One of the difficulties in writing about the retired President Daniel Moi is that on the one hand, it is undeniable that he proved to be a master politician during his 24-year tenure. And on the other, he epitomised the worst of ‘the African Big Man’ syndrome.
As such, if you mention his extraordinary political cunning, you will appear to be praising a classic African dictator. You will stand accused of praising a man whose opponents were frequently jailed for long periods without trial; or jailed for even longer terms after a ‘confession’ had been beaten out of them by state security agents. And incidentally, he presided over a typical African kleptocracy, where proximity to political power was the sole requirement for the rapid accumulation of a vast fortune.
Be that as it may, now that MP for Tiaty Kassait Kamket has launched what seems to be a serious effort to return Kenya to the Westminster parliamentary system — and to thus put a decisive end to the horrors of Kenyan presidential elections — an interesting question arises:
Why did Moi, back in 1991, when permitting a return to multiparty elections — after a decade of the single-party state — retain the imperial presidency more or less intact?
For nobody knew better than he what the powers of the Kenyan presidency could be used for. And he was — in 1992 — heading into Kenya’s first-ever presidential election that many thought he was sure to lose, as he had with time grown to be terribly unpopular outside his Rift Valley backyard.
So why not dilute the powers of the presidency going into that election, so that if he did lose, there would be a limit to how much his victorious rivals could make him pay for his transgressions?
Well, the answer of course is that Moi knew very well that as long as he was President, he could not possibly lose. For it was no mere sophistry to refer to what Moi wielded so effectively, as an imperial presidency.
It was a system in which presidential power made a mockery of democratic norms as well as democratic elections. And Moi knew that there was no reason to fear that one of his political rivals might end up commanding those extraordinary powers, and thus cause him untold misery. On the contrary it was the continuation of this system that guaranteed his victories in one election campaign after another.
In short — then as now — within the Kenyan political system, having a tight grip on the all-powerful imperial presidency is the sole requirement for presidential electoral victory.
In Kenya, even the most visibly unpopular President simply cannot lose. One way or another, they will end up back at State House.
The key to all this lies in that large organ of government known as The Office of the President, an organ full of departments whose expenditures can never be adequately assessed even by the most rigorous auditors. Contained within it are instruments of coercion as well as of election rigging worthy of the kind of military dictatorships that ruled much of Latin America until fairly recently.
Then there is the fact that under the old Constitution, the Judiciary was completely subservient to the Executive.
Above all else, whether you had the old Electoral Commission of Kenya or its successor, the Interim Independent Electoral Commission, or even the current Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission: all these were likely to be staffed by time-servers and place-seekers of the kind who could hardly dare contemplate announcing that the President had lost the election.
So, one way or another, the predetermined announcement following any presidential election would be one of a glorious victory for His Excellency.
This kind of thing is, at the end of the day, not only unsustainable, but ultimately also self-destructive. And we should all be grateful to Kamket for providing an opportunity to put this nightmare behind us.