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Mwai Kibaki: Kenya's most underestimated and misunderstood politician

Mwai Kibaki, the ‘gentleman of Kenyan politics’ was no coward, but a patient, calculating, ruthless and hunting political machine. [File, Standard]

They called the aloof, elitist, intellectual golfing economist and politician a fence sitter.

His Agikuyu people nicknamed him General Kaguoya (coward).

Yet Mwai Kibaki is the man who braved a humiliating demotion from Vice President and Leader of Government Business to Minister of Health, faced two bruising presidential election losses, a revolt within his Democratic Party (DP), and a freak accident to become Kenya’s third Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces (now Defence Forces) in 2002.

In the run up to that election, Kijana Wamalwa’s grand march to State House had long halted for want of supplies. Kibaki’s DP was a write-off, to the extent that Kwendo Opanga, then a towering political journalist and columnist, wrote: “Mwai Kibaki is the best president Kenya never got.” Charity Ngilu? The excitement that had greeted her stab at the presidency in 1997 had long gone with the wind.

When these three Opposition leaders started holding breakfast meetings at a city hotel to craft an alliance, Kenyans yawned with the wry amusement accorded has-beens dreaming of a comeback that never would.

For Kanu was a juggernaut, at its helm was President Daniel Moi, the ramrod straight self-styled professor of politics, with his famed Fimbo ya Nyayo in hand. 

But when the bell tolled, it was Kibaki who took the oath of office, receiving a ceremonial sword from the man he once deputised for 10 years, in a wheelchair no less.   

Emilio Mwai Kibaki. Who was this man? Was he a coward and fence sitter or a cold, calculating and ruthless fox in sheepskin?

First, the man who became Kenya’s third Head of State never stepped into a police cell, was never detained, or teargassed by the police; a path trod by African independence leaders and the generation that fought for multiparty politics.

Indeed Kibaki never fought for Kenya’s Second Liberation. When he was demoted from the vice presidency in 1988, it was assumed that he would resign from government and take on his boss, but he chose to stay put, and to everyone’s surprise, assumed the lowly duties of minister with gusto.  

As the so-called Young Turks, and his peers, Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia, fought for multi-party democracy, Kibaki remained in the shadows and in Kanu. He patiently waited for them to bloody their knuckles pounding the walls down, only to emerge when the coast was clear to partake of the spoils of war as a presidential candidate.

A master of the side-step, he had, in 1974, ducked from his Donholm constituency in the city when all indications were that a Mrs Jael Mbogo was going to give him a run for his money. Instead, he set up base in his rural Othaya constituency, a safety tactic that ensured he never lost an election.

Viewed in hindsight, these were not the actions of a coward, but the cold and calculating actions of a master politician. But there were signs for those who cared to observe. Unlike other members of the Cabinet, he never wore a lapel pin with the president’s picture on his coats, Kanu’s trademark red shirts or indulged in the praise singing of the day.

In his earlier years, he was the only Kikuyu Cabinet minister who had the guts to attend the charged funerals of Constitutional Affairs Minister, Tom Mboya in 1969 and that of maverick millionaire politician, JM Kariuki, in 1975. Angry mourners believed the two had been murdered by the Jomo Kenyatta government and had ordered Kikuyu Cabinet ministers to stay away.  Kibaki not only turned up, but spoke at two funerals President Kenyatta, who was no quisling, would never have dared attend.

But it is his presidency that revealed the claws of true politician hidden beneath his gentlemanly mien. First, it had been assumed that he would be a one-term president who would reorganise government for five years and then pass the reins to another coalition partner, presumably Raila Odinga. There was even an MoU to that effect.

When the question was put to him after he was announced president elect, he replied, “One term president? Who said that?”

It was a sign of what the future held for his erstwhile partners in the Rainbow Coalition. The moment he was sworn in, he announced a Cabinet that grossly undermined Raila’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Stung, Raila caused a major ruckus and led a rebellion that shot down a Constitutional Referendum in 2005. Kibaki promptly dissolved the Cabinet, fired Raila and allied ministers, cobbled a new Cabinet and went forth to create one of the most resurgent national economy revivals with a hostile and rowdy Opposition constantly snipping at his heels.

More was to come. As the country burned following the 2007 botched poll, it was assumed that the ‘weak’ and ‘cowardly’ Kibaki would throw in the towel after a day or two of violent protests. To everyone’s shock, he got sworn in at State House, invited Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka into the tent and sat mute while the country slid into hell.

Peace would only come in the form of a Grand Coalition Government in which Raila, as prime minister, (assumed he) would be co-president following talks brokered by former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan.  It didn’t take long before he realised that the old man had played him once again, and saddled him with nusu mkeka – a miniscule red carpet.

Coincidentally, it is the man derided as a coward and fence sitter who re-kitted Kenya Defence Forces and resolutely sent them into battle on foreign soil – in the middle of heavy rains – and only bothered to announce it a week later. When a man is recruited by the pugnacious Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, schooled by the sly and brainy Tom Mboya, the war-like Jomo Kenyatta and the calculating Daniel Arap Moi, something rubs on.

The ‘gentleman of Kenyan politics’ was no coward, but a patient, calculating, ruthless and hunting political machine who often hid behind a wall of silence.