Regular visitors to President Mwai Kibaki’s State House have many memories to share. There were numerous hilarious moments like when Vice President Moody Awori and another junior State House official separately earned the wrath of First Lady Lucy Kibaki for getting her official title wrong.
Mr Awori had inadvertently made reference to “the Second Lady”. Not too long after these incidents, President Kibaki broke with his tradition to address the nation on who was (and who was not!) a member of his family.
The First Lady was no stranger to controversy, at home and abroad. There was a day, during a foreign trip, that she reportedly rejected the hotel room the President had been booked in. On another occasion, her presence had sent Mr Matere Keriri fleeing from her wrath.
Mr Keriri, who managed the President’s diary, had accompanied him to inspect a power project in Nyanza and when he extended his hand to greet Mama Lucy at the airport, she walked right past him as though she had not seen him. When the two met at the project site later that day, Mr Keriri took to his heels. Apparently, earlier, he had allowed ‘a guest’ into State House.
Of course, it is difficult for a journalist to tell the story of Mr Kibaki without mentioning the First Lady, Mama Lucy Kibaki. As a columnist, I had the thrill of commentating on the First Family in my column from time to time while as an editor, I had on numerous occasions written headlines for stories about the President, his family and government.
And so it came as no surprise that when Mama Lucy stormed Nation Centre that even, it was to complain about a headline I had written. She had earlier in the day ordered Nairobi Police boss King’ori Mwangi to go buy all available copies of the newspaper. The headline screamed; ‘First Lady turns heat on the police’.
Not long thereafter, I found myself writing yet another headline on the First Lady; ‘Lucy on the loose’.
My commentaries were also unflattering on the Kibaki's and so, at the height of her complaints against me, I had to travel to Israel for one month of media training to escape the pressure. One afternoon, I received an email message from my editor colleague, now Lands CS Farida Karoney, saying; “Lucy is looking for you!”
I thought it was a joke but, as it turned out, she was dead serious.
“You are lucky you are away!” Ms Karoney said.
The long and short of this was that I had woken Ms Karoney up when Mama Lucy stormed the Nation newsroom. She remained in the newsroom through the night. That week, for the first time, my name appeared on the Daily Nation as a subject, not writer.
Lucy had written a long treatise through Mr Isaiya Kabira (then head of the Presidential Press Service) complaining against me. The letter was addressed to the media complaints commission, where there was a case against me and my colleague, Mr Macharia Gaitho. But the hearing session ended on the first day when Mama Lucy arrived, took her seat and was offended by the protocol and procedural issues.
As many know by now, Mr Kibaki was as alert or as aloof as he wanted those around him to believe. It just depended on the occasion and the message he wanted to send out. Sometimes, he used this demeanour to deflect what was not palatable to him. And when he had to speak about someone, like when he criticised Mr Raila Odinga who had galled him, his words were as deceptive as his inscrutable face. You had to pay keen attention because he often delivered the most poignant message using third-person references or generalities and pluralities that seemed to point at no one in particular. One had to read between the lines.
But there is one message Kibaki left me with when I was a younger man, after a harambee in Kahawa West, Nairobi.
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“The best way to beat temptation,” he said, “is to yield to it. If you want a beer, just take it and the temptation will not be with you.”
Most people took the meaning of these words in their literal sense. Yes, Mr Kibaki loved his nyama choma and White Cap beer and would very often - until old age set in - stay up late to enjoy his tipple. Yet, he would still retain his clarity of thinking and spark of brilliance the next day.
But in the words he spoke in Kahawa West, he was asking why Mzee Moi was not giving Kenyans the freedoms they were crying for so that they could move on.
Interestingly, a day before Mzee Moi visited State House for the first time after handing over power, Mama Lucy arrived at the State House dining room. I have it on the authority of an acquaintance who was present then that she ordered all glasses broken.
“You know Mzee Moi does not drink (alcohol) and he must not be served with any of those glasses people here have been filling with pombe!”.
New ones were ordered but I have no idea if Mzee Moi used any of them when he finally went there.
Despite the raid on the Standard Group, the burning of its newspapers and the cannibalisation of KTN equipment during President Kibaki’s watch, I can only say the subsequent government has done worse for the media through other subtle methods of media strangulation. I don’t remember a day Kibaki complained about a cartoon or news story. It was not his character.
He lived silently
Just as he lived silently and unobtrusively, so too did he slip into the next world. My only feeling is that historians have not done him justice; there goes one of Kenya’s loneliest Presidents and one also every aloof. So much that, one day a piece of his treasured garment gave way in public because someone had forgotten to remind him to tie his belt. Unperturbed by the wardrobe malfunction as he was giving a speech, he simply smiled as his Aide-de-Camp and pulled up the ‘fleeing’ garment.
You will nonetheless be forgiven if you bought the line that Mr Kibaki was a fence-sitter and coward (General Kiguoya). This is what endeared him to Presidents Kenyatta and propelled him to the presidency.
Many thought that like Mr Moi before him, President Kibaki would be a ‘passing cloud’. I am sure even the Raila Odinga team of 2002 were convinced that Mr Kibaki was a passing cloud.
And now that he is gone, may we honour Kibaki’s good and bad legacy through research into understanding the man, the circumstances of his entry into politics, the tutors he had in the long journey, the lying web of friends that planted themselves around him - and the misfortunes and turbulences of his presidency - including the near-fatal accident that confined him to a wheelchair in his early days as president.
Fare Thee Well, Kenya’s Third President.
Mr Tanui is the Group Executive Editor and Head of News at the Standard Group.