Mwai Kibaki Knew How to Pick His Battles

Four decades since he first became a senior government official as Treasury Secretary, Mwai Kibaki finally took oath as the third president of Kenya at the end of 2002. Having worked very closely with his two predecessors Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, Kibaki must have known all he needed to know about power and statecraft. So he chose his battles carefully. At the end of his decade at the helm, he was and remains arguably the best performing president Kenya ever had, despite his failure to control the endemic corruption that almost defines the country’s public affairs.

When founding president Kenyatta was ailing, the Gikuyu conservatives in Kenya’s highly ethnicized politics mooted a plot to change the constitution so the Kalenjin Vice President Arap Moi would not automatically ascend to the presidency should his boss drop dead. It was finance minister Kibaki, and powerful Attorney General Charles Njonjo who stood with the lightweight VP against their powerful fellow Gikuyus and carried the day when Kenyatta died in his sleep in 1978.

President Moi appointed Kibaki as his VP.

Four years into his presidency, when the seemingly naive Moi narrowly survived a military coup staged by junior Airforce officers on August 1st 1982, he decided it was time to play hard ball. After crashing the coup makers, Moi decided to also do away with his kingmakers, starting with Njonjo, whom he subjected to a humiliating commission of inquiry that left the once much feared Njonjo politically naked and guilty of treason. Moi then ‘forgave’ Njonjo who remained a political pariah fading into oblivion. It was Kibaki’s turn to be trimmed next, but the seasoned economist kept evading any political traps set by Moi, giving the emerging dictator no excuse to drop him. It took another six years before Moi simply got fed up with Kibaki being nice and perfect, with the public admiring him even more. He just demoted him from the number two position, appointing him Minister of Health.

A technocrat to a fault, Kibaki kept delivering on his docket.

The reform pressure of the late eighties and early nineties that forced Moi and his KANU (Kenya African National Union) single party to open to mulptipartism was the work of civil society – mostly lawyers, religious leaders and non-politicians like environmentalist Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Mathaai backed by western donors. Kibaki was certainly not among the reformers. He did not even join the first mass opposition party to emerge against KANU which was called FORD (Forum for Restoration of Democracy). Ford did not even last long enough to contest the first multiparty election of 1992 – it had already split into two weak factions one for Luos and the other for Gikuyu. Kibaki finally left KANU and formed his party, the DP.

The DP remained a weak opposition party until the new constitutional term limits caught up with President Moi. Without the powerful Moi running, it was time up for KANU, which had ruled the country for nearly four decades. A new coalition picked the ‘faultless’ Kibaki as the flag bearer, with Raila Odinga as its key campaigner. Kibaki who had suffered a motor accident during the campaigns easily defeated KANU’s candidate whom Moi had imposed on the party, the son of the first president, now President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Kibaki took oath sitting in a wheelchair.

In his inauguration speech, he famously said, “I am inheriting a country which has been badly ravaged by years of misrule and ineptitude!” He promised to correct the mess and he did. Revenue collection jumped. He concentrated on cleaning the judiciary, which is now the main guarantor of Kenya’s democracy.

And then he did what Kenyans will probably remember him most for – rebuilding and modernizing the infrastructure. To do this, the conservative pro-west economist jumped into bed with the Chinese for quick delivery. Averse to publicity, Kibaki laughed off suggestions to name one of his landmark projects – the Nairobi-Thika Highway after him.

But other than cleaning up the judiciary, Kibaki did not tackle the corruption monster. He knew it was a battle he could not realistically win, given the deep entrenchment of systemic corruption in his country. During the first presidency under Kenyatta, corruption had been by a few powerful rulers, working with well connected private sector players. Under Moi, corruption became more blatant and the most memorable scandal was the so called Goldenberg scheme where the government paid colossal sums of money in export promotion refunds for nonexistent exports. When Goldenberg was exposed, another scheme called Anglo Leasing came up that grabbed all public procurement deals inflating their value as high as five times to benefit powerful political figures of the day. The Kibaki administration inherited it the Ango Leasing monster. Kibaki simply let Anglo Leasing be and did not try enough to fight it.

But so blatant was the Anglo Leasing theft that the popularity Kibaki had enjoyed in his first one or two years simply evaporated.

By the time Kibaki presented himself for re-election in 2007, he was no longer attractive to the angry Kenyans. It is claimed that Raila Odinga made short work of Kibaki, defeating him at the ballot, but Kibaki had already taken oath in State House before the results could be publicly announced.

That is what triggered the post-election violence at the end of 2007 and early 2008. In the end, with foreign powers and regional mediators weighing in, Kibaki entered a power-sharing arrangement with Raila Odinga. Under the arrangement, Kibaki continued delivering on his economic agenda, improving both the physical infrastructure and also firmly delivering Kenya into the digital/fintech era. Some Kenyan corporate giants like Safaricom and Equity Bank thrived with runaway success in the Kibaki days. However, Kenya Airways continued groaning under corruption, throwing away the chance to challenge Ethiopian Airlines in the continental skies. 

Kenya’s idealistic constitution was negotiated during Kibaki’s presidency.

By the end of his second term, Kenyans had forgiven Kibaki for the post-election violence that was triggered by his hasty swearing-in of 2007 and were instead wishing his successor Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto success with their trials in the ICC for the violence.

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