The legacy left by Kenya’s third president, Mwai Kibaki

By Morris Kiruga
Posted on Friday, 22 April 2022 18:21

Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki attends the opening ceremony of the 20th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Governments at the African Union (AU) headquarters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa
Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki attends the opening ceremony of the 20th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Governments at the African Union (AU) headquarters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa January 27, 2013. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Kenya’s third president, Mwai Kibaki, has died at the age of 90 President Uhuru Kenyatta announced in a televised address on Friday.  A period of national mourning will follow along with a state funeral. We look back at his legacy.

“As a leading figure in Kenya’s post-independence history, His Excellency Mwai Kibaki earned the abiding respect and affection of the people of this nation and other nations around the world,” President Kenyatta said. “His contributions as Minister of Finance and Vice President saw Kenya’s economy grow steadily, fuelled by a commodities boom as well as fiscal and monetary policies that were the backbone of his economic philosophy,” Kenyatta added.

He described his predecessor as “a gentleman in Kenyan politics,” and “a brilliant debater whose eloquence, wit, and charm won the day, time and time again.”

“[Kibaki was] A man who has distinguished himself with a great legacy that he has left behind. He has laid a solid foundation on which the rest of us are building on,” Deputy President William Ruto said during a campaign meeting. In a later statement, in which he called the late president an inspiration, Ruto said: “Mwai Kibaki served as president for a decade that now seems to be Kenya’s golden years…an implacable meritocrat, he tapped into Kenya’s rich talent bank and appointed technocrats and other highly qualified professionals to impactful leadership positions in his government…The result was a government that hummed with purpose, unlocking an optimism in the nation that propelled economic growth from its historic lowest to its highest.”

A graduate of Makerere University and the London School of Economics, he was plucked from academia to help build the nascent Kenya African National Union (KANU) party in 1961. Kibaki remained a prominent figure in Kenyan politics for the next five decades. He was first elected a legislator at independence in 1963 and was subsequently reelected in every election until he retired in 2013. After three years as Minister of Commerce and Industry, he was appointed Minister for Finance and Economic Planning in 1969-a position he held until 1982.

Tom Mboya (lt), Kenya’s Minister of Economic Planning and Development and his deputy Mwai Kibaki (rt) in the 1960s. (twitter: @KResearcher)

He became Vice President following the death of Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta in 1978 and the subsequent election of Daniel Arap Moi as Kenya’s second President. Kibaki served as Vice President and a Minister until 1988 when he was demoted from the Vice Presidency.

Two years later, in the lead up to the first multiparty elections, he quit both the government and the ruling party. He then founded the opposition party Democratic Party (DP), on whose ticket he ran for president in 1992, when he polled third, and 1997, when he polled second.

Kibaki served as Kenya’s president from 2002 to 2013. After taking over from President Daniel Arap Moi on the promise of widespread economic and social reform, Kibaki set about reviving the country’s economy, which had suffered after years of mismanagement and widespread corruption. He successfully turned the economy around and eventually delivered a new constitution, but his fight against corruption was at best a mixed bag.

Renown as more of a technocrat than a politician, President Kibaki also expanded the country’s democratic space in his first term. He presided over a government that included veteran opposition politicians, some of whom had been jailed by one or both previous governments. His government opened former torture chambers for public viewing and lifted a five decade ban on the Mau Mau freedom fighters.

Kibaki ends KANU’s four decades in power

In 2002, Kibaki ended KANU’s four decades in power when he won with nearly two thirds of the vote, defeating President Moi’s chosen successor, Uhuru Kenyatta. He won the presidency as the head of a broad opposition coalition NARC, which rode on an anti-KANU and anti-Moi wave to win a large governing majority and end the ruling party’s four decades in power.

“I am inheriting a country which has been badly ravaged by years of misrule and ineptitude,” Kibaki said after taking his oath of office, “You have asked me to lead this nation out of the present wilderness and malaise on to the promised land, and I shall do so.”

Kibaki, who took his oath of office while on a wheelchair with one leg in a cast after a freak accident while on the campaign trail, came into power on a broad reform platform. Among his government’s core promises was to deliver free primary education, finish the constitution review process within 100 days, and fight corruption. He delivered on the first promise, which brought an additional 1.5 million children to school and was heralded across the world. He also presided over a rapid increase in the country’s educational institutions, particularly universities and technical colleges.

The constitutional reform process took much longer, and in the process broke his government apart.

Unable to stem corruption

Despite his government’s pledge to fight corruption and end the wanton theft of the Moi years, Kibaki failed to live up to the promise. Among the first signs was the Anglo-Leasing scandal, a long-running high-level scheme by senior members of first, Moi’s regime, and then, Kibaki’s regime, to siphon money meant for a wide array of national security projects from public coffers.

Despite instituting two major commissions, one to look into the Moi-era Goldenberg scandal and another into the country’s land issues, Kibaki never implemented the reports. His government also refused to release a detailed report by international risk consulting firm Kroll on corruption during the Moi era. The 110-page report was among the first documents ever leaked by the whistleblower website Wikileaks.

