How Nicholas Biwott helped Moi to end Kenyatta elite’s grip on power

Nicholas Biwott’s political biography might well be a commentary of Daniel arap Moi’s rule.

History twined the two men’s lives and fortunes so that, outside their private lives, the story of one mirrored the other’s.

The most luminous part of this story will be their tango in 1980s, when Biwott helped Moi to unclamp the grip of a hegemonic elite that had captured the State and the economy.

Buried there is a master class in statecraft—and perhaps the most tantalising details of a moment when an ‘outsider’ president sought to disrupt the centre and re-mould Kenya’s political economy in his image.

PUBLIC DISCOURSE

Yet public discourse on the man has been mired in the miasma of a monstrous persona spawned by his role as Moi’s vicar.

That is confusing the smoke with the fire, however; the appropriate focus of a political biography should be his place in Moi’s political establishment.

Biwott’s story is tantalising for the reason that he was critical to the viability of Moi’s political project.

It is the story of a man who moved from the shadows of Kenya’s history to its limelight, where he moved the country’s own history.

He would master the rules of politics in the shadow of power, reset them and, while at it, move the centre.

BIOGRAPHY

In fact, his biography provides critical material for an alternative narrative of Kenya’s history.

Kipyator Nicholas Kiprono arap Biwott was born in 1940, the youngest among a generation of Kenya’s ‘X-Men’, all born in the 1930s, that would dominate Kenya’s politics and economy for decades.

They include Tom Mboya (1930), Grace Ogot (1930), Mwai Kibaki (1931), Robert Ouko (1931), John Michuki (1932), Simon Nyachae (1932), Martin Shikuku (1933), Wambui Otieno (1936), David Mwiraria (1938), Wangari Maathai (1940), Kipchoge Keino (1940) and Yusuf Haji (1940), among several other household names.

The timing of their birth meant that independence found all of them in their late 20s and early 30s and provided them an early foothold and longevity in the apex of the State, economy and society.

POLITICS

In his early years, Biwott would bloom in the shadow of the Alliance-Mangu-Makerere axis, whose story sets the cannon.

He was born in the Elgeyo-Marakwet ‘native reserve’ and educated in the less-known Tambach Intermediate School before proceeding to Kapsabet High School and later Melbourne University, Australia, to study politics and economics.

In the shadows of history, he met Daniel arap Moi and forged with him a lifetime partnership.

In the 1960s, both would sit in Jomo Kenyatta’s shadow as Biwott’s cohort captured the State.

Still, fortune favoured him. In only five years, he had worked for three of Kenyatta’s most powerful ministers —Mboya, Bruce McKenzie and Kibaki.

MOI’S AIDE

In 1971, Kenyatta personally recommended the then-young civil servant to serve as Moi’s aide.

At just over 30, Biwott was known to a sitting president and two future presidents!

Few in Kenyatta’s government thought much of Moi.

That was perfect cover for Biwott to learn and master the rules of politics in the shadows—even as he champed at the bit.

POLITICS

In 1974, he tumbled into politics, vying for the Kerio South parliamentary seat. He lost the election but Moi took him back.

Moi’s unlikely ascent to power in 1978 following the death of Kenyatta found him unprepared to steer the State machinery.

A pure politician, Moi had little interest, facility or patience for the nitty-gritty of bureaucracy.

He was, instead, more comfortable to ‘play politics’ through a political party, Kanu, a political machine that he rode to the end.

COLONIAL STATE

The problem was that Moi’s political agenda was to dismantle a bifurcated colonial State, which concentrated its productive and social welfare capabilities in the arable White highlands while only investing a skeletal law-and-order presence in the areas outside the ‘commanding heights’ of the country’s economy. The task needed a man with a totally different political DNA.

This was Biwott’s moment.

First, though, Moi needed to temporarily borrow the brains of more sophisticated political players to get a grip on the State—most prominently Charles Njonjo, GG Kariuki and Kibaki.

He appointed Biwott the Minister of State in the Office of the President.

STATE ECONOMY

Biwott had 15 years’ experience in government and his training in politics and economics gave him a sophisticated understanding of the State-economy complex.

Moi fully trusted him. He knew that his apprentice was a daredevil who, as his kinsmen would say, ‘had no water in his heart’.

