Exit Mwai Kibaki, accidental president who turned the economy around

Former President Mwai Kibaki. [File, Standard]

Up until three months before the December 2002 elections, the contest for the presidency was still up in the air. No one, least of all political commentators and pundits could bet on the Opposition pulling the rug from under Kanu- in power then, for 40 years.

Then in an article published in The Standard, I had opined; “the path of the Opposition has been like that of a drink-sodden man staggering for a few yards before crashing into every lamppost while assuring their supporters that all was well.”

But things were changing for the good.

In the ensuing elections, Kibaki’s Narc - comprising a phalanx of cross tribal chiefs, pulverised Kanu - the independence party, and brought to an end its 40-year reign.

Kibaki triumphed over Uhuru Kenyatta in 2002 less because of his policies than because he represented the change that Kenyans yearned for.

For citizens of a country in economic ruin, hope was readily clutched at. Narc offered that hope. The ethnic fault lines long associated with Kanu were sealed. That ugly patchwork of tribal mosaic was no more. We were one country, one people.

It all looked like Kanu had sponged all the goodwill in the people given the landslide win of the Rainbow Coalition. The economy got on its feet and Kenya was changing for the better. Yet in no time, the war on corruption - the main plank of the Rainbow campaigns - turned flaccid.

Kibaki must have been haunted by the daunting realisation that to say and to do are as different and apart as the North and the South pole. Emotions had been whipped beyond the stratosphere as when one does away with the old and ushers in the new.

The inexorable loss of faith in the Rainbow dream and the missed opportunities were all too clear too soon. Their reformist zeal withered and the rot crippled back. The Kanu they had so much derided and dismissed looked more like a better option than the Rainbow Coalition.

Kibaki’s presidency was knocked sideways by revelations of sleaze and impropriety. Had the president looked the other as graft flourished underneath his feet?

Twice, Kibaki’s Finance ministers (David Mwiraria and Amos Kimunya) stepped aside under a cloud of suspect deals involving billions of shillings. They all returned to the Cabinet in different roles.

“One would have preferred to overlook some of the all-too-obvious human errors and forge ahead, but it would be unfair to Kenyans not to raise questions about certain deliberate actions or policies of the past that continue to have grave consequences on the present,” he had said at his inauguration at Uhuru Park in 2002. But was it?  

Half-hearted efforts to punish the culprits of Kanu’s regime stuttered and by the time Anglo Leasing arrived in 2005 and the sense of despondency from those who felt excluded from the centre, Kanu’s malfeasance looked like a joke.

Anglo Leasing was a tender inherited from Kanu for the supply of sophisticated passport equipment system and forensic science laboratories for the police. Former Integrity PS John Githongo was to write in his memoires to the president that Anglo Leasing and Finance Company “did not exist and therefore had been created for untoward purpose.”

Former Integrity PS John Githongo. [File, Standard]

The company had been awarded the Sh2.7 billion contract and a 3 per cent commitment fee of Sh90 million had been paid. There was no crass attempt to cover up the apparent looting and the plunder of public resources prompting then British High Commission Edward Clay to make that famous “vomiting on our shoes” speech.

The corrupt are still cutting deals like there was no tomorrow, he wrote in a speech to a group of British businessmen in July 2004. “It is the corruption of the present government which needs more urgently to be addressed… the practitioners now in government have the arrogance, greed and perhaps a desperate sense of panic to lead them to eat like gluttons… they can hardly expect us not to care when their gluttony causes them to vomit all over our shoes.”

“It is old corruption fighting back,” Kiraitu Murungi the Meru Governor, then Justice minister, tried to explain away the obvious and unprecedented greed for money and largesse.

But the evidence that old corruption had been buried in new corruption was overwhelming. In November 2005, after a humiliating defeat in the referendum on the Proposed Constitution, Chris Murungaru, who held the Internal Security docket, was left out of President Kibaki’s reconstituted Cabinet. In February 2006, Mr Mwiraria stepped aside over the Anglo Leasing scandal and so did Kiraitu.

