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Kenya’s longest-serving ruler continues to the country even in Death

Daniel arap Moi, Kenya’s second and longest-serving president, will be buried on Wednesday.

The funeral procession for Daniel arap Moi, Kenya’s second and longest-serving president, in Nairobi on Monday.Credit…Daniel Iringu/EPA, via Shutterstock

NAIROBI, Kenya — Thousands of mourners bade farewell on Tuesday to Daniel arap Moi, Kenya’s longest-serving president, under whose rule the country was haunted by corruption and gross violations of human rights even as it became a stable nation in a turbulent region blighted with wars and crises.

Mr. Moi, the country’s second president, died last week at age 95. As choirs sang and flags flew at half-mast, the reaction to his death was a reflection of this mixed legacy.

Some remembered him as a “wonderful father” and a “great leader” who played a critical role in fighting for Kenya’s liberation and shaping its post-independence future.

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“We should all learn from his inspiring journey and the chronicles of his life,” President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a speech at Nyayo Stadium in Nairobi, where Mr. Moi’s coffin arrived draped in the Kenyan flag. But other Kenyans, particularly on social media platforms, wrote about how Mr. Moi presided over an administration that stoked ethnic violence and committed gross violations of human rights, including massacres, unlawful detention, torture, and assassinations.

Mr. Moi, his critics said, oversaw a kleptocracy that skimmed hundreds of millions of dollars from the treasury, sabotaging economic growth and widening inequality.

From 1978 to 2002, Mr. Moi, who passed away of an unspecified illness at a private hospital in the capital, permeated every aspect of Kenyan life.

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Images of his dour face were omnipresent in all public spaces. Decked in sleek suits and waving an ivory baton, he would make a round of daily activities that headlined the evening news. Children recited loyalty pledges to him at school, and lined up on the streets to greet him and sing his praise, waving miniature Kenyan flags.

Under his stewardship, the East African nation remained an important Western ally, both during the Cold War era and the United States-led war on terror.

Several heads of states and dozens of ambassadors attended Mr. Moi’s state funeral on Tuesday. He will be buried on Wednesday in his home area of Kabarak, located about 120 miles northwest of Nairobi.

Mr. Moi was sworn in as Kenya’s president in October 1978.Credit…Jean Claude Francolon/Gamma-Rapho, via Getty Images

Yet as his funeral service was underway in Nairobi, Mr. Moi’s checkered rule and the different Kenya he could have shaped came into sharp focus.

“There’s a way death is perceived as something that automatically erases who a person was when they were alive,” Scheaffer Okore, a development adviser and vice chairwoman of the youth-led Ukweli Party, said.

Growing up in the southwestern region of Nyanza in the 1980s, Ms. Okore said police officers tear-gassed her school, shut down businesses and stoked a culture of fear and silence. Conversations about the president and his regime, she said, were “whispered,” less you risked jail or death.

“To ignore these experiences is to remind those whose lives were violently affected by Moi that they didn’t matter then neither do they matter now,” she said.

Mr. Moi has elicited a mixed response from Kenyans who view him as either a strongman or a leader who maintained stability.Credit…Suleiman Mbatiah/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Moi ascended to power in August 1978, after the sudden death of President Jomo Kenyatta, father of current president Uhuru. In the early days, he released political prisoners and preached unity — pushing many to think that he would change course from the ways of his predecessor by eliminating tribal cronyism and tackling rampant graft.

Instead, what emerged was a one-party state with Mr. Moi at its center who demanded blind loyalty from government officials by asking them “to sing like parrots” after his own tune.


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During his reign, freedom of speech was curtailed, ethnic violence proliferated and dissent was crushed, with many opposition figures detained and tortured in the much-dreaded Nyayo House torture chambers.

Mr. Moi’s body laid in state for three days less than a kilometer away from that building.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi, son of the prominent Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o, said there’s no reason Kenya shouldn’t have become a nation “where resources work for the citizenry, and reserves of wealth invested for future generations.”

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Mr. Ngugi, the author, was among thousands who ran afoul of Mr. Moi for criticizing his government. He was imprisoned and then forced into exile. But for years, before leaving Kenya, the family received death threats, said his son, Mr. Mukoma. Their home was raided, and his siblings couldn’t find jobs or get passports to leave the country. Effigies of his father were burned on television, he said.

Even though the author and his family have since traveled freely back to Kenya, “I deeply miss the me, the Mukoma that would have grown up in Kenya,” said Mr. Mukoma, who is now an associate professor of English at Cornell University, writing in an email. “In a way now, we are always absent from that other life.”

For some, Mr. Moi’s passing brought back the roiling emotions linked to growing up under his rule.

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A 2013 report from Kenya’s Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission noted that, under Mr. Moi’s rule, security forces killed hundreds of people — possibly thousands — in various massacres in the region with the stated goal of disarming the population and combating cattle rustling.

Abdikader Ore Ahmed, a former lawmaker, said he and his family were affected during the 1984 Wagalla Massacre, which targeted ethnic Somalis in northeastern Kenya.

Police chasing protesters during an opposition rally in Nairobi in May 1997.Credit…George Mulala/Reuters

“I have not eulogized Moi or condoled him,” Mr. Ahmed said, adding the atrocities committed by security agents against his family and relatives remained “traumatizing and emotional.”

Others did eulogize him. In the wake of his death, Mr. Moi has been described as compassionate, a jovial leader and a “disciplinarian” with an aptitude for problem-solving.

Raila Odinga, a former prime minister who was detained by Mr. Moi for campaigning for multiparty democracy, both praised and forgave him, calling him a “great leader” who made “great contributions” to the nation.

Kenya declared Tuesday a public holiday to celebrate Mr. Moi. Boniface Mwangi, a Kenyan photojournalist and activist, said this was “sanitizing” Mr. Moi. “It’s a deliberate attempt to photoshop the past,” he said.

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Kenya, he said, is still led by some of Mr. Moi’s closest allies and cronies. Both President Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto are protégés of Mr. Moi. The country continues to be mired in widespread corruption and abuse of office.

To build a truly democratic nature and reverse the entrenchment of the Moi legacy, Mr. Mwangi said Kenyans needed to study their history closely.

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