Salient leadership lessons we can learn from President Mwai Kibaki's hits and misses

Emilio Mwai Kibaki, the third president of Kenya.  [File, Standard]

The chords that bind all humanity, together with our African customs, traditions and practices demand that today we bow for the final rights in honour of a great son in our nation. After former President Mwai Kibaki’s 50 years of public service in strategic roles in both government and politics, there are a lot of stories and treasured memories to be shared about him. A lot has been said about him during the one-week mourning period.

This column is not left behind in honouring such a man. It doesn’t help that this is the invisible mentor who inspired me in the world of economics. So allow me to depart from hard statistics that oil this column to share deep leadership reflections that we can learn the Kibaki’s presidency.

As has already been shared, the Kibaki era will remain a subject of study by both historians and economists for many years to come. In this article, I want to limit myself to the period between the “Kibaki Tosha” moment in 2002 and when he handed over the instruments of power to his successor on April 9, 2013. There are profound leadership lessons that can be inferred from both the hits and misses over the period. I have gleaned eight leadership lessons from Kibaki’s tenure.

The hits

The first lesson can be inferred from the immediate policy choice on universal free primary education. This was a clear demonstration of leadership courage and commitment. To put matters into perspective, December 30th is usually mid-year for the government. Effectively, there were no budgetary allocations for the programme and schools were due to re-open in about a week’s time. It thus called for a strong will on the part of the newly-elected president to issue such an executive order, even without the benefit of an adequate brief on the limits of the national coffers at that point.

This initiative has outlived him and put smiles on the faces of millions of learners across the nation. The lesson here is that economic and developmental initiatives are first and foremost policy choices as opposed to the availability of funds. Policy choices are leadership decisions. Second is the power of a shared vision. Shortly after assuming office, Kibaki initiated his first medium-term plan: The Economic Recovery Strategy for Employment and Wealth Creation. From official statistics, this is the most consequential development plan as it turned around the economy from a growth rate of negative two (-2) per cent in 2002 to 7.1 per cent in 2007.

This was succeeded by the 30-year developmental blueprint: The Vision 2030. For his entire presidency, Kibaki preached, walked and lived his plans. There was never a moment of doubt as to what the priorities of the government were. National resources and development aid were unified toward the identified priorities. This is probably the most critical factor that underwrites his administration’s economic successes.

Third, is the importance of having a focus on the big picture. It is widely acknowledged that the former president may not have necessarily been good at dealing with politics and possibly some private affairs. For the most part, his Cabinet comprised some of his biggest critiques for his entire presidency. Parliament was also full of former allies-turned-political-adversaries who tried to put serious roadblocks on his legislative and policy agenda.

Development agenda

All this never derailed him from driving his development agenda and prioritising the needs of “Wanjiku”. There is no documented evidence or memes in the grapevine that show he ever failed to host Cabinet meetings or preside over functions under the dockets of his critiques in the Cabinet. This is a complete contrast to the current administration where it’s an open secret that the Cabinet can go for months on end without a meeting, even during moments of public crisis.

Mwai Kibaki welcomed at Uhuru Park after leaving London Hospital in 2002. [File, Standard] 

Fourth is teamwork. As a presidential candidate, his campaign was shaken to the core when he had a near-fatal accident. Despite the setback, his team quickly re-organised into teams across different parts of the country. This not only kept hope alive for his support base but also demonstrated a clear team spirit among his men and women. This would later be manifest throughout his leadership as he allowed his team to take full charge of their respective dockets.

It did not matter whether it was a disruptive policy initiative like confronting the then public transport menace or mid-wifing complex peace talks in the neighbouring nations or steering the delicate and complex free primary education programme. He let his men and women be and simply held the team together, even when they did not agree on the politics.

Fifth is his leadership consistency and resilience. Unlike his predecessor, Kibaki made minimal changes to his Cabinet. His style of leadership and demeanour in the conduct of public affairs virtually remained the same. I doubt if anybody from within or without could second-guess what to expect from him or what his position would be on a matter of public interest. For the large part, he stuck to his convictions regardless of the noise outside. This inspired confidence among citizens and on in his administration.

Former President Mwai Kibaki.  [File, Standard] 

The misses

Like any other emerging democracy and administration, Kibaki’s leadership was not without misfiring, drama and political satire. The sixth lesson that we can draw from these episodes is the danger of mixed signals from the leader. Given the unifying spirit across the nation that the 2002 election elicited, probably the late president was best-placed to slay the dragon of corruption once and for all without a serious political price to pay. Wanjiku was with him on this 100 per cent. But it would appear he chose friendships and political loyalty.

Some uninspiring comments slipped into the public domain, creating the impression of different forest, same monkeys on the part of Wanjiku. That would later birth some of the biggest economic scandals under his watch and normalisation of a dangerous trend of “stepping aside” instead of taking full responsibility.

The seventh lesson is on the need for a leader to rise above the crowd when times and moments demand so. The darkest hour of the Kibaki administration will remain the handling of the 2007 electoral process and the ensuing mayhem. While we will never get to know the truth, popular opinion with some considerable measure of reliability is that he probably let his men decide on a matter that demanded he put his foot down to safeguard national interest. This came with a huge cost to human lives, and economic gains and momentum. It permanently tainted his legacy.

Finally, and on the lighter side of life, the fallen former president demonstrated the need for leaders to keep it easy, for it is never that serious. There were moments that private affairs probably crowded public affairs - those times when the nation waited with bated breath, only for the president to appear and declare: “Bure kabisa … mavi ya kuku!” And just like that, the nation would laugh, move on and the socio-economic wheels keep on rolling.