day celebrations in Nairobi,
Daniel arap Moi

Kenya's longest-serving president

  • 1924born in farming community

  • 1967becomes vice-president

  • 1978becomes president

  • 1982coup attempt foiled

  • 2002steps down as president

  • 2020dies in Nairobi

Source: Kenyan government

Maddo was wrong. Mr Moi won the next two elections and did not leave office until 2002.

But that race track cartoon in 1992 revealed a chink in the president's armour and soon after he became fair game for other cartoonists and comedians.

Six years later, a group of student actors from Kenyatta University ventured into political satire with Mr Moi - or a version of the head of state - as the star of the show.

Walter Monga're perfected his portrayal of Mr Moi down to his signature cough, raspy voice, accent, body language and the gap in the president's lower teeth.

'Moi laughed at himself'

Audiences went wild as they saw their head of state addressing the nation, looking his usual dapper self, then breaking into gravity-defying dance moves with the waist gyrating at speeds that could easily lift off a helicopter.

When the comedy trio of Monga're and two colleagues hit the TV screen, they became instant celebrities.

Their only worry was how President Moi would react to his on-screen representation.

Joseph Odindo, who had editorial responsibility over the programme, told me they made discreet enquiries at State House only to be told that the president was a big fan.

"Moi loved the comedy show and always made time to watch it.

"We were told he'd crack up, especially when he saw the other Moi dancing away," Mr Odindo said.

More on the death of Daniel arap Moi:

Once Kenyans realised it was safe to first laugh at Mr Moi and then with the man himself, satire became a great vehicle for easing the tensions that coloured his rule.

However, his legacy has not been a laughing matter.

With grand corruption and mismanagement of the economy, eventually reducing 60% of Kenyans to poverty, and Mr Moi's victims coming out to recall their painful ordeal at the hands of his regime, some are finding it hard to forgive the man.

By the time he left office in 2002, Kenyans had not only taken back their power from his strong hand, some actually had the guts to pelt the president's motorcade with mud as it arrived for the swearing-in ceremony of his successor, Mwai Kibaki.

Although Mr Moi is now gone, the current President, Uhuru Kenyatta, and his deputy, William Ruto, were both his acolytes.

Satire is still alive, but it feels like the laughter died a long time ago as the legacy of corruption and economic mismanagement have not gone away.

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