“As I step aside, my conscience is clear that I have served the Kenyan people with dedication and honesty and have not been party to any irregularity, criminal act or unethical conduct,” said Mr Mwiraria. “The allegations made against me … cast serious aspersions on my character and integrity, have greatly disturbed me.”

In his report, Githongo had claimed that Mwiraria had asked him to “go easy” with his investigations into the Anglo Leasing scandal.

President Kibaki’s jarring absence from the thick of things bothered both friend and foe. President Uhuru Kenyatta, as Leader of Opposition, described Kibaki’s style of leadership as “hands off, eyes off, feet off, everything off”.

It seemed that Kibaki never or hardly appreciated what he represented as president. He seemed cavalier and out of step with the nation’s pulse. He was silent as the paroxysm of hate spread across the country incubating the violence that erupted after the disputed election results in 2007.

As the tussle over who had won in 2007 played out at KICC, President Kibaki was silent, perhaps he considered himself to mature to submit himself or become embroiled in the squalid electoral fray. At times, he seemed like he had waited so long for greatness such that when it arrived, he didn’t know what to do with it. He was at best, superficial, unreliable but showed great conviction nonetheless.

“I don’t know if it is the drugs they’re giving him, but he’s sleeping on the job,” Kalonzo Musyoka is quoted as having said in leaked cables from former US ambassador Michael Ranneberger.

Former US ambassador Michael Ranneberger. [File, Standard]

In his memoirs Interventions, Kofi Annan is unflattering about President Kibaki’s Kitchen Cabinet. “The lack of urgency and the childish nature of these obstacles was something to behold,” he wrote. "This was in the middle of a four-day fighting in the Rift Valley that left 60 dead.”

Kibaki always came across as detached, providing fodder for his detractors who lampooned him as lazy and non-committal.

All in all, President Kibaki is most remembered as an awkward, uncertain and hesitant president  - a fumbling politician quite unsure of himself, quite out of control. What is not in doubt is that the fissures caused by internecine feuds in the coalition, kept erupting all too often hobbling the development agenda.

In 2007, Kibaki recalibrated his message, but it was a hard sell. Five years of exclusivity was not going to be erased by a blitz of PR sound bites. The citizenry was disillusioned. The bitterness and deep resentment of the ruling class for hogging the cake to themselves was palpable and ODM, led by Raila Odinga used that effectively.

“Look around you, see what a gorgeous constellation of stars we are, just look at this dazzling mosaic of people of various ethnic backgrounds, race, creed, sex, age, experience and social status… it is the love of Kenya that has brought us together,” he had said, on that wet morning as Kenyans witnessed his historic swearing-in 2002.

What had changed in less than five years? Unlike Moi, President Kibaki liked the quietness of privacy, seldom venturing out into the public as often as Moi did. Yet worse still, Kibaki’s unease in public speaking defined him. He looked befuddled, tired and unconnected to the speeches he gave. His off-the-cuff speeches could veer off at times.

In previous regimes, State House was steeped in in-fighting, backstabbing and underhand deals. President Kibaki’s was no different and the ushering in of New Year and the long Christmas vacation provided the spectre of the battles involving the First Family, the Kitchen-Cabinet and the civil servants.

In the last year of his first term, Kibaki visited many parts of Kenya than he did in the four years he was president. Many blame his health, others point a finger to the rigours of the office. Though he often offered his vision for Kenya through the miracle economic growth, he never offered firm government, a necessary ingredient in the running of any country least of all, a fairly complex one like Kenya. 

“We are saddened to observe the impression and expression of most Kenyans is that they have a moribund president and an ineffective Prime Minister," said the National Council of Churches of Kenya in 2008.

“In their hearts, Kenyans cannot understand how they can be going through an extremely difficult period with no hope in sight, yet the president who is constitutionally mandated to give them leadership is extremely quiet about those issues, almost as if he has lost touch with reality,” said former NCCK secretary-general Rev Peter Karanja.