1982 FAILED COUP

When Moi met Machiavelli

He learnt it is much safer to be feared than loved.

In Summary
  • He would still continue to attend church services every Sunday. But that was just for show.
  • For he had learnt that the kind of widespread popularity he had attained as a “nice guy” was fickle; and that there was a better way to cling to power.

Once again it is the season for reviewing one of Kenya’s national tragedies and analysing its lasting impacts on the country.

I refer of course to the failed coup attempt of August 1, 1982.

And no doubt it was a major turning point. In his earlier career as a political leader President Daniel arap Moi had been one of the “nice guys” of Kenyan politics. A classic “mission boy” in his youth, he had grown up to be a devout Christian who rarely missed a Sunday church service.

 

He was sworn in as president in 1978, in an era when African presidents were generally expected to remain in power for life.

But just a few years later, the coup attempt occurred.

And this is where we could say, Moi had an encounter with Machiavelli. It was not quite as dramatic as what we are told happened with Saul on the road to Damascus, but its effects were just as profound.

Why do I bring in Machiavelli?

Because Kenyans are not so different from other people around the world. And back in those days, military coups were not that uncommon in Africa.

Kenyans first learned of the military takeover early morning on August 1, through a statement broadcast on the only radio and TV service in the country back then, the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation. We were told to remain indoors: and that we had nothing to fear from our patriotic soldiers who had liberated us from the dictatorial rule of Daniel Moi.

How do you think most of the leading political figures of the day reacted to this news?

And although those of us who were alive at the time little realised it, after the coup attempt had been crushed by the loyalist soldiers, the Moi whom they restored to power was a very different man from the Moi of old.

Naturally, they were preparing to make their peace with our new leaders who in the early hours of the coup certainly seemed to have completely taken over the country. The more forward looking of them were no doubt hoping to be accommodated within the new power structure.

One MP even mailed a letter to “State House” (the names of the coup makers not having been revealed at the time) congratulating the new leaders and offering his undiluted support.

This was to later seem an incredibly stupid thing to do after the senior ranks of the military turned the tables on the amateurish would-be coup makers.

But the fact is while other elected leaders did not write letters of congratulations to “State House” their sentiments cannot have been much different.

For as Machiavelli explained in The Prince, “...this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children…when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you…”

Broadly speaking, with the exception of a few longstanding personal friends and the hardcore of his personal security, Moi found himself alone at a time when he most needed support.

What ultimately saved him was the professionalism of the senior men in the Kenyan armed forces: and an awareness within these senior ranks that the path traced by an African military coup initiated by the lower cadres, would at some point necessarily involve a massacre of their seniors.

And although those of us who were alive at the time little realised it, after the coup attempt had been crushed by the loyalist soldiers, the Moi whom they restored to power was a very different man from the Moi of old.

He would still continue to attend church services every Sunday. But that was just for show.

For he had learnt that the kind of widespread popularity he had attained as a “nice guy” was fickle; and that there was a better way to cling to power.

As Machiavelli wrote, “…a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with…”

After 1982, Kenyans may or may not have loved Moi. But they certainly learnt to fear him.