IN 2002, Kenya was at a euphoric high that has never been seen, probably not since independence.
A few African countries, including Benin in 1991, Zambia also in 1991, Malawi in 1994 and Senegal in 2000 know the feeling of voting a long-serving president out of office, and how incredibly ecstatic that makes the people.
In Kenya’s case, though President Daniel Moi was not contesting for the seat as he had completed his two constitutional terms in office (and a new political settlement) – and 24 years in total as head of state – he had a “project” to ensure that the legacy of the independence party KANU continued.
He hand-picked Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of the country’s first president Jomo Kenyatta, from near-political obscurity and made him KANU’s presidential candidate in the 2002 election, passing over numerous loyal, long-serving and long-suffering party stalwarts.
That triggered an internal rebellion in the party, and nearly all of KANU’s leading lights deserted the party and teamed up with opposition candidate Mwai Kibaki.
The rest, as they say, is history. Kibaki won by a landslide, bagging two-thirds of the vote, and Moi went home to tend his cows.
The sense of exhilaration at the time is difficult to describe. But a small group of radical conservatives, if I can call them that, were not convinced. I know a few of them, all under 40 years old now (and so were just in their late 20s when the Kibaki euphoria was in full swing). They did not celebrate, but deeply mourned the end of the “Nyayo” (following in the footsteps) era, as it was known.
I was just coming to age at the time, and I found it utterly baffling. These were young people, and people our age did not really have that strong allegiance to the old independence parties.
These guys did not have any overt political ambitions or even connections, and so did not have any “insider” reason to be so enamoured by Moi.
One of them, let’s call him Paul*, is a very intelligent, outgoing, well-read kind of person. Born and brought up in the city of Nairobi, in a reasonably comfortable, religious, middle-class family, he’s now a teacher at a big government high school.
10 wasted years
Paul celebrated the victory of Uhuru Kenyatta in 2013. He told me that Kenya had just “wasted ten years” by rejecting him in 2002, and that KANU (in its neo-incarnations) was going to rule for a long time to come.
And now, it seems everything is coming full circle. Moi’s son Gideon is also said to be angling for the presidency.
Paul’s reason for supporting KANU, he tells me, is that the elder Moi is the embodiment of the aspirations of the ordinary citizen, and spoke for, and to, the ordinary citizen.
A recent Afrobarometer survey in 33 African countries shows that most Africans generally support democracy, but there is some ambivalence mixed in: more than 50% still hold some nostalgia or sentimentalism for autocratic rule of one form or another.
The middle class demographic is typically associated with defending democratic ideals, particularly in the Western liberal sense of it.
But in Africa, it seems that there is a strong allegiance to conservative, traditional values, and even support among young people for parties like KANU, ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe and Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) in Uganda.
The independence parties gave some clear and uncontestable goods. They stood up to the white colonialists, “Africanised” the civil service, built schools and hospitals, and gave people a sense of pride in simply being free.
But you could argue that that happened a generation ago, and none of these young people was there to see it. So why would 25-35 year olds wear lapel pins of a long-serving dictator today?
In Robert Mugabe’s case, many Africans live vicariously through him – he says all the things we secretly think but are too afraid, or too proper, to say.
Perhaps it has to do with the corruption and rot that characterises African political and social life today.
Young Africans of a certain age, are now almost completely jaded with their “democratic” governments, which seem to be nothing more than a merry-go-round of looters, none better than the other.
Yearning for the old ways
In such an environment, there is a yearning for the old way, for order and discipline, hence the love for leaders like Moi, who famously was a teetotaller and Christian who rose before 5am for his morning prayers (but, also presided over a brazen pillaging of state institutions, and brutally persecuted and locked up dissidents).
Many, like Paul, may seem to be progressive (in the classic sense) on the surface, but are really deeply anti-elitist and anti-bourgeois; they can’t stand what they see as the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of activists agitating for liberal democracy along Western lines.
It also speaks for the desire to be a part of something honourable, a kind of salt-of-the-earth earnestness, where loyalty and obedience to an unpopular paradigm is actually a radical act.
So don’t be surprised when you see youths wet behind the ears extolling the virtues of the kind of dictator who has served longer than they were alive, and plunged the country into the economic and social morass.
It’s ironic, yes, but also a heartfelt quest for honour. Africa is complicated.
*Not his real name