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Kibaki's three 'innovations' that made us a stronger democracy

Kibaki's portrait during his State memorial service at Nyayo stadium, Nairobi on April 29, 2022. [Elvis Ogina,Standard]

Much has been written about the late President Mwai Kibaki, but for such a towering figure in Kenya’s politics and economy, there is always more than he can be eulogized through.

I wish to dedicate today’s column to celebrate the late president for three “innovations” to our politics that have made us a stronger democracy. Firstly, he modelled political and social tolerance. The last years of Kenyatta 1 presidency and Moi’s 24 years were defined by intense distaste of contrary opinions. Even after the introduction of multi-party politics, Kenyans understood that the wrong word against the President would cost you, formally or through the use of informal State instrumentalities to cause grief.

That changed overnight in 2003. Our civil society and media could criticise Kibaki and his government without the fear of a visit by the boys from Nyati House. Granted, we had some unfortunate relapses exemplified by the infamous raid to the Standard Group, marking one of the lowest points of KIbaki’s engagement with media freedom. We however remember it because it was an outlier. Even before the constitutionalization of freedom of the press, the Kibaki years were defined by tolerance for alternative ideas and challenges to the presidency in manners unthinkable in the Moi years.

Kibaki laughed off criticism against him personally and will thus be remembered for demystifying the presidency. That tolerance culture remains to date and has enabled us to have one of the freest medias in the continent. Secondly, in refusing to “go after” President Moi after the NARC win, President Kibaki rejected reprisals and payback, so common in the continent, as a feature of future governmental transitions. It is believed that many Presidents in Africa refuse to leave office fearing revenge from their successors. 

It is now unthinkable that a president in Kenya would be harangued after leaving office which has made our transitions possible and our democracy stronger. Thirdly, President Kibaki institutionalised the concept of coalitions. People forget that for the two years leading to the elections of 2002, Kibaki’s Democratic Party had gone into coalition with former foes Kijana Wamalwa and Charity Ngilu to form the National Alliance of Kenya (NAK).

This vibrant coalition was already a threat to Moi’s Kanu and when joined by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) became the behemoth named the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) that removed Kanu from office. The post-2002 collapse of the NARC coalition was another low moment for Kenya and a lost opportunity to build a nation. 

Some argue that Kibaki’s illness and absence from effective leadership in the two years after the election explain the missteps that eventually created the 2007 debacle. Kibaki’s next coalition was a forced marriage birthed by violence in 2008. The grand coalition government was one of Africa’s first coalitions of rivals and has been replicated in several countries including Zimbabwe.

Despite its many challenges, it affirmed that former foes could work together. It is no wonder that in 2013 former foes Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto formed the Jubilee coalition and in 2018 Uhuru Kenyatta and his former arch-foe Raila Odinga went into an informal coalition through the handshake which has now been formalised in the Azimio coalition.

I expect that even after the elections of 2022, we will most probably end up with a coalition arrangement. While we celebrate the late President for his stewardship of the economy, we must never forget that even though he was not defined as a political operative, he oversaw fundamental changes in our political culture which will serve us well as we manage our young democracy.