My encounters with the fatherly Moi
- Moi had a long hearty laugh, cracked finally by the irony of how Chiluba was now miserable due to a doomed-to-fail attempt at clinging onto power illegally.
- Earlier, in September 1997, urged by senior aides Dr Kosgei and John Lokorio, Moi had hosted a rare cocktail for media at State House.
I stood at the entrance to the presidential suite at the Lusaka InterContinental.
When my turn came, Mark Too, the well-heeled businessman who had abruptly summoned me on the orders of President Daniel arap Moi, lumbered to the door and said, “He’s ready.”
I was ushered into the suite. President Moi sat on his bed, slowly, and thoughtfully, wearing his socks. “Habari gani (How are you) young man,” President Moi opened softly. “You still work for British imperialists?” he asked.
I hesitated, then said, “They pay for more than a roof over my head, Sir, and I’m contributing to nation-building in a big way.” A high-profile journalist for a leading agency, I had had, in equal measure, skirmishes and jovial encounters.
“How is President Chiluba?” he bellowed, tone suddenly sharp, steely eyed.
That sweltering morning in July 2001, Zambia’s second, President Frederick Joseph Titus Chiluba, was hosting the last Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit and presiding over the birthing of its successor, the African Union (AU).
I was the Lusaka-based bureau chief for Zambia and Malawi for the global news agency Reuters.
I told him of Chiluba’s season of discomfort, headaches, anomie. Cabinet revolt. Street riots. Impeachment motions. Murder of a prominent critic. Humiliation.
To be fought viciously by the opposition was commonplace for African leaders. But for a revolt to be led by your handpicked incumbent vice-president, supported by more than half the Cabinet, was something new for Moi, who had named himself ‘Professor of Politics’ because of his mastery of the political chessboard.
Moi had a long hearty laugh, cracked finally by the irony of how Chiluba — who had trumpeted democracy, berated him and proclaimed the end of the ‘Big Man’ rule and pledged to leave office when his term ended — was now miserable due to a doomed-to-fail attempt at clinging onto power illegally.
“Democracy. Democracy. Democracy, has served its portion,” summed up Moi, his six-plus-foot frame shaking with mirth.
“Okay, asante (thank you). Keep well and remember you are a Kenyan. Remember to be patriotic,” he declared with a smile, to my relief.
“It’s time,” Mark Too told me. It was back to his familiar self. Stiff. Almost unapproachable. He walked into the presidential bubble to his last OAU summit.
Four years earlier, I had had another encounter with President Moi in the Credentials Room, the multipurpose stateroom at State House Nairobi.
It was a very sunny and pleasant day in November 1997. I was a Reuters Correspondent in Nairobi. The occasion was an interview that we had been waiting for for months.
We had been abruptly summoned by Dr Sally Kosgei, a powerful figure in the government. Questions had to be delivered in advance and vetted. I was accompanied by Nick Kotch, my Nairobi Bureau Chief, friend and mentor.
We’d start with the agreed questions and then throw in a few out-of-script salvos towards the end, we agreed.
We were given seats, but President Moi stood behind his podium. At the right moment, I threw in the first of two questions: “Will you be retiring?”
President Moi looked up. For a tiny instance, his eyes betrayed surprise. “I will not be retiring,” he said, pointedly.
“I am sure to win the upcoming election. Kanu (the then-ruling party) will win.” He then added, rather ominously, “I will not retire if that threatens the stability and unity of the country.”
We also threw in a question about the International Monetary Fund. He took this in his stride, reminding us of the colonial mindset of donors and news agencies like the one we represented.
Earlier, in September 1997, urged by senior aides Dr Kosgei and John Lokorio, Moi had hosted a rare cocktail for media at State House. He strolled about, engaging his guests.
Months earlier, the then-famous UK Africa Minister Baroness Lynda Chalker had had the cheek to hold a news conference before meeting her host, Moi, and railed on about political change and rampant corruption.
I called my State House contacts for the President’s comments. “She has the attitude of a Kindergarten schoolteacher,” came the prompt response.
Strong. Unambiguous. Unapologetic. Crystal. President Moi had delivered his broadside with a smile while still being able to send the message that a televised assault on African dignity would not be entertained.
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Kenya’s history is littered with stories and anecdotes that peppered the Second President’s long and colourful rule. #KwaheriBabaMoi
Mr Esipisu, Kenya’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, is a former State House Spokesperson in the current administration of President Uhuru Kenyatta, a Moi protégé.