Kibaki: Has his time to rule Kenya arrived?

Oct 06, 2002

If ever a man was born and raised to be a political leader, it is Kenya’s opposition presidential candidate Mwai Kibaki

By Kalungi Kabuye

If ever a man was born and raised to be a political leader, it is Kenya’s opposition presidential candidate Mwai Kibaki. Right from the time he finished school and was drawn into politics, to his ranking in the 1970s as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most likely upcoming leaders, Kibaki was expected to be the President of Kenya sooner or later in his career.
In fact, to his people of the Kikuyu tribe, it was seen as just a matter of time. For the 10 years he was Vice-President (1978-88) Kibaki was largely seen as a ‘President-in-waiting’ by his people.
But, 40 years since he first got into elective office, he is still waiting for what at one time seemed to be his destiny. And this time he is forced to the sidelines of a fragmented opposition, away from the real centres of power in Kenya.
A long-time member of the ruling Kenya African National Union, KANU (in fact he was instrumental in drafting the party’s constitution in 1960), Kibaki finally left to form the Democratic Party (DP) in 1991. He was a Presidential candidate in 1992, but caused nary a stir in Kenya’s political waters.
Two weeks ago, the National Alliance Party of Kenya (NAPK), a coalition of opposition parties, named Kibaki as its presidential candidate. The NAPK also named Kijana Wamalwa (FORD-Kenya) as his running mate and Charity Ngilu (National Party of Kenya) as would-be Prime Minister if the party won. Both Wamalwa and Ngilu are former presidential candidates.
So, is this the time Mwai Kibaki finally seizes Kenya’s most powerful post?
Kibaki, 71, graduated from Makerere University in 1954 with a degree in economics and political science. He then went on for postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics.
As the story goes, it was on his return to Nairobi from London that he found Charles Njonjo waiting for him. Njonjo, who was to play a big role in Kenya’s power politics in the ensuing decades, offered the young graduate a brand new car, and explained to him what was at stake in Kenya’s future, and what role Kibaki could play in it.
How could he say no? In 1960, Kibaki resigned from his teaching post at Makerere and returned to join politics in his home country. In 1963, he became an elected Member of Parliament, and soon joined the Cabinet.
He would be a minister in various ministries till Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first President, died in 1978. In the political intrigue that followed, Kibaki’s old political mentor, Njonjo, was the main player. Arrayed against the then Vice President Daniel Arap Moi was a powerful group of Kikuyu politicians grouped under the organisation GEMA (Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association), who wanted to change the constitution and stop Moi from becoming President.
Njonjo managed to convince GEMA that with Kibaki as Vice-President, they would retain power, and Moi was agreeable to the situation— or so it seemed at that time.
It turned out, however, that Moi was more of a master politician than other people took him for. Indications are that he was not happy at all with the status quo, and would rather have another person as Vice-President. But Kibaki was reported to have massive Kikuyu support, and of course Njonjo was still there pulling strings.
Scholars of Kenyan politics have it that Moi relies on loyalty and humility as the most important qualities in the people around him. For 12 years Moi had eaten humble pie under Kenyatta, taking whatever humiliations the old warrior would inflict on him. Hence he did not like it that apparently Kibaki was not showing such humility and loyalty: “He simply refused to support Moi with all his heart and soul,” a close ally was quoted as saying by The East African, adding that Kibaki’s refusal to wear a picture of Moi on his jacket lapel infuriated the new President.
And some people hold that since Kibaki actually believed the ‘president-in-waiting’ scenario, why should he show such loyalty and humility to Moi?
But the President bided his time and played his cards. Eventually, he managed to play Njonjo and Kibaki against each other, especially after the abortive coup attempt of 1982, when Moi cleaned house of his opponents.
First, he convinced Njonjo to leave his powerful post as Attorney General and become a politician so he could replace Kibaki as Vice President. But after that he was easy to push aside, and he was to resign under humiliation, branded a thief and a corrupt leader. That left Kibaki still very popular and seemingly awaiting his turn to be President.
That was when Kibaki’s lack of spine begun to show. Seen by the Kikuyu’s as their last hope, he failed to deal with the broad-sides Moi threw at him. For five long years, a group of politicians backed by State House attacked Kibaki on all fronts. He failed to resign, as many people wanted him to. He bore it all till after the elections of 1988 when— 10 years after waiting his turn to become President— he was sacked as Vice-President. He still held on to minor cabinet posts till December 1991, when he finally quit KANU and formed DP.
He stood for President in 1992 and 1997, coming in third and a close second respectively. This time, with the first united opposition in Kenya’s history, Kibaki is again standing for President. What are his chances?
“Kibaki is supposed to gain from the votes that Ngilu and Wamalwa are supposed to deliver from their communities,” wrote Daily Nation writer Wahome Mutahi (Ngilu is a Kamba while Wamalwa is a Luhya). “With part of Central, Eastern and Western provinces on his side, Kibaki is almost assured of votes.”
Analysts also see Kibaki gaining from what amounts to a pathological hatred of Uhuru Kenyatta, Moi’s chosen successor, from some quarters of Kenya’s political establishment.
Kibaki is undoubtedly the best known opposition politician, but at 71 might be seen as part of the old guard Kenya has lived under for all those years. If Uhuru wins the KANU nomination, the race will be between two Kikuyus, something unprecedented in Kenya. Should be interesting to watch.

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