Reviews & Profiles
Mwai Kibaki: The man who turned round Kenya’s presidency
Posted Thursday, March 7 2013 at 00:00
As outgoing President Mwai Kibaki cast his vote to usher into office the fourth Kenyan president, he might have taken time to ruminate on the day he, himself, was voted overwhelmingly 10 years ago, in 2002.
He might have reflected on the twists and turns of a remarkable journey for a child from a peasant family in Nyeri to the highest office in the land.
Kibaki will be taking his leave not just after serving two terms at State House, but a lifetime of public service, most of it in the upper echelons of political leadership. It is a life marked by 10 years as president and 10 years as Vice President, with a 10-year interlude in between as an opposition leader. Save for a short stint, two years as an assistant economics lecturer at his alma mater Makerere University, President Kibaki has known no other employment except politics.
The brilliant young economist was plucked by Tom Mboya from the lecture halls of Makerere to take charge as Kenya African National Union’s first executive officer in 1961 at the age of 30. He ran the Independence party’s secretariat before deciding to take his own plunge into politics at the pre-Independence General Election of 1963.
The young Kibaki, at the age of 32, was elected MP for then Doonholm constituency in Nairobi, a larger version of the present-day Makadara constituency.
He held the seat until 1974 when he opted to shift from the uncertain rough and tumble of city politics to a more secure seat in his birthplace, Othaya. Save for one year when he lost his seat on quitting Kanu to form the Democratic Party at the end of 1991, President Kibaki has served continuously in the National Assembly to date, setting a record as the longest serving MP since Independence.
He has been sitting in Parliament with not a single contemporary from those early years, with the present-day veterans having served at least 20 years less than he.
A career as old as Kenya
The story of President Kibaki’s tenure in leadership therefore closely intertwines with the story of Kenya @50 as the country gets set to celebrate in December, a half-century of freedom.
It has been a story of triumphs and tribulations, falling down and getting up, overcoming obstacles, beating the odds and confounding the skeptics. He was scorned as “Vice President for Othaya” as President Moi’s inner clique plotted his removal from the number-two office in the late 1980s.
He became “General Kiguoya (coward)”, as christened by his detractors in the early period of return to the multi-party regime when he suddenly dumped Kanu to join the new bandwagon. A popular newspaper columnist called him the leader who “never saw a fence he did not want to sit on” as the country headed for the first multi-party elections of 1992.
Prior to that, he had also endured with typical equanimity difficult final years as President Moi’s deputy marked by humiliation and clumsy overt steps to undermine and undercut him. President Kibaki could have looked back with quiet satisfaction at two-terms in a transitory stage that vindicate his cautious and sometimes hesitant style of politics and leadership.
They have been difficult terms marked by both success and failure. He came in at a time when Kenyans were conditioned to the presence of a powerful Head of State, Presidents Kenyatta and Moi, who brooked no dissent and whose word was law.
Kenyans were used to a president who is declared Father of the Nation and promoted an overbearing personality cult that included having every important road, stadium, school, airport and market named after himself.
The president was Farmer Number One, Teacher Number One, Footballer Number One and generally the personage around whom the sun revolved.
Every TV and radio news bulletin had to start with dreary and long-winded accounts of the presidents daily diary—attending church service, addressing wananchi at a road-side stop, receiving delegations of politicians or businessmen—even when such mundane events were of absolutely no news value.