Moi had cheekily set a cat among pigeons.

The 1982 coup is widely seen as the Machiavellian moment when Moi’s political animal broke from its deceptively quaint exoskeleton.

In his shadow, Biwott installed himself as Moi’s vicar.

KEY POSITIONS

Biwott had a crystal-clear understanding of his assignment: Resetting the rules of who gets what.

In the political economy of the day, the State commanded key sectors of the economy.

He found Kenyatta’s men fully in charge of the State and economy. His task was to unclamp their grip.

In effect, it meant shoving them out of key positions in the disciplined forces, the civil service and parastatals.

He replaced Kenyatta’s men with his own functionaries, often from the margins, while recasting the parastatals’ mandate outside of the colonial centre.

REVOLUTION

Seen for what it was, this involved bringing in the ‘outsiders’ and taking out the ‘insiders’, terms that could be used to describe an economic revolution. Biwott’s assignment dovetailed perfectly with Moi’s federalist impulse to build an alternative coalition of ‘small tribes’ to counteract the ‘big tribes’ at the centre.

This vicarious role is what made Biwott indispensable in Moi’s establishment. It is an inevitable tether in Kenya’s political history under Daniel arap Moi.

There is a second consequential reason. Toppling Kenyatta’s men put at Biwott’s disposal the very raison d’etre of power—the prerogative to distribute and re-distribute.

As Moi’s vicar, Biwott towered over all but Moi, so that it was simply impossible to talk about a ‘Mafia’ or a ‘first among equals’.

DISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH

There was just one don who decided who got what, including himself and, perhaps, Moi.

This is the ‘meta-fact’ that is central to any account of his own wealth or the distribution of wealth under Moi’s regime. Everything else is merely its details.

Biwott had secured for himself a special place in the hearts of the men that would have celebrated Moi’s ‘passing as a cloud’.

He had robbed them the opportunity to be Moi’s undertakers and was now theirs.

They reserved for him the purest of loathing. His popularity among Moi’s adversaries spawned for a monstrous political persona that would cap the direction of his political biography.

SOVIET UNION

The 1990s opened rather rudely for Moi. The collapse of the Soviet Union set the world on a liberalisation path.

With it came policies that would force governments of developing countries to open up their economies to international players, privatise State-owned enterprises, cut back on social spending and implement reforms in governance to allow more transparency and accountability, democracy and guarantees for human rights.

On all accounts, Moi’s government was on the back foot.

OUKO EPISODE

The real shock came on a 1990 trip to the US, where Biwott was part of the delegation.

The facts are that, on this trip, Moi was not able to meet the US president.

A few days after returning from the trip, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Robert Ouko, ‘disappeared’. He was found dead near his home.

A narrative that indicted Biwott gained currency. Its explanation was that Ouko made contact with White House, which slighted Moi and angered Biwott.

His role as Moi’s vicar damned him whichever way.

SCAPEGOAT

On one hand, scapegoat was easy and convenient for enemies with a pound of flesh to claim.

On the other, few people in government would have the power to make a minister disappear.

He denied it and stuck to his story, to the end, just as the story stuck to him. There was value yet for this foul reputation.

The new world order eroded the benefits of the pre-1990 politico-economic order and changed the political game.

If politics in the 1980s was a muscular affair, the 1990s would be a cerebral game.

EXIT SIGNAL

These two were no fools, and we must take it as a given that they read the Ouko episode correctly as an exit signal.

Roles changed. Moi descended from a godly pedestal as ‘Nyayo’ and tumbled into a street brawl with his former ministers and prisoners.

Biwott, on the other hand, transcended the bureaucratic nitty-gritty and lifted to the ether, where he remote-controlled the bureaucracy through the network he had created.

The foul reputation helped him to now construct the fable of a total man, a perfect distraction as the grandmaster of the shadows faded into his natural habitat.

In death, he lies with the secrets of politics in the shadows of Kenyatta and Moi. His tombstone also casts a large shadow.

 Dr Chesang, a political scientist, is a consultant in the private sector. He writes in his personal capacity and can be reached on #KipronoChesang

The former Cabinet minister passed on at his home in Kileleshwa.

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