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The beguiling politician who only struck at the opportune time

Finance Minister Mwai Kibaki. 1970. [File, Standard] 

When Mwai Kibaki, a promising economist, quit a teaching job at Makerere University in 1960 and returned to Kenya, many thought he had made a terrible mistake. He did not look like a politician, his peers thought. This is the same mistake many of his contemporaries would make later in life and belatedly learn that they had underrated the man from Othaya.

Although many of his competitors regarded him as a fence-sitter because he rarely committed himself to controversial issues, behind the genial smile was a calculating politician who wore a deadpan face of a gambler, and in many instances outwitted his opponents.

In an interview with The Standard long before he became President, Kibaki described his early days in politics as his most enjoyable. This man who was literally recruited into Kanu by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga took to politics like a fish in water, even though at times he was too broke to even afford a beer.

In 1961, when he was just 30, Kanu bought him and his colleague, John Keen, a Peugeot 404 to move around the country organising the party’s grassroots formation. 

It was in this car that he drove over 400,000km in just one month. In the interview in 1995, Kibaki had explained: “We moved around the country a lot. In just one month, we had covered 4,000km. It was a great job working for the party that was so popular everywhere.” In 1962, he got married to Lucy Wambui, then a tutor at Kambui Teachers’ College in Kiambu.

Kibaki joined competitive politics in 1963 when he contested the Donholm parliamentary seat, later named Bahati and Makadara. Although he triumphed over Jael Mbogo, this was the last time he contested in the city. He soon retreated to Othaya, which he represented until 2007. 

At a time all senior politicians were aligning themselves in the game to succeed the aged and ailing president Jomo Kenyatta, Kibaki appeared uninterested, although some people saw him as a threat. That he survived the schemes hatched by Charles Njonjo, the powerful Constitutional Affairs minister, shows that he was a calculating politician who patiently waited for the opportune moment to show his hand.

Former Central PC Mr David Musila wrote in memoirs how after the aborted coup in 1982, Kibaki, who was a vice president then, sought refuge in Nyeri’s PC and sought to speak to President Daniel arap Moi.

Two months before the coup, in June 1982, Kibaki had moved a constitutional amendment, which saw the enactment of Section 2(A), which transformed Kenya into a single-party state, even when he almost became a victim of this law.

The situation for multi-party politics even worsened. In June 1982, the National Assembly officially declared a one-party state by amending the law, making Kenya a de jure one-party state.

Later, when the architects of the coup were exposed, Njonjo was publicly humiliated and there were attempts to link Kibaki to the disturbances. But he retained his cool. At the nadir of his career in 1988, when some of his peers in the Cabinet would troop to Nyeri to denigrate him and he was almost rigged out in the infamous mlolongo elections, Kibaki retained his aloofness. One of his closest allies, Munene Kairu, was so incensed by the anti-Kibaki forces that he literally fought the perceived enemies, but was shocked when his friend rebuked him wondering why he had resorted to violence.

No matter what pressure Kibaki was put under, including being demoted as a Vice President and removed from the ministry of Finance to head Health, Kibaki took it in his stride, forever loyal to his president even though he declined to wear the Kanu badge on the lapel of his court. 

At a time the country was clambering for release from the excesses of the single-party system, Kibaki chastised pro-reform crusaders, reminding them that Kanu was like a giant Mugumo tree that could not be cut with a razor blade. He once told those calling for the ousting of Kanu from the power that if one’s shirt got dirty, the logical thing was not to throw it away but to wash it, to which the outspoken Butere MP, Martin Shikuku retorted that Kanu was so dirty that no detergent could to cleanse it.

His timing in leaving Kanu left many shocked. When Kibaki announced the formation of the Democratic Party in December 1991, his critics saw him as a traitor who had been sponsored to confuse the opposition and ruin their chances of removing Moi and Kanu from power.

Viewed as a moderate compared to the likes of firebrands such as Jaramogi and Kenneth Matiba, Kibaki pulled a surprise in the 1992 General Election when he emerged third after Moi and Matiba. When Kibaki won the presidency in 2002, it was the ultimate price for a politician who had always appeared reluctant. He proved to be a good economist and manager, but history will judge him harshly for failing to manage Kenya's politics well.

He won in 2002 but followed the advice of Njenga Karume not to share out his presidency like a piece of sweet potato, leading to a crisis that handed him a resounding defeat in the 2005 referendum, and climaxed with the controversial 2007. History will judge him harshly for the chaos that erupted after the 2007 polls that almost tipped the country to anarchy.

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