Fractures become apparent

The opposition coalition that had brought President Kibaki was barely two months old when it won power and brought together otherwise competing interests into the same government. Soon after the elections, fractures begun to appear within the new administration. Among the major issues was the accusation that Kibaki had reneged on a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that included a promise to change the government structure and introduce the position of Prime Minister, a long-sought reform aimed at diluting the country’s imperial presidency.  This, among other contentious points, saw the draft constitution defeated in a referendum in 2005, with prominent members of Kibaki’s cabinet teaming up with Opposition Leader Uhuru Kenyatta to oppose the proposed laws.

The defeat marked the end of the broad coalition that had brought him to power three years earlier, as he subsequently fired several leading politicians, including Raila Odinga, from his cabinet. Odinga and others, including future Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka and future President Uhuru Kenyatta, then formed the Orange Democratic Movement, which has been at the core of opposition politics in Kenya ever since.

Violence erupts in 2007

In the lead up to the 2007 elections, Kibaki formed a new coalition called the Party of National Unity (PNU), on whose ticket he faced Odinga at the ballot. By then, he had also closed ranks with his former opponent at the ballot, KANU leader Uhuru Kenyatta. After President Kibaki was declared the winner of the polls and quickly sworn in, Odinga disputed the results.

The aftermath of the disputed elections was two months of violence that disrupted the country’s previously rapid economic growth, displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and killed 1100. Later investigations showed that there had been substantial rigging on both sides which made it difficult to prove who had won.

The violence in East Africa’s biggest economy attracted international attention, and the African Union sent in a regional arbitration team led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Faced with weak numbers, Kibaki had formed a coalition with Kalonzo Musyoka, who had polled third in the elections, and named him Vice President.

The mediation efforts resulted in a deal to form a government of national unity. The deal brought back Odinga into government as Prime Minister, and significantly expanded the government.  The mediation efforts also kickstarted the process to hold a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission to interrogate the country’s long-standing issues, and another commission to look into the post-election violence.

Opposition supporters carry a log to block access to the home of Kenyan opposition politician Were who was killed in Nairobi
Opposition supporters carry a log to block the access to the home of Kenyan opposition politician Melitus Were who was killed at his home in the early hours in Nairobi January 29, 2008. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya (KENYA)

Kibaki and Odinga

Now on the same side and without any significant opposition, the joint government of Kibaki and Odinga completed the constitution review process and delivered a new constitution after a referendum in 2010. The new laws were hailed as progressive, especially in its affirmation of basic rights.

“The passing of the new constitution continued strong macroeconomic policies, and a favorable regional environment have created a new positive economic momentum,” the World Bank said in its annual report on Kenya in 2010.

The economy had always been Kibaki’s strong point, after serving as Minister of Finance in a period of relative growth from 1969 to 1982. The country’s GDP growth consistently increased from 0.6% in 2002 to 7% in 2007, before the economic disruptions caused by the disputed elections reduced it to 1.7% in 2008. After the two sides made peace and formed a government, economic growth returned to its upward trend, peaking at 8.4% in 2010.

Kibaki had achieved this rapid economic growth by expanding the revenue base and carrying out extensive macroeconomic reform.

Peace with Bretton Woods, China, and others…

Among other reforms, Kibaki’s government also repaired the country’s relationship with Bretton Woods institutions, which had taken a hit after years of economic mismanagement. He also built Kenya’s relationship with China and other Asian giants, leveraging the close ties to embark on a broad infrastructure reform programme.

Regionally, President Kibaki took over his predecessor’s role as the lead negotiator and host of the Sudan Peace Process. Of the eight agreements made between Juba and Khartoum between 2002 and 2004, seven were signed during Kibaki’s time in power.

While dating, the late President Mwai Kibaki often took future bride Lucy for dances at the Princess Hotel along Tom Mboya street. (twitter: @UndercoverKe)

Kenya also hosted several conferences on the peace process in Somalia during that time. In October 2011, Kenyan forces crossed the border into Somalia, in what it said was a move to fight insurgents but which was long rumoured to be a move to create a buffer zone within the Horn of Africa nation.

Although President Kibaki declared the mission a success in May 2012 and rolled the Kenyan military into the regional peacekeeping force AMISOM, the Kenyan military remains in Somalia to this day.

Kibaki was succeeded by Uhuru Kenyatta, who was at the time Deputy Prime Minister. As member of parliament for Othaya, which he had represented for four decades, Kibaki was succeeded by Mary Wambui, a politician long rumoured to be his second wife but whom Kibaki, standing next to his official wife Lucy, had indirectly disowned at a press conference in 2009.

Quick biography

  • Born 15 November 1931
  • Education :
    • Bachelor of Arts in Economics (Makerere University)
    • Bachelor of Science in Public Finance (London School of Economics)
  • First elected to Parliament in 1963
  • First appointed to cabinet in 1963 as Assistant Minister of Finance
  • Appointed Minister of Commerce in 1966
  • Appointed Minister of Finance in 1969
  • Appointed Vice President and Minister of Finance in 1978
  • Switched ministerial roles to Minister of Home Affairs in 1982
  • Demoted to Minister of Health in 1988
  • Quit government in 1990.
  • First ran for president in 1992.
  • Leader of Official Opposition in 1997
  • 2002: Elected President
  • 2007: Reelected president in disputed election

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