Kibaki's battles: The commander-in-chief did what was necessary


Former President Mwai Kibaki when he inspected a guard of honour mounted by the Kenya Armed Forces during the 42nd Kenyatta Day celebrations at the Nyayo National Stadium. [File, Standard]


In death, Kenya’s third President Mwai Kibaki lost the battle that none of us will win. But in life, he sat at the helm of an administration that went to war in other winnable battles.

Between 2002 and 2012, Mwai Kibaki, a man who never publicly donned military uniform, went to war against terrorists, secessionists, and a gang of disillusioned youths.

He was in power eventually when political tensions consumed an entire nation during the 2007-08 post-election violence.

With his years consumed by war, those who served with him say Kibaki, on the contrary, was not a man who thrived in war.

 “Kibaki was not interested in going to war,” Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua says.

Mr Mutua served as government spokesperson in President Kibaki’s government.

 Securing national interests

Kibaki may not have been interested in war, but from the very early stage of his presidency, he made it clear, that securing the borders would be central to his agenda.

A month before his swearing-in, Kenya suffered its second major terror attack when the Kikambala Hotel was bombed by an Al Qaeda-affiliated terror group known as the Army of Palestine.

The attack left 13 dead and at least 80 people injured.

The Chief of Defence Forces Lt Gen Robert Kibochi when he visited KDF troops in Somalia. [KDF, Twitter]

As he made his inaugural speech at Uhuru Park on December 2, in a neck brace and leg propped up on a soft pillow in a plaster cast, the incident may have played in his mind.

“The task ahead is enormous, the expectations are high, and the challenges are intimidating. But I know that with your support, we shall turn all our problems into opportunities. We must unite to build a safe, new Kenya,” he read from his speech.

On that day, envoys from across the globe, some missing seats at the main dais due to the chaos that surrounded his swearing-in, took note of this statement. Among them, were representatives from the American embassy who had already sent their congratulatory message to President Kibaki.

“We have assured President Kibaki of continued United States friendship and support for Kenya. We look forward to working closely with him on issues of regional security, human rights, counterterrorism, trade, and fighting HIV/Aids,” a statement from the White House released on December 30, 2002, read.

The urgency for one of Kenya’s biggest partners was the emerging threat of terror.

Barely weeks into his presidency, the American government put its money where its mouth was.

Whereas many international partners had pledged funds for health care and development, the US released the first of many disbursements from the Draining the Swamps Programme, a US government-led initiative to address international terrorism.

At the beginning of 2003, Kibaki’s government received around Sh8 billion to champion this fight, forming the initial base of Kenya’s war against terror that eventually saw the Kenya Defense Forces march into Somalia in 2011.

People who served in the Kibaki administration told The Standard Kenya’s entry into Somalia had been under consideration for some time.

“But none of us knew what his decision would be,” a retired army general told The Standard.

None of those involved in the planning knew what the president’s thinking was with the Somalia matter.

“Kibaki was not a simple mind,” Governor Mutua says. “He did what he needed to do. Once he committed to doing something he was fully committed.”

Mutua says Kibaki would get a proposal and tell its owners to give him time to think about it.

“He knew there was a bigger picture in all his decisions.”

On October 15, Kenya officially announced that it was going into Somalia, just two days after the kidnap of two aid workers from Dadaab Refugee Camp.

The following year, in 2012, while attending the London Conference on Somalia held at Lancaster House he made his thoughts on the Somalia adventure clear.

“In October we launched Operation Linda Nchi in pursuit of al Shabaab and other armed terrorists that sought to destabilise our country and economy,” he said.

From his speech, there was to be no letup.

Over the next years, his administration recorded significant successes against terror groups. But by the end of his second term, the threats from international terrorism had increased significantly.

The singlemindedness that he employed to revive an ailing economy was the same he used to deal with security threats. For Kibaki, nothing was to stand between him and his vision.

 At times, this vision came at a considerable cost.

A cost that was for some years, borne by the youth, a significant and critical group to his initial election bid and his reelection bid as extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances underlined the war against terror.

The war in Kibaki’s backyard

But as he secured funds to wage war against terror, domestic threats were not letting up.

The biggest of them threatened his very backyard and he entrusted a close confidant to deal with what threatened to consume not just the people, but an economy of an entire region.

Thousands of lives were lost and thousands more young people disappeared.

Between 2006 and 2009, few had experienced the level of state-sanctioned violence that was meted out on Kenyan youth.

The second half of his first term was rife with the undertones of an impending showdown between the state and members of Mungiki, a grassroots group held together by religious and cultural beliefs that had been banned in 2002 after claiming responsibility for the killing of more than 20 people in Kariobangi.

The killings were a response to the murder of two of their members.

Mungiki grew into a gang taking over businesses, particularly in the transport sector and extorting protection tax.

By the time Kibaki was completing his first term in office, the group commanded a sizeable membership. It offered services that ordinarily ought to have been provided by the government.

As he made his national address on June 1, 2007, Mungiki got the attention of the national leadership. In the wee hours of that morning, a killing linked to the group was attributed to Mungiki.

When former President Mwai Kibaki cracked hard on the outlawed group Mungiki. [File, Standard]

Days earlier, two police officers had also been killed by suspected members of the group and leaflets were distributed across Nairobi in what looked like a declaration of war against the state.

“If one youth is killed we shall kill 10 police,” one leaflet read.

“Those who are bent on criminal activities must be dealt with firmly,” Kibaki said in his address.

“Some of these criminals have taken away lives of police officers. We will not allow criminals to get away with wanton acts of violence.”

The task of finding these ‘criminals’ was handed to a trusted member of his cabinet, Internal Security minister the late John Michuki.

On June 4, Michuki released a statement of intent on the state’s plans for Mungiki.

“We will straighten them and wipe them out ... If you use a gun to kill you are also required to be executed,” he said.

The next day saw an orgy of state-sanctioned violence in Nairobi’s Mathare slum. At least 30 people were killed between June 5 and June 7 during security operations.

“Amnesty International is deeply concerned that the police killings were committed after remarks by the Minister of Internal Security,” the agency said on June 11, 2007.

This did not slow things down.

The next few months saw funerals organised across Central Kenya and from the capital. This was extended to other parts that Mungiki was thought to have operations.

“The rural economy of the people was in danger of collapsing and the President trusted Michuki to deal with the problem…and he dealt with it,” Muturi Kigano says, who became MP for Kangema, an area believed to have been among those that had a strong Mungiki following. Mungiki had run an equally bloody campaign against those who opposed them.

“At first there were complaints from the people,” Kigano says. On hindsight though, he says the peace came at a price.

“Nobody likes seeing the lives of young men snuffed out early. But something had to be done,” he says.