Mwai Kibaki, who ended decades of one-party rule when he was elected Kenya’s president in 2002, only to have his promises to end government corruption undermined by corruption charges and violence surrounding his bid for re-election, died aged 90.
Kibaki was the last Kenyan president to be part of the generation that led the country from British colonial rule to independence in 1963. He helped draft the country’s first constitution and was one of the first party members Kenya African National Union (Kanu), which dominated Kenyan political life for 39 years.
Kibaki was elected to Kenya’s first parliament after independence and held several government posts, each more powerful than the last, over the next 25 years. A London-trained economist and former professor, Kibaki became minister of finance and economic planning in 1970 under Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta.
After Kenyatta’s death in 1978, his vice president, Daniel arap Moi, assumed the presidency and chose Kibaki as vice president. Moi followed Kenyatta’s model of increasingly authoritarian rule, personal enrichment and widespread corruption. Ordinary citizens have struggled with poverty, poor education and a poor quality healthcare system.
Kibaki began to break with Moi in the early 1980s, when other political parties were banned following an attempted coup. In 1988, Moi demoted Kibaki from vice president to health minister. In this role, Kibaki led efforts to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS in Kenya by initiating education efforts and treatment programs.
Meanwhile, international companies and lenders have begun demanding reform in a country that has become a corrupt one-party state. Moi’s autocratic tendencies were visible in the presidential portraits that hung on the walls of shops, on the roads that bore his name, and on the country’s currency in his image.
In late 1991, opposition political parties were legalized, and soon after Kibaki left his government post to launch the new Democratic Party. He challenged Moi for the presidency in 1992 and 1997, losing both times in elections that outside observers said were plagued by voting irregularities.
In 2002, with Moi unable to stand for re-election due to term limits, Kibaki ran for the leadership of a new party called the National Rainbow Coalition. He pledged to make primary education free for children and to provide universal health care. Additionally, he pledged to end the widespread bribery and corruption that affects all levels of Kenyan life, from getting a phone to appearing before a judge.
On December 3, 2002, just over three weeks before the election, Kibaki was injured in a car accident and was flown to London for treatment – an act that highlighted the need for improved medical services in Kenya. When he returned after 10 days, he campaigned in a wheelchair.
Jubilation erupted across the country when he won 63% of the vote. Moi’s chosen successor, Uhuru Kenyatta – the son of the country’s first president – finished far behind. To the surprise of many, Moi did not dispute the result and quietly handed over his position to Kibaki.
“I inherit a country that has been badly ravaged by years of mismanagement and incompetence,” Kibaki said during his inaugural address. “You have asked me to lead this nation out of the present desert and malaise into the promised land, and I will.”
At first, he put his campaign rhetoric into practice by improving access to education and launching efforts to reduce corruption in the courts. He also sought to reform the country’s banking system, which led to the resignation of several senior officials.
Kibaki was brought to power with the support of a multi-ethnic coalition, not just members of his own Kikuyu people, the country’s largest ethnic group. But tribalism remained a strong element of Kenyan politics, and he surrounded himself with a close-knit cadre of his fellow Kikuyus, whose traditional homeland was near Mount Kenya.
His inner circle became known as the Mount Kenya Mafia, and before long Kibaki was criticized for the same cronyism and bribery he had decried in his predecessors.
Kibaki, who had worked in government all his life, became one of the wealthiest people in Kenya and was embarrassed by revelations that, in addition to his wife and four children, he had a second family with another woman.
In 2005, its top anti-corruption watchdog, John Githongo, resigned, saying he faced death threats and had been thwarted in his attempts to investigate government officials in orbit. from Kibaki.
Kenyans were quickly disillusioned with Kibaki’s leadership, and in 2007 he faced a re-election challenge from Raila Odinga. Odinga was leading in early returns, but election officials stopped releasing vote tallies, blocked reporters from reporting the results, and declared Kibaki the winner. He was quickly sworn in as president on election night.
EU election observers claimed that the results “lack credibility” and suffered “from a lack of transparency”. Violence erupted across the country and Kenya tipped to the brink of civil war, with more than 1,100 people killed.
In 2008, Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, stepped in to broker a power-sharing deal in which Kibaki would remain president while his rival, Odinga, would become prime minister.
As part of this somewhat difficult arrangement, a new constitution was approved in 2010, limiting some presidential powers and strengthening ethics provisions.
Kibaki resigned from his post in 2013, but not before receiving a generous retirement pension that allowed him to live in luxury in his Nairobi apartment and country estate.
Mwai Emilio Stanley Kibaki was born on November 15, 1931 in Gatuyani, a village near Mount Kenya. His parents were tobacco and cattle farmers.
An excellent student, Kibaki won a scholarship to Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, where many future leaders from across Africa were educated. He graduated in 1955, then took a degree in economics and public finance from the London School of Economics in 1958. During this time, one of his brothers was killed while fighting in a guerrilla movement revolutionary in Kenya.
Kibaki taught at Makerere for several years and became active in Kenya’s growing independence movement. In a 2002 interview with the Christian Science Monitorhe remembers joining friends in a bar in Nairobi.
“During our conversation,” he said, “one of us suggested that we draw a constitution for the future. So we borrowed stationery from the counter and started drawing.
He also helped organize the Kanu Party, which propelled Kenyatta to power.
In 1962 Kibaki married Lucy Muthoni, who died in 2016. They had four children. He also had a long relationship with Mary Wambui, with whom he had a daughter.
It is unclear whether they were married – polygamy is legal in Kenya – but Mary Wambui received VIP treatment while Kibaki was president and for several years held his former seat in Kenya’s parliament.
Mwai Kibaki, politician and former president of Kenya, born November 15, 1931, died April 21, 2022
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