How to Write About a Dictator


Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi was not a good man,

Not by a long shot, Not by a mile. Not by any definition of the word. Not in any language. Not in this life or the next. Not in an alternative universe. Not if words didn’t exist and we could only communicate through laughter. 

When I learnt of the good news of his demise,I was elated and then I wasn’t any more. It was a strange feeling and space to be in. I thought that his death would be the gift that the gods of the land had been waiting for, a long awaited gift for purgatory but in the midst of that I was deflated. It was almost as if death had robbed me of penance but what penance?

I was a child through Moi’s tenure and I wasn’t politically aware until well into my teens so why would I be angry at this man I had only read and heard of?

I knew something needed to be written about this man but what? I had to think about it and put in the intellectual labour. How hard could it be to write about a dictator?

I could just have a detailed listicle of his misgivings as my role in preserving memory as my part of the intellectual battle, right? The truth would be self evident and this was the one thing that we as a country could jointly agree on?

The past few days have been a mental mindfuck. An unimaginable discourse space that I didn’t ever think that I would be part of. The struggle to defend truth against a sardonic alternative reality being woven as I watched. Milan Kundera famously said that “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” and there was no greater moment than this for me to understand what that means.

I started understanding just how a national consciousness can be created, how it can be destroyed and how a lived reality can be altered even to the people directly affected.

How does a country forget? How does a whole country forget? That has rang over and over in my mind over the past two weeks. I’ve been livid at the people lavishing praise on him. I wasn’t mad at the politicians because they’re politicians. If hell was real, they would be demons-in-training. They’re not the ones I had expectations of. Well, to be fair, the only shocker was Raila Odinga’s unforgettable remark terming Moi as a freedom fighter who proceeded to do much for our country. The man who was tortured, imprisoned for years and eventually had to flee to Norway fearing for his life, dressed as a priest, travelling under a pseudonym, Father Augustine from Machakos, was creating a freedom fighter from thin air. He was pulling it from his ass, breathing life into it and shining the turd for good measure. Politics makes prisoners even from its owners. It would be politically treacherous for him to be truthful about this man even after he was no more and so he mustered together all the technical inexactitudes he had perfected over the years for one grand performance of sorrow. 

Africans don’t speak ill of the dead. Well, fuck you and fuck the dead. Well, actually let’s limit the fuck you to you, because the dead are already, you know, dead.

But how do you write about the man? How do you write about a man who made it a crime to imagine the death of the president? Knock twice if you want me arrested, Moi. No knocks? Why? Could it be because you’re dead? Maybe, maybe not. We’ll never know. 

How do you write about a man who is a textbook for learning about Kenyan populism? A man who is remembered in death not by his widespread massacres, hit squads, torture, assasinations, plunder and looting that made him a dollar billionaire,land grabbing, perpetuation of ethnic tension and division leading to decades of election and land-related clashes BUT by Maziwa ya Nyayo, a taxpayer-funded primary school milk feeding program? 

How do you write about a man who people quote as the professor of politics?A person whose tactics are quoted aspirationally in the midst of admitting the harm that he caused, as a footnote in the conversation?

How do you write about a man who you couldn’t satirize because any work of fiction would pale in comparison to the things he did? In John Ruganda’s “Shreds of Tenderness”, Daudi’s dog barked at the President’s motorcade. Daudi was detained and the dog deported. When a scene like that best describes your former president, what kind of stories do you feel would do him justice?

Painting Moi’s legacy as a complicated legacy is a disservice to Kenya. There was nothing complicated about his dictatorship. 

We wouldn’t need to vilify Moi to tell people who he was. We would only have to historicize him, paraphrasing Wandia Njoya but would that be enough?

It might be a part of the solution but not fully it. Not yet Uhuru. Just under 50% of Kenya’s population is under 19 years old. Why does that matter? Moi left power in 2002, which is just under 18 years ago. Half of our population has never ever experienced Moi. Their perception and reality of Moi comes from their parents and from the education system hell-bent on eliminating critical thinking. The other half consists of people in the 20-35 age group who sort of experienced Moi in their childhood and the rest of the ones who remained when things got tough. The 90’s saw a mass exodus for those who were brilliant enough to see that there was no way out at the point but additionally the move was only possible for those who were wealthy enough to up and leave. People left with their only plan being to survive. 

no one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark

you only run for the border

when you see the whole city running as well

-warsan shire 

So would history work? Would history be read? Would history matter?

Why am I unsure about it being a solution? People, who I believe are and were adults of sane mind in his tenure are choosing to willingly spread state propaganda long after the Nyayo and Nyati House basement torture chambers were closed. They’re the people who referred to Hitler as a disappointed artist and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as an “austere religious scholar.” They’re the people who make us doubt our sanity and our experiences. They’re the people who are demanding free labour from us in asking for us to look for the “good side” of the man who reminded the nation day after day that he was what we were stuck with whether we liked it or not.

