Striking a relaxed, confident, even light-hearted pose, President Kibaki used his first in-depth media interview to urge Kenyan voters to come to the right side of history and endorse the new constitution.
“I have been overwhelmed by Kenyans’ reaction as we went around the country in recent weeks,” he said. “In the next few days, we will work hard to make sure that those opposing it over one or two little things change their minds and support us.”
Mr Kibaki addressed a broad range of issues, including a review of his first term, an assessment of his achievements and missteps and an appraisal of the challenges that lie ahead in the remaining years of his final term in office.
But the constitution was the main item on his agenda as he explained why he has been a robust advocate of the document in an aggressive style that has caught both friend and foe off balance.
“A new constitution is not about Mwai Kibaki,” he said. “By 2012, I will have done my bit for this great Republic of Kenya. The new constitution is about the future. When I read the (proposed) constitution, I am confident that it will take our country to that future that the Kenyan people envision. A future of great economic prosperity, greater social equity and political stability. We want a country at peace with itself and enjoying great respect among the family of nations.”
Mr Kibaki said the next few days would be focused on drumming up turnout and making sure the margin of victory for the ‘Yes’ side is convincing.
He said he had decided to adopt a more forceful approach to the constitutional debate because he views the enactment of a new body of laws as key to stability and progress.
In contrast to the old Kibaki who often spoke in general terms and was rarely drawn on specifics, the President displayed an intimate knowledge of the ‘Yes’ campaign strategy on Saturday.
He outlined the areas on which the team was focusing and said he was satisfied by the outcome of campaign rallies in Kisii on Friday where regional political heavyweight Simeon Nyachae made a strong pitch for a ‘Yes’ vote.
He said teams had been sent to Rift Valley Province and some parts of Meru North, where he said they had heard the terrain was “slightly hostile”.
He said: “We are very pleased by the way things are going. There is absolutely no doubt the people will vote ‘Yes’. What we are working on now is making sure the margin of victory is large.”
In many ways, the Kibaki that came across in the 10 a.m. interview at his surprisingly small Harambee House office is one that is familiar to many Kenyans.
He peppered his aides with jokes, defying their attempts to make him strike a particular pose for pictures.
“Wachana na hiyo mambo yako,” he said when asked to button up his coat before the photo was taken. “Hakuna haja ya hiyo. Sisi watu wa zamani hatufungi koti. Hiyo ni mambo ya siku hizi.” (We older people don’t button up our coats; that is a recent fad).
Mr Kibaki appeared more energetic and sprightly than he did in the early years of his first term when he occasionally seemed uncertain and hesitant.
He was quick to answer all the questions posed to him and engaged in a frank examination of his first term, which was marked by strong economic growth but ended on a sour note after the General Election was followed by a prolonged period of violence. He offered an analysis of what led to the bloodshed and said lessons must be learnt to prevent a recurrence.
“The post-election crisis was a dark blot in our nation’s history. It was disheartening to see Kenyans who had lived side by side for decades being subjected to horrendous acts in what shall always be a tragic chapter in Kenya’s history. I must say that it was unfortunate and highly regrettable that Kenyans were subjected to one of the longest campaign periods in our history ahead of the 2007 elections.
“You will recall that soon after the 2005 referendum, the country was placed in a campaign mode. The long campaigns became extremely divisive and balkanising. One of my wishes is that Kenya can actually legislate on how long campaign periods should be and proper mechanisms be put in place to deal with those who flout this.
“Long campaigns get personal, but shorter campaigns enable the electorate and candidates to engage in deeper and meaningful debate. We lost over one thousand lives. All those were precious lives of Kenyan men and women.”
Mr Kibaki was more upbeat while discussing the achievements in his first term. He said the infrastructure projects that had been implemented would lead to greater economic growth in future.
“A growing economy has made it possible for government to collect more taxes without raising the individual tax burden. This has enabled us to have money to finance the most ambitious infrastructure programme in our nation’s history. But, as a former educationist, I must say that smiling children enjoying our free primary education gives me an extra sense of pride. We must, however, grow the economy further so as to absorb the many young people in the job market and many more who are joining the market every year.”
Mr Kibaki characterised his relationship with coalition partners Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka as a good one, saying initial challenges were to be expected considering how closely contested the last election was.
He said the reform process was on track and promised further reforms of the Judiciary and electoral system.
He said funds would be channelled to institution-building to tackle problems such as the huge backlog of cases in the courts once the new constitution is in place. Some of the changes would be the introduction of small claims courts and traffic courts that can swiftly deal with petty cases.
“The police reforms are also under way with implementation of the Ransley Report. In my 2002 election campaigns I promised better remuneration for the police. We intend to fulfil this promise, and the process is under way,” he said.
His views of the current round of the review yielded a dual answer on whether he sees its successful conclusion as representing potentially the most enduring achievement of his time in office.
He said the constitution is too important to be linked to a man’s legacy, although he conceded that he would be overjoyed to sign into law a new constitutional order.
“I will be happy and proud if Kenyans give it their full support. I am confident that history will judge us well as the people who enacted a new constitution.”
Mr Kibaki struck a statesmanlike pose while discussing the post-referendum period. He urged both sides not to overreact and warned against triumphalism. But he said the losing team would have the biggest challenge in avoiding strife.
“It is human nature. Those who feel the referendum has not gone the way they wanted will obviously need some time to cool down. But ultimately, we must move on as one nation,” he said, while urging Kenyans to focus on nation-building rather than politics in the two years before the next elections.
“We must also entrench a mind-set that an electoral contest has winners and losers. Winners must learn to embrace victory with humility, while losers should accept defeat honourably, that way democracy becomes entrenched.”
Mr Kibaki ended the interview with a trademark response to the final question. Why hadn’t he granted media interviews before?
“We have never refused. Why didn’t you ask before?” he said, adding “seeking publicity has never been my style.”