Kibaki: The making of a political colossus
There are leaders who grow into their offices, shaped and sharpened by the exigencies of their times while others are born into greatness and hone it as they acquire experience and gain wisdom.
Emilio Stanley Mwai Kibaki, the third President of Kenya was one of the most colourful politicians the country has ever had.
Those who knew him from childhood all through to his time at Makerere University in Uganda talk of a man who dreamt big and who knew how to achieve his dreams.
Nothing, it would seem, was coincidental about his life. Everything looked like a perfect study in purposefulness.
Born on November 15, 1931, Kibaki was the lastborn of Kibaki Githinji and Teresia Wanjiku. When his elder brothers took their father’s cattle to graze, Kibaki and his contemporaries remained close to their Thunguri home in Othaya, in Nyeri, tending the goats and calves that couldn’t accompany the larger herd to the field.
One day, a phenomenon started to take shape near the field where Kibaki and company spent their days with the goats and calves. It was in form of an architectural marvel never before seen in the vicinity—a sanctuary-cum-school built by Catholic missionaries.
The building intrigued young Kibaki so much that by the time its operations commenced he was long sold on being part of the new life it promised. Sure enough, that is where he attended his preparatory school, dubbed ‘Sub A’ and ‘Sub B’.
The new construction that Kibaki had seen come up from scratch planted the very first seeds of Christianity and enlightenment in Thunguri and beyond that progressively transformed the way Kibaki’s neighbours socialised.
After successfully completing his foundational schooling, he joined Gatuyaini Primary for two years. Like all primary schools those days, Gatuyaini was a dusty and ungainly affair.
Nearly all the pupils, Kibaki included, walked to school and back barefoot, their innocent faces betraying little of what they would be in the future.
But out of this humble school would raise a man destined for greatness.
Kibaki later joined the Holy Ghost Catholic Missionaries’ Karima Mission School, which is today Karima Primary, for another three years.
From there he went to Mathari School (later renamed Nyeri High) before joining Mang’u High, an eminent institution that admitted only the best brains. Its only equal at the time was Alliance High.
It was Mang’u that greatly altered Kibaki’s life. Started by Catholic priests, it was set to become the crucible in which some of the country's best brains would be moulded.
The founders wanted to establish an institution firmly anchored in the Catholic faith and academic excellence.
Launches political career
After excelling at Mang’u, he joined Makerere University College in Uganda for a Bachelor of Arts in Economics, History and Political Science. He emerged one of the best students in the Faculty of Arts in 1955, attaining a First Class Honours degree in Economics.
He got a scholarship to study Bachelor of Science in Public Finance at the London School of Economics and became the first African to graduate from that school with a first-class degree.
He returned to Makerere as an assistant lecturer in the Department of Economics. The university would honour him many years later, in 2012, with an honorary degree (Doctor of Laws).
Makerere was where Kibaki launched his political career when he was elected chair of the Kenya Students’ Association and vice-chair of Makerere Students’ Guild during an epochal period in East Africa.
It was a time when the agitation for independence from colonial rule was at its peak. He was to find his fidus Achates in one Joseph Thomas Mboya, who approached him to become a member of Kenya Educational Trust which was coordinating the second airlift of students to the US. Kibaki and Munyua Waiyaki were among the beneficiaries.
Working hand in hand with Mboya, Kibaki distinguished himself as one of the foremost economists in the country. Both men had something in common—they were alumni of Mang’u High and agemates, too. Mboya had exceptional organisational skills and founded the Nairobi People’s Convention Party (NPCP), which would become one of the best-organised political entities in Nairobi.
On being advised the political dynamics of the time demanded one had to join a national party to become a force to reckon with, Kibaki started aligning himself with KANU, which was then under formation and which was not a strange entity to him because he had participated in the drafting of its constitution.
At only 29, Kibaki prevailed over the executive officer of KANU to bring some order. Around the time he joined KANU, the demand for the release of Jomo Kenyatta from house arrest in Mararal was gaining traction. KANU president at the time was James Gichuru and he had made it clear that the popular party would not form a government if Kenyatta was not released from detention.
By then KADU was styling itself up as a veritable alternative to KANU. Some of its leaders started spewing hatred against Kenyatta to discredit KANU and what it stood for. But Kibaki was steadfast in his defence of KANU and its foundational ideology and principles.
He struggled to maintain order in the party and to make it the formidable force that later enabled it to secure a sound victory in the 1961 elections, in which it won 19 of the 33 elected seats in the House of Representatives.
Kibaki himself was elected MP for Donholm in 1963 and appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the National Treasury. He continued to hold his position as KANU’s executive officer and gained solid respect across the board to the extent some MPs exhorted Kenyatta, who had since become President of Kenya, to abolish the post of KANU Assistant Executive Officer.
Kibaki became Mboya’s Assistant Minister for Economic Planning and Development during another hugely important period in Kenya’s history. Also notable is that Kibaki was one of the architects of the acclaimed Sessional Paper No. 10, African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya. Again, he was with Mboya in this historic venture.
Kibaki’s abilities saw him elevated to full minister on May 3, 1966—Ministry of Commerce and Industry while Mboya retained his Economic Planning and Development docket.
By then, Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga had fallen out and the latter had gone on to form his party, the Kenya People’s Union.
Three years later, Mboya was shot dead in Nairobi. Kibaki and Josiah Mwangi (JM) Kariuki, who was murdered in 1975, were the only prominent Kikuyu politicians to attend Mboya’s burial on Rusinga Island.
The assassination triggered animosity between the Kikuyu and Luo communities. Forty-two years later, Kibaki would unveil a monument in Nairobi in honour of his friend, Mboya.
His relationship with Mboya caused more than a small discomfort among people close to the President, who doubted where Kibaki’s loyalty lay. Because of this he almost lost his Donholm seat to Jael Mbogo.
Africa’s best economic brain
In a tactical move, he shifted his political base to his hometown, Othaya, where residents had already made up their minds to pick him MP.
After this, Kibaki knew destiny was calling on him to chart a new political path; one on which the aspiration for greater political leadership would characterise his life. He fixed his gaze firmly on that path, fighting the vicissitudes of time and the jeopardies of politics, and eventually becoming the third President after Daniel Arap Moi in 2002.
By then Kibaki had been appointed Minister for Finance. During his tenure at the National Treasury, the country recorded economic growth rates of up to seven per cent.
Former World Bank President Robert McNamara described Kibaki as one of the “greatest economic brains to have emerged from Africa” while his former lecturer at Makerere, Prof Kenneth Ingham, believed if (Kibaki) had stayed long enough in the academia, he would have ended up as President of the World Bank.
While some may argue it was easy because it happened, the opposite is true. Throughout his life in politics, Kibaki endured the hardships and the trials most, if not all, politicians go through. As an MP, he never lost an election, representing his people for 50 years and becoming one of the longest-serving MPs in the Commonwealth.
However, there were attempts to vote him out or frustrate him out of elective politics; he bore it all with charm.
When Kibaki eventually decided that he would go for the top seat, he knew he had crossed the Rubicon of caution. During President Moi’s tenure, one had to have guts to take on a person who, to all intents and purposes, appeared unbeatable in the game of politics.
But it required a man of rare insight to oust Moi.
- Courtesy Kenya Yearbook Editorial Board