Mwai Kibaki: Though he walked middle road, it led him to State House

Lucy Kibaki (left), Laura Bush, Mwai Kibaki and George W. Bush at the White House, October 5, 2003. [Getty]

The editor of the Weekly Review - then one of the most incisive political publications in Kenya - in the issue published on September 15, 1978, described him as “the Rising Star.” It was bold declaration at a fragile time when Kenya was going through a political transition following the death of President Jomo Kenyatta, hardly two months earlier.

Having been the person who had read the Cabinet’s first joint statement that rallied the country behind Daniel arap Moi when he was acting as President, the then Cabinet minister Mwai Kibaki was certainly running ahead of the pack. Yet, it was still telling for a political publication to give him front cover prominence with a descriptor of that kind.

There were many who aspired to greater heights in national politics, as ensuing developments would soon prove. For a start, the death of President Kenyatta had presented a fresh opportunity for Kanu to reorganise itself during the all-powerful one-party rule. Its national executive elections were planned for October. It was also expected that by November 22 of the same year, there would be a presidential election since the 90-day holding period, during which the vice president acted as president, would have lapsed.

Mercifully, apart from the acting president, Daniel arap Moi, nobody else presented nomination papers to the electoral commission. With Mr Moi assured of the presidency, therefore, focus shifted to the second in command. Who would it be? Names were floated. James Gichuru? Mbiyu Koinange? Jeremiah Nyagah? And Kibaki, of course. For some reason, it was thought that the name should be from the Mt. Kenya region.

Kanu’s national elections should have been held on April 3, 1977. However, since Mzee Kenyatta was unwell and could not chair the meeting, they were put on hold. The president passed on more than a year later without the elections taking place. Even before Mr Moi could take the oath of office and announce the party’s election date, as expected, a number of people were already staking out their claim for various positions at the national level. Their hedging suggested that Mr Kibaki was not going to walk to the top.

In the aborted 1977 party elections, Mr Kibaki had gunned for the newly introduced position of national chairman. Also laying claim to it was the Minister for Defence and MP for Limuru, Mr James Gichuru. After Mzee Kenyatta died, Mr Kibaki sought the vice presidency. His challenger was Jeremiah Nyagah, and they would go all the way to the wire, where Mr Kibaki resoundingly beat Mr Nyagah. Interestingly, Mr Nyagah ran against Mr Kibaki in spite of the fact that President Moi had by this time already appointed Mr Kibaki vice president. Many would have thought that a challenge to Mr Kibaki was reflective of unhappiness with the president’s choice. Otherwise, why would anybody challenge the president’s choice?

In this transitional phase, many had not come to terms with the fact that Moi was the president and that he might rule for long. Dr Taaita Toweett, for example, referred to the Moi presidency at that time as “a passing cloud”.  It turned out to be the longest cloud to pass in Kenya’s history, lasting a whopping 24 years, and outliving Dr Toweett and many other doubting Thomases.

At the time, however, their sights were cast on the general election slated for the following year (1979) and they seemed to harbour the thought that President Moi would not consolidate power and that there would emerge new formations. They also thought that they could challenge Mr Kibaki. They were wrong.

Former President Daniel arap Moi. [File, Standard]

Yet, it was true that Mr Kibaki was a rising star whose light would outshine the fluctuations of politics to reach State House in the fullness of time. It would shine there for a constitutional period of ten years, before ushering him into a quiet retirement away from the public eye.

He would fight many political battles in subsequent years, some of them quite bloody. Yet he fought all through with the mien of a gentleman, slow to anger and with genial aplomb as his definitive aspect, even in the middle of storms. Barring the one day when he was compelled to come out tell the Press of his unhappiness about speculations on the composition of his family,

Mr Kibaki remained unruffled all through as Kenya’s ultimate political gentleman. It was this mien, informed by an underlying firmness of character that many took for granted, that propelled Mr Kibaki to the great heights of leadership in Kenya.

Kibaki the man was essentially tailormade for the academy. He could fit snugly in a university lecture theatre and senior common room. And he did for a while. His forays into politics and subsequent rise to the very top were the kinds of things that appear to have been fashioned by providence. From the early years in Gatuya-ini, Othaya, where he was born on November 15, 1931, to Mzee Kibaki Githinji and Mama Teresia Wanjiku, Kibaki was a humble boy by many accounts.

