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How Moi kicked off torture era to rattle dissidents

4 min read

An undated photo of former MP George Moseti Anyona.

Shortly after he took power in 1978, President Daniel arap Moi was concerned about the critics he had inherited from the Jomo Kenyatta government.

While he had ordered the release of all political detainees and offered a lifeline to all those ostracised by the Kenyatta government, he was increasingly jittery about the academics and “marxists” stationed at the University of Nairobi.

It was the Cold War era and those who offered alternative leadership thoughts were portrayed as followers of a “foreign ideology” and as anti-Nyayo.

The dilemma facing Moi at that time was how to deal with former detainees whom he had released and how they were to be accommodated in national politics.

By limiting their freedom of association, Moi would appear to be no better than Kenyatta before him.

The first test came from George Moseti Anyona, a former MP who called for the amendment of the Kanu constitution, which specifically barred Oginga Odinga-led Kenya People’s Union (KPU) members from vying for elections.

SEARCH FOR ‘YES’ MEN

His argument then was that “any proviso in the party’s constitution, or rules, which has the effect of denying any citizen the fundamental right and duty of participating freely in the management of national affairs is both a philosophical anachronism and a contradiction to the party’s basic creed of democratic African socialism.”

From then on, Moi knew that the ex-detainees were going to be a new thorn.

Another rumbling was coming from novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who was being denied a chance to resume his teaching position at the University of Nairobi.

In March 1979, Ngugi had been arrested and charged with “drinking after hours” and “behaving in a disorderly manner” at a police station by banging doors and demanding to be told why he and his co-author, Ngugi wa Mirii, had been arrested.

It was all part of a systematic attempt to push the two into oblivion. But the two were set free by Justice Emmanuel Okubasu, who accused the police of failing to tell the two why they had been arrested.

Moi started to court a new team of ”yes” men. That team did not include the ex-KPU members and the dirty work was left to Kanu Secretary-General Robert Matano.

BARRED FROM ELECTIONS

In an interview with the Sunday Nation then, Matano said that all ex-detainees who had not left Kanu like the former deputy speaker, Jean-Marie Seroney, Kitutu East MP George Anyona and Butere’s Martin Shikuku were free to seek parliamentary seats.

But ex-KPU members had to get clearance from Kanu, which was the only party.

Eventually, Kanu barred ex-KPU members from running for the 1979 elections, and Moi quickly asserted that “the ruling party is supreme and no one can take it to court”.

He actually got support from The Standard newspaper which, in an editorial on January 26, 1980, said that the detainees had been held “for plausible reasons”.

Anyona — the most vocal of the former detainees — shot back: “There can never by any plausible reason in a free Kenya for detention without trial, either moral or ethical grounds.”

To protest the ban, students from the University of Nairobi took to the streets demanding justice for the KPU members.

“What do they mean when they say they are demanding justice … are they suggesting that there is injustice in Kenya,” Moi asked during a public rally and warned: “Irresponsible behaviour of this sort and flagrant disregard of the law will not be tolerated.”

FIRST WARNING

It was shortly after this that some leaflets appeared at the University of Nairobi’s main campus and its constituent, Kenyatta University College.

The Special Branch moved in to investigate those who were behind the leaflets critical of the Nyayo government.

The emergence of this underground protest voice was then seen as the work of “communists”, according to Vice-President Mwai Kibaki, who asked them to “migrate to countries which practise it”.

It was in mid-April 1980 that Moi gave his first warning to the would-be dissidents that he would act tough on them.

He also warned those who were “scrambling for power” that he would lock them up if they did not toe the government line.

All this was happening at a time when the political landscape was changing significantly.

Charles Njonjo, the man who engineered Moi’s rise to the presidency, was gearing up to enter competitive politics after the resignation of the Kikuyu MP.

Moi did not immediately react to Njonjo’s entry into politics. What was bothering him then was what to do with the Luo community, which had remained as the only organised opposition during the Kenyatta presidency.

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