If ever there was a student who understudied his master, mirrored his mentors and ultimately fitted in their shoes, it is Mwai Kibaki as he learnt his trade from Kenya’s best.
The self-effacing economist’s political journey was long and winding, from the days he was nudged into the tumultuous field of politics by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who convinced him to be a Kanu executive secretary instead of joining the world of academia or finance. And he learnt to behave like a fly on the political wall.
In school, Kibaki, like his peers, studied carpentry and masonry in Karima so as to repair furniture and maintain the school buildings.
During school holidays he is said to have worked as a bus conductor for the Othaya African Bus Union to earn pocket money.
He was admitted to Mang’u High School in 1947 and sat his final examination in 1950. He passed with six points, the best possible grade.
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In 1963, Kibaki, currently 89, was elected MP for Doonholm Constituency in Nairobi. It was previously known as Bahati and is now Makadara.
Initially, Kibaki, who regards himself as a city fellow with affinity to Muthaiga Club and the golfing society, was popular in Bahati in the 1963 and 1969 elections. However, the dynamics of city politics changed and he was hounded out of Bahati by Jael Ogombe Mbogo.
In 1974, he retreated to Othaya, which he transformed into his political base and he would go on to win all the subsequent elections of 1979, 1983, 1988, 1992, 1997, 2002 and 2007.
Kibaki started as an assistant minister for Finance and chair of the Economic Planning Commission in 1963. He teamed up with Tom Mboya in drafting the famous 1965 Sessional Paper on African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya.
He was promoted to Minister for Commerce and Industry in 1966 and later Minister for Finance and Economic Planning in 1969.
As Finance minister, the economy was managed well and grew steadily. When he was appointed to the ministry, he promised to put the Kenyan economy on a sound footing so people could reap the fruits of independence.
In economic circles, Kibaki had made a name in high places, as the then World Bank president Robert MacNamara demonstrated when he once described him as “one of the greatest economic brains to have emerged from Africa.” In 1974, Time Magazine nominated him among the top 100 people in the world who had the potential to lead.
Former US President Bill Clinton was wowed by Kibaki when — on assuming office in 2002 — he implemented free primary education programme, opening doors for millions of children who had been locked out of school by poverty and marginalisation.
Perhaps this is why he successfully transited into first Kenyatta government, earning the trust of the founding president who at first appointed him as a parliamentary secretary or assistant minister in 1963 and promoted him to Cabinet minister in 1967.
Like a gambler who never revealed his next political move, Kibaki steered clear of the Kenyatta succession controversy and retained his Cabinet position when President Moi ascended to power, upon the death of Jomo Kenyatta, in August 1978.
And for the next 10 years, Kibaki served as Moi’s vice president, even as he discharged his duties as the Minister for Finance. Like his boss Moi was humiliated during Kenyatta’s time, Kibaki also, was not spared.
Not loyal enough
Targeted by forces he once disparaged as political tourists, Kibaki was in a spot after the 1982 coup as some of his detractors accused him of being sympathetic to the plotters, insisting that he was not loyal enough to the president.
During the mlolongo (queue-voting) elections, Kibaki was humiliated and ousted as Kanu Nyeri branch chairman, triggering violent protests from his supporters.
A story is told how the late Kieni MP Munene Kairu confronted those who wanted Kibaki out of the Kanu office. In the ensuing fracas, some people were hurt and Kairu’s supporters were arrested.
When the news of the fracas reached Kibaki, he was disgusted and told Kairu to carry his own cross as he had not instructed him to fight for him.
Even when he was kicked out as VP and demoted from the influential docket of Finance in 1988, unlike other firebrand colleagues such as Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia, Kibaki stayed put, nonchalantly discharging his duties as Health minister.
Even when he ultimately decamped from the ruling party to found the Democratic Party (DP) in 1992, his critics dismissed him as Kanu B, a fence-sitter who was unwilling to soil his suit, politically.
Kibaki did not drop his gentleman’s act through the 1990s as he contested the presidency, rising from position three in 1992 to number two in 1997, and never engaging Kanu in physical confrontations.
As the president, Kibaki governed with ruthless efficiency, snubbing delegations, actions which made people say he was aloof. At one point, Uhuru Kenyatta, then opposition leader, described him as “hands-off president” because he rarely responded to criticism.
In retirement, he has chosen to keep off public affairs and is occasionally seen in Consolata Catholic Church in Nairobi while giving his Sh500 million retirement pad in Mweiga, Nyeri, a wide berth.
And Kanu, the party he likened to a mugumo tree which cannot be cut down with a razor blade, has outlived DP, National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) and Party of National Unity (PNU).