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The less shiny part of Mwai Kibaki

William Ruto and Charity Ngilu engaging the late Samuel Kivuitu at the KICC, 2007. [File, Standard]

The sight of a pensive Mwai Kibaki taking oath of office on the dark evening of December 30, 2007, at a solemn ceremony in the company of few selected allies, is one of the images that will forever remain etched in the minds of those who witnessed the event beamed live by the national broadcaster from the lawns of State House, Nairobi.

The hurried ceremony – conducted a couple of minutes after the electoral body pronounced Kibaki as winner of the presidential poll – is one of the darkest spots on an otherwise illustrious political career of the former President. The declaration of Kibaki as winner and his subsequent swearing-in plunged the country into a post-election violence of enormous scale, claiming lives of over 1,000 Kenyans and leaving thousands of others maimed and homeless.

Reflecting on the State House event, which was devoid of pomp and colour and without invited guests, including diplomats and heads of states from neighbouring countries, the Chairman of the then Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK), the late Samuel Kivuitu, confessed to acting out of “intense pressure”.

He opened up two years later that on the fateful day, “some people threatened to forcibly collect the (presidential winner’s) certificate while I am the one mandated by law to do so”. So immediately after declaring the results, Kivuitu was ushered out of the national tallying centre at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) where he found a car waiting.      

“I arrived at State House to take the certificate and found the Chief Justice (Evan Gicheru) there, ready to swear in Kibaki,” Kivuitu said. And although Kibaki later caved in to pressure from within and the international community to address the highly disputed and discredited poll issue, the 2007 ballot experience where Kenya nearly slid to anarchy remains a major scar in his career. In fact Kibaki’s son, Jimmy, was recently quoted in one of the media outlets stating that it was the “most regrettable” experience and the lowest moment of his father.

However Kibaki, who sought re-election on the Party of National Unity (PNU), quickly patched up differences with his fiercest rival, Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), ending up forming a Grand Coalition Government with Kibaki as President and Raila as Prime Minister, courtesy of mediation spearhead by former United Nations’ Secretary General, Dr Kofi Annan.    

The Grand Coalition arrangement became a major African success story of post-poll conflict resolution, with Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe following suit in resolving their electoral impasse. Besides turning this tragic experience into honour, Kibaki is roundly credited for his economic policies that saw the revival of the economy. During his first term in office, the country’s GDP growth rate rose from 0.6 per cent to over seven per cent by the end of the term.

But against this backdrop of successful ventures, key among them infrastructural development that includes construction of the iconic 45-kilometer Thika Superhighway that links Nairobi to the industrial town of Thika in Kiambu County, the introduction of free primary education as well as the Constituency Development Fund (CDF), which has largely spurred development in rural areas, not to forget promulgation of the Constitution in 2010, Kibaki’s political career spanning slightly over half a century was equally dotted with some low moments.

Tuesday afternoon, January 15, 2008, for instance, found President Kibaki in the middle of crossfire in a hostile Parliament. It was the first parliamentary session since the botched 2007 presidential elections the previous month. For more than 10 hours that stretched late into the night, a crest-fallen Kibaki sat back in utter disbelief as opposition MPs shouted at him unprintable names, with some refusing to take the oath swearing allegiance to him.  

Kibaki’s humiliation that chaotic evening, kicked off with the election of ODM-allied Kenneth Marende as House Speaker. Budalang’i MP Ababu Namwamba, who was scheduled to take the oath first, in accordance to alphabetical order, instead donated his slot to “my President” (Raila). And he later swore his allegiance to Raila instead.

The bullying of Kibaki did not end here – thanks to a paltry 43 parliamentary seats his PNU party had secured as compared to ODM’s majority of 99. The three additional seats from Charity Ngilu’s National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) pushed this number to 102, while 16 seats from Kalonzo Musyoka’s ODM-Kenya outfit boosted pro-Kibaki’s side to 59. Kanu had 16 seats, with other parties making up a total of 21 seats.

And despite riding to power on the account of constitutional reforms, Kibaki reneged on the promise of restarting a constitutional review process within the first 100 days of his administration. Within two years the euphoria that had accompanied Kibaki’s ascension to the presidency had died down, and gloom and disenchantment swiftly set in. The result was a humiliating defeat of his government at the 2005 constitutional referendum.

Enraged by developments, Kibaki sacked his ministers, including Raila and Kalonzo Musyoka, who had campaigned against the draft constitution document, which had reportedly been altered from the initially agreed version.  

As vice president to Daniel arap Moi, Kibaki survived humiliating moments too from allies of the president, some who were convinced he was habouring presidential ambitions. In a scheme partly aimed to whittle down his influence, Moi designed a queue voting system, popularly known as “mlolongo” to nominate members of Kanu party to Parliament.

Many of Kibaki’s allies fell by the wayside in the chaotic exercise of 1988, where in some cases individuals with shorter queues were allegedly declared the victors. Kibaki was so incensed that he called a press conference at night and angrily remarked that “even rigging requires some intelligence.” He was relieved of his vice presidency position in a reshuffle the same year and named to the Health portfolio, a position that he carried on without protest.

Throughout his 50-year parliamentary life, however, Kibaki never lost a single election. But he got the biggest scare of his political life from a little known young woman, Jael Mbogo, in a 1969 contest for Nairobi’s Bahati parliamentary seat, the present day Makadara constituency.

Viewed as the underdog, she however took a surprise lead during the vote-counting “only for the Kibaki agents to switch off lights in the counting hall and execute the plot that absolutely changed the poll outcome,” according to Jael.

Kibaki survived the scare with an advantage of 111 votes over the political greenhorn but the experience left him with egg on the face. President Kenyatta himself reportedly poked fun at his Cabinet minister, wondering how some “little girl” nearly embarrassed his senior government officer. Following the poll drama, Kibaki switched his voter-base to his rural home in Othaya, Nyeri County.   

The former president equally experienced discomforting moments at family and personal level. On March 3, 2009, for instance, he called a press conference at State House Nairobi on short notice, to which members of the Fourth Estate rushed to cover in anticipation of relaying some major development, or breaking news of sorts. It turned out, though, that the president only wanted to remind Kenyans that he only had “one dear wife”.

While the matter at hand was evidently important to the first family, owing to rumours associating Nyeri politician Mary Wambui to the first family, the announcement was rather an anticlimax and “unpresidential”. Observers and pundits termed the action humiliating to the head of state attributing it to “internal pressure exerted on the president.

Over the years, Kibaki separately encountered life threatening situations – two of which Kitui politician and former Central Provincial Commissioner, David Musila, came to his rescue, The attempted coup of August 1, 1982, for instance, found Kibaki in Nyeri town. Musila and his team of officers discreetly whisked Kibaki – then vice president – to his official residence in Nyeri. 

That day, the PC hid his boss twice at different secret locations within Nyeri town. When night finally came, his security detail drove Kibaki to Musila’s house where he had dinner and spent the night. The following morning the PC organised a telephone conversation between Kibaki and his boss, President Moi.

Two decades later, Musila again rescued Kibaki as he lay badly injured following a road accident at the junction to Machakos town on Mombasa Road. The two were returning from a campaign tour of Mwingi and Kitui districts, when Kibaki’s Range Rover plunged into a ditch.

With the help of Musila, and others who were at the scene, the then flag bearer of opposition outfit, Narc, was rushed to Nairobi Hospital. Kibaki would later be flown to London in the UK for further treatment. He returned in time for the 2002 poll exercise and registered history by being sworn in on a wheelchair.