Born into an average family in the village of Gatuyaini, Othaya, Emilio Mwai Kibaki the child was saved from becoming a babysitter and permanent goat herder by his brother-in law Paul Mureithi, who insisted that he goes to school.
He joined Gatuyaini Primary School in 1939 before eventually finding his way to Mang’u High School, where he showed unquestionable intelligence.
It was no surprise, then, that he was called to Makerere University to study Economics, History and Political Science, where he emerged top of his class with a First Class Honors degree.
This earned him a scholarship to any learning institution of his choice in the UK, and off to London School of Economics he went.
In London, and in keeping to his true nature, he set a record as the first African to graduate from the school with a First Class Honors degree.
But, even though Kibaki was brilliant, he was laidback and somewhat did not want to be noticed. One of his lecturer’s at Makerere, Prof Kenneth Ingham, could not fathom how the mellow student he had taught all those years ago would navigate the fast-paced, bumpy world of politics when Kibaki was elected president in 2003.
“The issues Kibaki has to deal with require some ruthlessness and, honestly, I don’t think that is his nature,” Prof Ingham said. “Kibaki does not crave prominence; he does not like to push himself forward. God help him.”
But, despite Ingham’s reservations, the political history of the man who has ruled Kenya for the past 10 years reads like the musical notes of a C Major.
After abandoning chalk for politics, Kibaki got into Parliament in 1963 as the MP of the current Makadara — then called Doonholm — constituency, and that marked the start of an illustrious political career that has spanned half a century and seen him occupy offices that many can only dream of.
Starting off as a Kanu executive officer, then on to MP, Parliamentary Secretary, various ministerial posts, vice president, leader of official opposition and finally president, Kibaki has been there, done that.
Were his political life a musical composition, the conductors’ hands would rise steadily as the notes go up, hit a crescendo, and stay there.
Now walking away from the limelight, analysts say he has run the last 10 years with a mixture of a deceptive hands-off leadership style and shrewd calculative moves. He talked rarely, but acted decisively. He placed his wing men in the right positions and fired the lieutenants he felt had become unnecessary baggage.
Carefully maneuvering around criticisms of favouritism in filling up government positions and public offices, the man rose above his critics to get what he wanted, and while at it delivered pronouncements of immense importance with a smug look on his face and a witty statement to boot.
So, as he retires from the presidency next week, and maybe from public service, how would the average Kenyan rate this man’s half-a-century public service record? If Kibaki had stuck to his lecturing job at Makerere University, would Kenya have turned out any different from what we have today? The man served under Kenyatta, under Moi and on his terms as the president, did he have any major impact across the presidencies? Above all, what is this man leaving behind as his legacy?
Critics say, rightly or wrongly, that Kibaki did little in the fight for multi-party politics in the country. If that is true, it would be because he couldn’t. From the time he got into politics, save for a few years during which he rose to head the opposition movement, Kibaki was in the government and spoke the language of the government. He was so pro-establishment that he was once criticised for being too subservient and never being one to go against the tide or differ with either Moi or Kenyatta.
But, just after the re-introduction of multi-party politics, he resigned from government and quit Kanu to form the Democratic Party (DP), which he used as the vehicle for taking his first jab at Moi and the presidency in 1992. That, you could say, was the start proper.
Kibaki, considered “spineless” by some, moved on to mount a formidable force that he used against Moi. He lost the 1992 and 1997 elections and was confirmed as the official opposition leader in Parliament in 1998.
Looking at his lively and active political life during the years after quitting Kanu and how he worked with other politicians, one can loosely say that the man was a reformer clothed in loyalist clothes all the while.
In the next four years to 2002, Kibaki solidified his political base and, aided by some bad choices made by Moi, teamed up with other parties and individuals like Raila Odinga who wanted to see Moi off, and soon they had almost the entire nation in their hands.
The strategy worked, and in December 2002, he was sworn in as the third president of the republic, helped to the helm by a revolutionary moment that had swept through the country as Moi neared the end of his tether.
