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Kibaki: It's what he didn't do, not what he did that will define him

History might yet judge Kenya’s third president, Mwai Kibaki (left), better still. [File, Standard]

As Justice minister in 2003, Kiraitu Murungi (now the Meru Governor) asked former President Daniel arap Moi to “sit back and rear his goats and watch how good governments are run.” Mr Kiraitu was the embodiment of the bolshie, hard-faced cabal around the new President Mwai Kibaki.

“The real test of leadership,” wrote Tony Blair in his biography A Journey, “is in being prepared to do what you perceive to be the common good of the nation before your own political self.” Opinion is split on whether President Kibaki passed that test.

Make no mistake, no one could possibly deny Mr Kibaki his pound of flesh. Those who knew him describe him as a man of supreme intelligence who did not engage in the usual piffle talk, who preferred to be felt rather than be heard. With the economic fortunes changing, many felt him.

Kibaki is reputed for steering the country from economic stagnation before 2003 to a record seven per cent growth rate in 2007. Whereas President Uhuru Kenyatta’s (his successor) tenure is characterised by good policies executed dreadfully, fuelling sentiments of an out-of-touch presidency, Mr Kibaki was pro-people, pro-middle/working class.

Life got better for the burdened middle and working class; interest rates came down (15 per cent) and banks dished out loans; honest business paid; tourism recovered; tea and coffee prices peaked and the farmers were paid for their milk and pyrethrum; and Kenyans were free to express themselves.

Yet despite that, the reservouir of goodwill emptied so soon and resentment was building up. You could say that the promises made - a new Constitution in 100 days, free primary education, 500,000 jobs a year, free land, cheap housing, universal health care - inevitably set them up for failure.

Not really. The arrogance of power, the long shadow of corruption - it was their (Narc’s top honchos) turn to eat- and sleaze soon took away the confidence that people had in the new administration. Specifically, the Anglo-Leasing scandal and the 2006 raid on the Standard Group and the scandal of two Armenian brothers became the scars in President Kibaki’s administration.

Many had hoped that besides the impressive economic turn-around, he would cure corruption, inspire the masses and restore lost pride by eliminating lethargy and wastage in public service and end tribalism. He did not.

In fact, his administration throttled meaningful reforms in his first term and thereby squandered the huge mandate he got from that landslide win in 2002. And despite the promise to spread around the prosperity pie, searing inequalities and excluvism defined Kenya than at any moment in history.

Mwai Kibaki. [File, Standard]

In the end, President Kibaki will get judged by what powers he had that he did not use than by what he actually did. The war on corruption was clumsy. His government treated obvious cases of corruption with dismaying apathy and condescending indifference, perhaps influenced mostly by political expedience and the old boy network.

In 2010, the World Bank said despite Kenya’s good location, strong human resources and a vibrant private sector, its level of income was only half of Africa’s average. As a consequence, he inadvertently set the country for the 2007/08 conflagration when the country suffered from a campaign that was devoid of issues.

“Twin blades of crony-capitalist politics had long combined to sear deep grievance, resentment and desperate competition along Kenya’s ethnic contours” wrote Kofi Annan the UN Secretary General and chief mediator following the 2007 post-election violence in his memoirs, Interventions.

By design or default, four Kenyans were on trial at the ICC because his administration dithered and prevaricated over the establishment of a tribunal to try those responsible for the violence that followed the contested presidential results in the 2007 elections. Looking back and considering the collapse of the cases, it also means that the victims of the violence and chaos haven’t gotten justice while the perpetrators of the violence that led to the death of 1,300 people and the displacement of half-a-million others still roam freely.

“For me the new covenant is a guarantee that the Kenyan people shall henceforth resolve any potential conflict through the rule of law,” said a seemingly enlightened and empathetic Mr Kibaki after the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution.

“New institutions have been established through which we shall deepen our democracy,” he said.

When his time to leave office came, he quietly left without so much noise like when he had come. History might yet judge Kenya’s third president better still.

Mr Kipkemboi is Partnerships and Special Projects Editor, Standard Group