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Mwai Kibaki: The man who changed Kenya’s money bag

 Mwai Kibaki took power in 2002 and turned Kenya into a “working nation,”

US President Barack Obama recently smoked out retired President Mwai Kibaki — the man who gave his father Obama Senior a job — from hibernation. Kibaki, who is rarely seen in public, came to honour a dinner date with the US President on Saturday night at his former address in State House, Nairobi.

The next day, Obama went to Kasarani and acknowledged what the old man had done for the country — building the economy. The praise for Kibaki, whose rallying call when he took power in 2002 was to turn Kenya into a “working nation,” was hidden in a hackneyed comparison about Kenya’s economy at independence and that of South Korea, and what Kenya has achieved so far. The numbers show “Kenya is making progress,” Obama said.

“When I came here as a US senator, I pointed out that South Korea’s economy was the same as Kenya’s when I was born, and then (in 2006) it was 40 times larger than Kenya’s. Think about that... But today, that gap has been cut in half just in the last decade,” said Obama, in what the White House termed as a speech “to the Kenyan people.” That ‘last decade’ refers to the Kibaki years:

The years when grassroots development grew exponentially through the introduction of Constituency Development Fund; the time when major roads were paved; universal free primary school education was actualised and taxes improved, and the only time that the economy grew by seven per cent (2007) from a low of 1.7 per cent in 2002. The only other time Kenya had experienced a seven per cent economic growth rate was in the 1970s at the height of the coffee boom 35 years earlier!

If you ask some of the people who worked on the economy then, such as the former Finance Minister Amos Kimunya, he will tell you that the Kibaki years were all about ‘the big picture.’ In an interview with The Nairobian for this story, Kimunya said that the first thing they did was to “have a proper strategy” to fight corruption, increase revenue targets, lure investors and then improve infrastructure all over the country.

They had a team of advisors drawn from all sectors who sat in the National Economic and Social Council, whose job was to gather views, refine them, and turn the good ones into government policy. “We focused on doing the right things, the right way. With the Economic Recovery Strategy for Employment and Wealth Creation, we focused on the future, the long-term rather than the short-term. We went for the right investments to guarantee long-term returns. People may not have seen it that way at the time because we didn’t make noise, but it worked,” Kimunya told The Nairobian.

The administration gave confidence to the private sector to pay taxes, and they made sure the government used those taxes to improve the lives of the people. “When I was Finance Minister, I went to Parliament at some point and announced that 95 per cent of our budget was being financed from local resources,” he said. The Economic Recovery Strategy put together by a three-man taskforce appointed by the then Planning Minister, Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o (now Kisumu Senator) is what metamorphosed into the country’s development roadmap – the Kenya Vision 2030.

If you ask Kimunya if he thinks the Jubilee government still has the Vision 2030 as a guiding beacon in the country’s development agenda, he can’t tell. “I don’t know whether it is still on or off. Different governments have different priorities, but Kibaki said, let’s focus on the big picture. You can see he said 2030, that is nearly 20 years after he left power,” said Kimunya.

However, John Mbadi, the national chairman of ODM, said the economic policies pursued during the Kibaki regime were a cocktail of politics with a lot of input from opposition leader Raila Odinga, who served first as Roads Minister in the Narc government, and then as Prime Minister in the coalition government between 2008 and 2013. “The victory is not Kibaki’s alone. Raila was the first Minister for Roads, and when he was knocking down buildings to create space for roads, he was castigated and condemned.

Now they have forgotten about it and are thanking Kibaki for it,” Mbadi told The Nairobian. Mbadi said that under the coalition government, the agenda on infrastructure continued. “Raila’s call was infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure, you can see that is one of the pillars under Vision 2030. I am afraid the Jubilee government is not following through with long-term visions, but it is focused on 2017. They cannot afford 5,000 MW and 10,000 kilometres of roads by the next elections when the annuity programme has collapsed,” added Mbadi.

The other person familiar with Kibaki’s policies is Elias Mbau, the founding chairman of the Budget and Appropriations Committee. Mbau, like Kimunya, hail the ‘futuristic look’ that the Kibaki administration took in developing the country’s economy. “There’s a saying that wise leaders plan for the next generation, while foolish leaders plan for the next election.

Kibaki was thinking about the future: Free education for the children; a vision that expires two decades after he is out of power. Kibaki’s tenure was about recovery, didn’t you hear Obama say “Kenya is on the move?” posed Mbau. Mbau followed Obama’s speech through television, and he has isolated six issues that he believes are responsible for the economic boom in the Kibaki years. He said the Kibaki election on a pedestal of ‘zero tolerance for corruption,’ focus on children, improved revenue collection, infrastructure, and minimal politics. “By closing the holes of corruption and ensuring the Kenya Revenue Authority had enhanced capacity and motivation, the revenues tripled. The challenge is for the government to ensure we follow the blueprint,” Mbau told The Nairobian.

When Obama returns, will he sing about Uhuru’s legacy, or simply recall the Kibaki years?

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