He hit the road running despite having ridden to the top on a wheelchair. And, while he made an emotional appeal for a new Kenya during the swearing-in ceremony at Uhuru Park, it was his first Madaraka Day speech to the nation that has come to define the dynamics of his two terms at the helm.
“I wish to share with you my message for the future,” Kibaki thundered. “It is a simple message of a working nation. It is a nation based on hard work, justice and unity. The era of free things is over.”
That essentially meant it was time to repair and rebuild national systems and institutions that had either failed or stalled. Opening up the country got a new meaning when the Kibaki administration decided to work on the road networks within the country.
But it was not just roads he was interested in. During his inauguration address on December 30, 2002, Kibaki revisited one of the promises made by Narc during the campaigns: provision of free primary education for all children.
During a Cabinet meeting early January, 2003, a few days after the swearing-in, he reaffirmed his commitment to free primary education, but now to the people he was going to work with.
“Other things can wait, but not education,” he said. “We may not have enough money now, but we need to implement this programme. We made a promise and we must keep it…. Education is the empowerment tool that will transform our youth into competitive global citizens.”
With this statement, over Sh90 billion was allocated for the implementation of Free Primary Education, and from 2003 to 2012 the number of schools rose from 19,554 to 28,567. The student-text book ratio was at 1:10 in 2002 but now sits at 1:2.
The challenges of FPE notwithstanding, the government in 2008 launched a similar project aimed at secondary schools. FSE works more like a subsidy programme, where each of the students in public secondary school receives an allocation of Sh10,625 from the government to cater for tuition and learning materials.
Higher education also got its own goodies with 15 new universities being launched in the country over the last decade, and the number of enrolment into such institutions rising from 75,000 in 2002 to 252,554 in 2012.
But, even though he built roads, opened up the education sector and encouraged dialogue among the masses, Kibaki will perhaps be best remembered for his turnaround of the economy. He inherited a country on its knees after decades of mismanagement and under-investment and, even though many have said the only way Kenya could go was up, made that transformation fast and furious.
Under his rule, every single economic indicator you cared about rose. Even those you do not normally care about improved. As he leaves office, the stock market index has reached its highest point in four years. No one can quantify, though, how much of this was actually the president’s work and how much of it was global forces beyond his control that he co-opted. Markets everywhere tend towards liberalism.
Kibaki’s turning East for funding, growth of the microfinance sector, and increased self-reliance due to increased tax collection has been the basis of a new national chorus of self-determination, thumbing our noses at “colonialists” and fiscal prudence.
Under his watch more people got access to credit and this unlocked a lot of business opportunities. But poverty, somehow, has kept up and in some cases surpassed the economic growth. The gleaming citadels of iron and glass are sprouting up in Upper Hill, but the slums numbers are similarly increasing.
The forces of enterprise have been let off their leash on a free market, but so too has the scythe of inequality. With government spending firing the ignition key, the major economic pistons may be firing steadily, but the little cogs at the bottom are not moving fast enough. Wealth has not trickled down. Or rather, it has trickled down and not flooded downhill.
The economy is also cooling off and, after the fetishisation of growth figures, it begins to grate when you learn that Kenya’s growth levels are, at present, below the East African and African average.
The most visible aspect of the economic upturn is the property boom, even though it only seems to exacerbate the gap between those with decent housing and the majority without.
Kibaki the brilliant economist let off an economic big bang characterised by reduced regulation. Kenya performed well under his tutelage, but it did not perform exceptionally.
As for the Constitution, after passing it through, there have been a lot of disagreements regarding its implementation. We had the squabbles concerning the naming of the CJ, the unilateral re-appointment of Michael Gichangi as NSIS boss and the County Commissioners still in office despite being declared illegal. While he may have been very eager to pass the new Constitution, Kibaki seemed a reluctant follower of its precepts.
So, what’s next for the man from Othaya? His age is perhaps too advanced for him to serve internationally as an elder statesman, but you can count on him to have a say in the direction of our national politics.
Follow the discussion and tributes to Kibaki on www.nation.co.ke/dn2