Moi died peacefully at a private hospital in Nairobi, said his son, Sen. Gideon Moi.
His critics called him a dictator for his authoritarian style, although Moi enjoyed strong support from many Kenyans and was seen as a unifying figure when he took over after the death of Jomo Kenyatta, who had led the country following its independence from Britain in 1963.
Some of Kenyatta’s allies had tried to change the constitution to prevent then Vice President Moi from succeeding him. Moi was so wary of threats at the time that he fled his Rift Valley home when he learned of Kenyatta’s death, returning only after receiving assurances of his safety.
In 1982, Moi’s government pushed through parliament a constitutional amendment that made Kenya effectively a one-party state. Later that year, the army quelled a coup attempt by opposition members and some air force officers. At least 159 people were killed.
Although Kenya was known for its stability, Moi’s government became more repressive in dealing with dissent, according to a report by the government’s Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission that assessed his rule. Political activists and others who dared oppose him were routinely detained, tortured and killed, the report said, including the death of a foreign affairs minister, Robert Ouko.
“The judiciary became an accomplice in the perpetuation of violations, while parliament was transformed into a puppet controlled by the heavy hand of the executive,” the report said.
Corruption, especially the illegal allocation of land, became institutionalized and economic power was centralized in the hands of a few, the report said.
In 1991, Moi yielded to public pressure at home and abroad for a multiparty state, including a demonstration where police killed more than 20 people.
Multiparty elections in 1992 and 1997 were marred by political and ethnic violence that critics blamed on the state.
By the time Moi left power in 2002, corruption had caused the contraction of Kenya’s economy, the most developed in East Africa.
Moi often blamed the West for bad publicity and the economic hardships that many Kenyans endured during his rule.
As with President Jomo Kenyatta, many government projects, buildings were named after Moi, and his face adorned the country's currency and coins. Kenyans voted for a new constitution that was implemented in 2010 and made provisions to bar personality cults.
Kenyans had a mixed reaction to Moi’s death.
Commentator Patrick Gathara tweeted that Tuesday was a day to remember Moi's victims “as well as the thousands who stood against his brutal and murderous kleptocracy. It is a day to remember that the current crop of politicians helped him escape justice for his crimes.”
Salim Lone, a former U.N. spokesman who fled into exile because of harassment under Moi, said the former president began his tenure and that “so many supported your promise of a free, more inclusive, corruption-free Kenya.” He said Moi initially released political prisoners and famously said it was better to eat sukuma wiki (kale) and sleep in peace than seek riches.
“How it went wrong is not for now,” Lone added.
Kenyatta ordered national flags lowered to half-staff until after Moi was buried.