From 1982 coup to 1992 poll: The storms that Moi weathered

Friday, February 7th, 2020 00:00 |
A man passes by a looted shop in Nairobi, the aftermath of the August 1, 1982, attempted overthrow of President Moi by sections of the Kenya Air Force. Photo/Courtesy

Eric Wainaina @EWainaina

President Daniel arap Moi courted numerous controversies in his 24-year rule — and quite a few before he ascended to power.

From the 1982 failed coup attempt, detention of opponents, assassinations, massive corruption, nepotism and claims of instigating ethnic violence, Moi appeared to be enmeshed in endless scandals.

But the self-proclaimed Professor of politics, who died on February 4 at the Nairobi Hospital, weathered the storms, sometimes by cleverly plotting counter moves and ruthlessly crushing potential opposition.

Former MP Njeru Kathangu says Moi used State power to have his way in politics.

“The State was Moi and Moi was the State. He made Kenya a police state,” said Kathangu.

But Moi’s former minister Fred Gumo disagrees with Kathangu. “Some people say he was a dictator.

A dictator does not move and meet people on the roadside. Dictators sit in the office and never go around, meet people or go to church,” said Gumo.

The controversies surrounding Moi started long before he became president. 

Two years before President Jomo Kenyatta died, a group of politicians under the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association (Gema) group, started the Change-the-Constitution campaign which was aimed at barring vice president Moi from automatically succeeding Kenyatta as acting president when he died, as the Constitution stipulated. 

In his autobiography From Charcoal to Gold, Njenga Karume, who was one of the Change-the-Constitution campaign leaders writes about the then Nakuru politician Kihika Kimani voicing his worries about the prospect of Moi succeeding Kenyatta.

“How would Moi become president?” Kihika asked, astonished by such a possibility. 

“Where would our Kikuyu leaders be, if and when this happened?” wrote Karume (now deceased) in his memoirs.

The anti-Moi crusaders wanted the Constitution amended to allow the Speaker of Parliament, the Head of Civil Service or the Chief Justice to take over in case of the President’s death.

To save Moi, Karume writes, Attorney General Charles Njonjo, came up with a “fairly simple, yet totally devastating solution” which surprised Moi’s enemies.

One-party state

Njonjo called a press conference and announced that to “compass, imagine, devise or intend the death or deposition of the President” was a treasonable offence.

The Kihika-Karume campaign died. Even when Kihika later tabled a petition in Parliament to amend the Constitution, the motion failed. 

And when Kenyatta died in August 1978, Moi took over in acting capacity. Three months later, he became the substantive President as he was the sole candidate in the subsequent presidential election.

Four years after he took over power, Moi, with the help of Njonjo, pushed through an amendment which turned Kenya into a one-party State.

The June 10, 1982 amendment was rushed through three readings and committee stages unopposed. Opposition had been outlawed.

But barely two months later, opposition came from unexpected quarters. On August 1, 1982, junior officers of the Kenya Air Force attempted to overthrow the Moi government.

The coup was, however, crushed by loyal forces. Hours later, President Moi, who would later reorganise the military to kick out the rebels, addressed the nation from State House, Nakuru.

“Yale yalitokea leo asubuhi kwa muda mfupi imeleta wananchi wasiwasi (whatever happened this morning caused tension in the country,” said Moi

There was even more tension eight years later when Foreign Affairs minister Robert Ouko was murdered in February 1990. 


Shortly after returning from a trip to the United States with the President, Ouko was reported missing, before his body was found by a herder near his Koru home in Kisumu.

The death caused widespread riots with the Moi government being accused of assassinating the minister.

At least four inquiries into the killing were done, with three of them ending prematurely. The murder is yet to be resolved.

Other unsolved deaths during Moi’s rule was that of Anglican Bishop Alexander Muge, a government critic, who died in a road crash on August 14, 1990. There were claims he was murdered by government agents and the accident was a cover-up.

Other unresolved deaths are that of Fr Anthony Kaiser, a Catholic priest from the United States, who was found dead with a gun wound in Naivasha in August 2000, Titus Adungosi, a University of Nairobi student leader who died in 1982, and Julie Ward, a British tourist whose body was found in the Masai Mara in September 1988.

The Moi government was also accused of institutionalising corruption. Goldenberg scandal of the early 1990s was the biggest reported financial scandal of the Moi regime in which Sh5.8 billion is reported to have been lost in fake gold export deal. 

There has been a judicial inquiry into the scandal, whose chief mastermind was businessman Kamlesh Patni, and some court cases.

The early 1990s were troubled times for the Moi government. Besides the unresolved murders and financial scandals, the agitation for more freedoms, particularly the restoration of the multi-partism, gained momentum. 

In 1991, Moi gave in to the pressure and allowed the amendment of the Constitution to restore the multiparty system.  

This paved the way for the formation of opposition parties, the most formidable which was the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (Ford).

The leading figures in Ford were former vice president Oginga Odinga and former Cabinet minister Kenneth Matiba. 

The united opposition appeared sure of dislodging Moi from power in the 1992 General Election until it split in two, one headed by Odinga and the other by Matiba. 

The Odinga group called itself Ford Kenya while the Matiba faction went by the name Ford Asili.

Ford split was largely caused by a disagreement on the mode of picking the party’s presidential candidate. While the Jaramogi group preferred consensus, Matiba felt a popular vote would be the most appropriate.

In his recently published autobiography, ANC leader Musalia Mudavadi, who was a member of the Moi Cabinet at the time, suggests that the President may have had a hand in the Ford split.

Two Fords

“He told us in Cabinet several times that Ford will split by election time. Don’t joke with me when it comes to politics. You will see what will happen. We will beat these people hands down when the elections come,” Mudavadi writes in Musalia Mudavadi: Soaring Above the Storms of Passion.

Mudavadi writes that when the factions sought to be registered as the bona fide Ford party, the government, through Attorney General Amos Wako, was more than willing to register both. 

“When eventually the two factions presented their papers to the Attorney General’s office, each claiming to be the bona fide Ford party, Wako advised that he would register both. And so the opposition played into Kanu’s hands,” writes Mudavadi.

That is how Jaramogi ended up with Ford Kenya and Matiba with Ford Asili. Even better for Moi, his ex-vice president Mwai Kibaki had left Kanu to found his own party, the Democratic Party.

When the 1992 election votes were counted, Moi easily won against the divided opposition, albeit with claims of rigging.

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