His contemporaries would remember him as quiet and reflective. He had a penetrating look that went straight into your inside. You got the impression he was assessing the space between your words and your heart and mind. He remained that way all the way into adulthood and statesmanhood. On club evenings, his buddies would rattle away with loud talk, shifting from one subject to the next while he sat in their midst, sipping his beer and keeping a silent but keen eye. Only occasionally would he put in a word here and there. Even then, it was mostly to seek clarification on something someone had said.

He fell in love with school and learning and, despite the challenges at home, he did well at the end of his Intermediate School, after which he proceeded to Mang’u High School. He attended Makerere University in Uganda, where he excelled and bagged a First Class honours Bachelor of Arts degree in economics in 1955. In 1959, he was awarded a Bachelor of Science in Economics by the London School of Economics. He returned to Makerere to research and teach. He was a most popular lecturer, on account of his clarity of delivery and his subtle sense of humour. He gently turned a phrase into a joke, leaving everyone in stitches, while he quietly moved on to the next topic. He might even look up and ask, “What are you fellows laughing about?” And he would proceed without waiting for an answer, perhaps sending the class into yet another round of mirth.

A section of Makerere University, Uganda. [File, Standard]

It was from the lecture halls that the political class in Nairobi sourced him in 1960 to work for Kanu as its Executive Officer. The following year, he wedded Lucy Muthoni, who then worked as a secondary school teacher. His suave and urbane style was easily one of the attractions, beyond his training and academic credentials. The newly-formed party needed an executive officer who could be at a manager and a deft hand at administrative issues on the one hand, and an individual with good potential for navigating the political space.

The country was still in its formative political days, rife with ethnic suspicions and outright mistrust. The mistrust had seen persons who had been offered positions in the Kanu national executive in 1960 trash them and instead formed their own party, the Kenya African Democratic Union (Kadu). Others held on to the ethnic-based outfits that the colonial dispensation had encouraged, when it first allowed organised African political activity in 1948.

The so-called political organisations of 1948–1960 were essentially ethnic welfare associations. The Kenya African Union (KAU), the precursor of Kanu, was strictly the first nationalist effort at African political organisation. As a senior party honcho, and one with an eye on the future, Mr Kibaki began to establish himself strongly in the cosmopolitan region of Nairobi. In this, he had a steady partner in Mr Tom Mboya, a unionist. Rather than cultivate rural constituencies like many others were doing, Mr Mboya defined Kamukunji as his constituency, while Mr Kibaki chose Donholm. He cultivated a cosmopolitan constituency that saw him elected to represent the constituency in the independence elections of May 1963.

After the election, he was appointed Assistant Minister in the Ministry of Economic Planning. Following his sterling contribution to Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965 on African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya, he was the following year made Minister for Commerce and Industry. Although the famous paper has been equally attributed to Kibaki and Mboya, the fore was the principal contributor. Effectively, he was to Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965 what Thomas Jefferson was to the Constitution of the United States of America.

In 1969 and 1974 Mr Kibaki successfully defended his Donholm seat, beating off stiff competition from Ms Jael Mbogo, Mr Fred Omido and Dr James Marete Muriuki. The constituency had by then been renamed Bahati. Mr Kibaki was subsequently appointed Minister for Finance. He also served as Minister for Economic Planning, following the assassination of the previous holder, Mboya. 

Tom Mboya addressing the public, 1965. [File, Standard]

Changed his base

Five years later, Mr Kibaki changed his base from Nairobi to Othaya in his home district of Nyeri, and was re-elected in all six subsequent elections.

Kibaki will be remembered as a star performer in the Finance docket despite numerous challenges and shocks to the Kenyan economy under his watch. Kenya’s economy, for example, began taking a significant beating about 1971, under his watch. He was not entirely to blame, however, as the factors leading to this were global.

Corruption was sneaking into government, with high office beginning to take on the character of prebendalism when political leaders and government officials started feeling they had a right to a share of government revenues. Those who occupied senior positions seemed to taking it as a matter of course that doing business with government was one of the benefits of being in public office. 

The country began experiencing a worsening of payments gap between exports and imports, despite strong inflows of capital through private investment.

The crisis defined itself sharply for the first time in 1971, with the first mini balance of payments challenge. The 1973 Israeli-Arab war in the Middle East generated oil price shocks whose echoes were felt globally. In Kenya, oil prices rose by up to four times between 1973 and 1974. Import costs rose dangerously, leading to a 100 percent budget deficit.

Short-term support from the IMF did not.