Mwai Kibaki, the man who changed Kenya

Former President Mwai Kibaki displays a copy of the 2010 Constitution during its promulgation at Uhuru Park, Nairobi. Looking on is former Attorney-General, Amos Wako. [File, Standard]

Kenya’s third President Emilio Mwai Kibaki died yesterday after an eventful public life that saw him abandon the often dull existence that characterises the life of an economics lecturer for the rough and tumble of politics.

This path saw him become one of the longest-serving MPs in Kenya, ascend to Cabinet, become a Vice President, an Opposition leader and eventually a president.

His presidency is being remembered as one of the most ambitious and daring periods for a country he inherited from the late Daniel Arap Moi.

“Kibaki's administration conceptualised and spearheaded transformation in critical sectors such as Education through the globally lauded free primary education programme, infrastructure developments in Transport and Energy, and increasing the availability and access to healthcare for his fellow Kenyans,” President Uhuru Kenyatta said of the late Kibaki in his eulogy.

Indeed, during his presidency, Kenya saw a revival in several critical sectors of the economy, spurring the nation into double-digit growth for the economy, after a period of languishing in sub-par performance.

Generations of Kenyans that had hardly witnessed a functioning state finally realised the power that leadership could mean for a country.

“He championed the realisation of the objectives of the East African Community Common Market of trade liberalisation for the citizens of the partner states of the East African Community. His inclusive spirit and conviction for economic empowerment transcended the territory of Kenya towards cross-border economic stability,” President Uhuru added.

It was also under his watch that the country realised a new constitution that recognised the growing needs of the country, enshrining liberties that were previously alien to Kenyans, and when his death was announced, a cloud of nostalgia sat on the country.

 President Uhuru Kenyatta said the late Mwai Kibaki championed the realisation of the objectives of the East African Community Common Market. [PSCU]

Kibaki has died aged 90. So the pain of his passing, save for those who knew him intimately, is less of the wailing and gnashing of teeth. It is more of the realisation of those who lived under his presidency that the promise the country showed in the 10 years of his term might never again be part of daily Kenyan lives.

That the optimism taxpayers showed while filing their tax returns may never again be part of the audit departments for business across the country.

For at his death, the economic gains made and the pride the nation felt from self-funding its annual budget might never be experienced again. Joblessness, a high cost of living that has driven many more Kenyans into absolute poverty were not the things he hoped Kenyans would inherit from his presidency.

Kibaki was sworn into office on December 30, 2002. In him and those around him, Kenyans saw a tribalism-free nation. They imagined a corruption-free country where the work of your hands would determine your destiny. They imagined prosperity and opportunity for all. They imagined a self-sufficient country.

At his death, all these seem but erased. Negative ethnicity is back with a vengeance, preached even by those to whom public office has been entrusted. Corruption in private and public sectors has become the norm.

In just 10 short years since he left office, the foundations of financial prudence in government have been replaced with an appetite for debt.

“Mwai Kibaki lives in in the hearts of millions of Kenyans, East Africans and Africans who benefited from his leadership, admired his character, and were inspired by his example. Mwai Kibaki lives on in our fond memories of his strength of will, charm, wit, and his passionate love of God, family, nation, and humanity,” said President Uhuru.

Although his presidency was one that shone a bright light on the immense potential, belief and dedication that Kenyans had to making their lives better, it was also one that cast a dark shadow. The Kibaki years, though, were not in monochrome. Like every human, he had his shortcomings.

Former President Mwai Kibaki. [File, Standard]

“Perhaps the most ignominious legacy on the part of President Kibaki was the 2007 presidential election. The violence that the contentious election caused pushed the country to the brink. More than 1,300 people were killed and more than 500,000 displaced. Had the international community not swiftly intervened to facilitate a power-sharing agreement, there is no saying what might have become of Kenya,” Shadrack Wanjala Nasong’o, a professor at Rhodes College said in his tribute to Kibaki published by the journal, The Conversation.

The contentious election and the hurried swearing-in at dusk in December 2007 will still linger in the minds of many who witnessed what turned out to be a catalyst for the violence that sporadically spread in different parts of the country.

Five years earlier, he had taken office in the full light of day at Uhuru Park with hundreds of thousands of Kenyans cheering him on, striving to see him, foot up, in plaster and on a wheelchair. That December day of 2002, Kibaki represented everything that was good with Kenya and on that 30th day of December in 2007, in him, some saw what represented the worst of Kenya.

Today, the country is in national mourning, remembering the best version of a man of wit. A man who many say was full of charm. The avid golfer. The economist. The father. The grandfather. The man whom at one point in history galvanised Kenyans into a frenzy of nationhood. Today, the flags fly at half-mast in honour of this Emilio Mwai Kibaki. Today, the country mourns.