Moi brought the nation to its knees and still managed to convince us that Kenya would have collapsed without him. That he did what he did as a necessary evil in the grander scheme of protecting us from falling into a civil war and that this was necessary to avoid division. He convinced us that the boots on our necks were to keep us safe and the guns to our heads were a sign of love. The godly kind. The Hebrew genocide god sort of undying affection. That the dead bodies were martyrs but not warriors because martyrs are to be mourned and while soldiers are to be avenged. 

How do you write about a man who walked round with a club made of ivory and gold which had a song dedicated to it which the whole country learnt and sang? The horcrux which served as a self- assuring symbol of legitimacy by the insecure man worked as a panoply of Kenyan’s inculcated views on strongman politics as necessary for impact. How do you write about a man who named every school, building and neighbour’s donkey after him? How do you write about a man whose symbols of authority still linger on long after his reign and still sing his praises and remind his former subjects to toe the line even when he is no more?

How do you write about truth when you’re not quite sure what that means any more? How do you write about the truth when the government is actively, through the Building Bridges Initiative (The BB Fucking I) , trying to actively control narratives and create official government history?

How do you write about a man who killed over 10,000 people during the Wagalla Massacre in 1984, which was just one of multiple massacres that he orchestrated over the time? But how do you also show that he was part of a system that started before him that was an imperialist system which created the state of Kenya on the bedrock of exclusion and othering using violence? If you told people that the Indemnity Act from 1972, which was revised in 2012, was still a law, would it shock them or help them understand it better? You can’t institute legal proceedings against public officers or members of the armed forces for any acts committed between 1963 and 1967 (the period of the Shifta war- a secessionist battle right after independence where ethnic Somalis in the region fought to be a part of Somalia instead of Kenya) The colonial government had held a referendum right before independence where Somalis voted that they wanted to be a part of Somalia but Johnstone Kamau wanted it as part of Kenya and so it was given to Kenya. Kamau not only kept them to oppress them some more, he also killed around 7,000 people. Where do you start documenting the endless massacres that happened since Kenya was Kenya? How do you explain that the massacres didn’t stop in the Moi era and have continued? Do we talk about the thousands killed during the post election violence or we we go on and talk about how all the young men who were used for violence were also killed, one by one to the hundreds? How do we show the relationship between all the violence that has occured in Kenya and show that they’re part of a bigger problem? 

How do you hold the nuanced discussion that Moi was a result of the colonialist state in part but he was also individually responsible for one of the most economically and politically tumultuous periods in Kenya’s history? How you convince people that his violence wasn’t a necessity but decisions made in selfish interests?

Do you explain to them that Moi didn’t burn elephant tusks because he loved the animals but only because it was costing him international aid and development funding? That Dr. Leakey, the then Director of the Kenyan Wildlife Conservation Department, didn’t deny that the burning of tusks was part of the PR strategy fromBlack, Manafort & Stone who were their lobbying firm in Washington? 

Do you lead them down the memory work that Oduor Ong’wen did documenting Moi before 1982 breaking the long held myth that Moi was a good president before the coup? Ong’wen through serialising events shone light on the fact that the coup happened because he was a dictator and not the other way round that he became a dictator because of the coup

Do you take them down the voluminous, 2,200+ page path of Truth, Justice and Reconciliation reports that showed the state violations over the span of 45 years and the stories that came out of it? Do we start with the stories of people being hung from flying helicopters as ways of obtaining information? Will writing really bring out the true reality of the lived experiences? Or maybe we should turn it into a blockbuster hollywood but replace ‘Kenya’ with a fictional name of a fictional African country? Maybe that would be something that people would want to be a part of? No one wants to read history, do they? No one wants to watch people that look and sound like them suffering for over two decades? They have enough problems in their days to deal with, don’t they? 

How do you explain to people that their history was wiped away and the little culture they had left used as a control tool against them?? Will we have to first start explaining why history is necessary? Will we have to show that the pattern of dictators rewriting history is a necessary tool in their rule because once they change our frame of reference then we start accepting their actions as normal? Will they understand that warped history means that they can’t connect patterns and can’t see what’s happening to them and even when they see it, that they can’t understand it?

How do you write about Moi to people who he robbed of their greatest national asset-their imagination and their ability to think? How do you explain to a person who thinks that they can think that they cannot in fact even think that they can’t think? How do you explain to people that their normal isn’t actually normal and that countries can function differently from the chaos that he created and which is currently our country?

How do  you write about a man who was a myth? You just write. Even if you are unsure about its importance. Even if you don’t think anyone will read it. Even when you’re sure that it won’t be the best piece that was written about him. Even when you know you’ll get flack for it. Even when you know that the country will probably forget. Just write. 


I pledge my loyalty to the President and Nation of Kenya My readiness and duty to defend the flag of our Republic.My devotion to the words of our national anthem.My life and strength in the task our nation’s building.In the living spirit embodied in our national motto – Harambee!

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5 Responses
  1. Muteezy

    Very well written Mariga! It’s like the more we find out about Mo1’s era, the worse we realise it actually was.

    Truth must be told however so tell it!

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