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Kibaki in private, and why aspirants want a piece of him

By Kamau Ngotho | Nov 21st 2021 | 6 min read

Mwai Kibaki in 1995.

Retired President Mwai Kibaki clocked 90 years this week. Happy birthday, Mr President!

I found myself recalling occasions when I came face to face with the former president and what it confirmed about the private side of the man.

One thing about Kibaki is that he doesn’t crave attention. This is evident because when in power, he was consistent about refusing to have anything named after him. I am informed that on completion of the Thika Superhighway, an excited Cabinet minister had suggested the road be named after Kibaki only for his boss to tell him off: “It would be a silly idea to give the road my name because it doesn’t go to my house.”

When somebody insisted that a referral hospital in Eastlands be named after him, the former president reportedly remarked with some indifference that if it was a must the hospital have his name, then let it be called Mama Lucy Kibaki Hospital.

I saw that self-effacing side of Kibaki one day in 1996. I had gone to visit a friend at Ambank House on University Way when a tall, dark man walked in alone. Right away I could tell the man was Mwai Kibaki, then leader of the opposition party DP. Nobody else, including the office receptionist, recognised who he was. Kibaki patiently waited for the receptionist to finish with the person she was talking to then put in his request. “Good morning. My name is Mwai. May I see John.” The person Kibaki had come to see was the CEO of the company, one Mr John Murenga. Kibaki patiently stood and waited for the secretary to come and usher him in.

No politics, only drinks

It is also known that much as he was at the epicentre of politics throughout his adult life, in private Kibaki shunned talking politics. It is said when he was relaxing with friends at Muthaiga Golf Club and somebody talked politics, Kibaki would quickly point to a Tusker bottle where it is printed ‘Beer Only’, which was his way of saying, we came here to relax over a drink not to talk politics.

I personally saw that side of Kibaki one day during campaigns ahead of the 1997 General Election. I had been meeting with friends at the Blue Post Hotel in Thika when I bumped unto an old acquaintance, a retired military officer, in the parking lot. He held me by hand and insisted I have a drink with him. We settled at a far table where he ordered doubles of small green bottles. He told me he was expecting a friend, but didn’t mention his name. I was hardly through with the first bottle when Kibaki walked in, escorted by an aide who walked back to the parking lot once Kibaki had taken his seat.

“Meet my friend, Kamau.” I was introduced. “I am Mwai,” Kibaki replied and gestured me to resume my seat. I made to leave but Kibaki told me to stay. “Young man, take your time and finish your drink. We are not chasing you away.”

Kibaki sat with us for over half an hour as he and his friend talked about their livestock and nothing else. Kibaki talked about some breed of sheep he had imported from South Africa and encouraged his friend to try the breed as well. It was surprising he did not mention a word of politics yet it was a campaign season where he was a leading opposition candidate. I asked my friend why Kibaki didn’t talk politics. He laughed and said, “That is Kibaki for you. He knows when to be a politician and when to live his other life away from politics.”

Suffer no fools

On several other occasions, I got to know Kibaki to be politely dismissive and he suffered no fools. I was fresh in the industry and accompanied a senior reporter to cover the launch of the derided locally assembly Nyayo Pioneer car by President Daniel Moi at Kasarani Stadium.

One of the cars failed to start as the president turned the ignition key. We mingled with VIPs cheering the president when I overheard Kibaki, then a Cabinet minister, whisper in vernacular what a circus it was to have the president launch a fake car.

At another time Kibaki was making a contribution on the floor of the National Assembly regarding adult education programme when a member interrupted him. When he resumed his remarks, Kibaki ignored the MP and said: “Mr Speaker, Sir, now you can appreciate why adult literacy will be important even in this House.”

Another time a tipsy MP was bragging how educated his children were as Kibaki relaxed with friends at the Thompson Falls Lodge in Nyahururu town where I was. Disgusted by the bragging MP, Kibaki remarked in jest: “Mheshimiwa, the mother of those children must be very bright.” Not comprehending the insinuation in the remark, the MP replied: “Oh yes, their mother is so brainy.”

On two other occasions, I also got the impression Kibaki was no great lover of the media, more so when they got pesky and asked questions that didn’t make much sense. When holding consultative meetings prior to the 2002 General Election, journalists accosted Kibaki and other opposition leaders outside the Serena Hotel to ask what they had discussed. The leaders said they had just been having a cup of tea, but media insisted it must have been a meeting to discuss political strategy. At that point Kibaki dismissively said as he waved away, “But tea itself is political. You mean you folks have never heard of the Boston Tea Party?”

On another occasion after Kibaki read a joint opposition reaction to a controversial statement released by the Attorney General, one of the journalists asked him whether the opposition had tried to pick the AG’s brain on the matter before responding to him. Kibaki replied as he walked away, “Does the AG have a brain to be picked in the first place?”

Missed in retirement

World over, a leader’s legacy is known to go full circle. Most times leaders are not popular when in power, only to be appreciated and missed when they leave office. It is amusing how everybody is now talking about “return to good old days of Mwai Kibaki”. Yet he wasn’t that popular a president when in power. To former friends in the Narc party that brought him to power, he had betrayed them by trashing an MoU allegedly agreed on power-sharing. To others he was a hands-off man who gave little attention to politics to the point the Narc dream scattered to the four winds, the government lost its first referendum in 2005, and the country finally plunged into chaos after the 2007 elections.

But now in retirement, Kibaki is celebrated as man who brought a new Constitution, laid ground for major infrastructure projects, and at one time had the economy growing at record seven per cent from a low of 0.6 per cent when he took over. More importantly, the Kibaki era is remembered and missed as a period when there was so much money that banks were hawking loans in the streets.

Not surprisingly, leading presidential candidates in next year’s race are touting Kibaki as their benchmark. Raila Odinga says he will take us back to good old days of his coalition government with Kibaki. William Ruto talks about a bottom-up economic model that will put money in people’s pockets like in Kibaki days. Kalonzo Musyoka says that as Kibaki’s deputy of five years he alone holds the secret to prosperity and optimism experienced in those heady days. And not to be outdone, Musalia Mudavadi is marketing himself as only safe pair of hands, Kibaki-style.

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