How the West used aid to shape Kenya politics

Moi made such a rapid U-turn on multiparty politics, even his closest advisers were stunned

In Summary

• Foreign powers, led by the US, had the government by the balls

If, as a former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson quipped in 1964, a week is a long time in politics, then a month is a veritable lifetime, 18 months seems like forever and 30 years is quite possibly an eon.

Looking back 30 years ago at this time of year, Kenyans were getting ready for their first General Election involving more than one political party since the so-called mini-General Election of 1966.

Just five years earlier, Kenyans had participated in probably the least democratic election of the single-party era. 

The March 1988 elections saw the infamous mlolongo or queue voting system for the Kanu primaries. This system meant that you voted publicly by queuing up behind your preferred candidate.

While it may have sounded like the ideally transparent process, it ended up being one where intimidation, fraud and voter buying were rife and internally it was one of the sparks that ignited the campaigns to end single-party rule.

Just 18 months ahead of the December 1992 elections, Kenya was still a one-party state and President Moi and Kanu were yet to reluctantly embrace multiparty politics.

In 18 rapid months, Kenya went from that state to a multiparty democracy of sorts.

In July 1991, President Moi was busy traversing the country and the world, putting up a staunch defence of one-party rule and swearing he would crush any opposition in the country as though they were rats.

Leaders of the fledgling opposition were being jailed and detained left right and centre, while teargas throwing and rungu-wielding police were gleefully breaking up anything that even looked like an anti-government gathering.

Then came the month of November 1991, when everything changed. 

During what I remember to be one week in November 1991, the Kenya government arrested opposition leaders Gitobu Imanyara, Oginga Odinga, Martin Shikuku, Paul Muite, Dennis Akumu and others, and the German government withdrew its ambassador from Nairobi.

At this point, even the government’s erstwhile enablers and supporters in London and Washington signalled they were unhappy with the status quo.

Foreign powers, led by the US, gathered at the World Bank and began to put the squeeze on by suspending aid, pending action to curb widespread corruption and the revival of multiparty politics.

The foreign masters, as Kanu would come to call them, had clearly mastered one of the messages from the 1992 British comedy-drama film “Just Like Woman”, where one of the lead characters said: Grab them by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.

In this case, it would appear the nation’s purse was also where its testicles were kept. This foreign involvement would also lead Moi to compare Opposition supporters to the dog on the historic HMV record label, when listening to “His Master’s Voice”.

Not immune to the testicular pressure exerted by foreign masters himself, Moi made such a rapid U-turn on multiparty politics that even some of his closest advisers and supporters were left spinning.

By July 1992, he was confidently campaigning and pundits who had written his political obituary were being forced to think again.

Moi was as ruthless an opponent in the new multiparty game as he had been under the single party. 

Using his intimate knowledge of his main rivals, who at some point or another in his long career had once been allies if not actually friends, he ran some serious interference in the Opposition.

Those who were surprised that Moi took so naturally to multiparty campaigning had clearly forgotten that at the dawn of Independence, he had been an Opposition leader and less than five years after Independence, he had not just crossed the floor but had ended up as Vice President.

By the time the Kenya Gazette of November 3, 1992 announced that the elections were imminent, the main Opposition Ford Party had split in two.

And on December 29, Kenyans voted and the country was never the same again.

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