It is not often that one sees pure, unadulterated joy on the reserved mien that is President Kibaki. It is also not often that he is seen to throw body, heart and soul into any effort.
That is why it is so clear that the achievement of a new constitution represents something extremely special for the president towards the sunset of his leadership.
When at Uhuru Park on Friday he held aloft the document he had just signed into law, the sheer delight on his face told it all. He turned full circle to display the new constitution to all around him in the arena, an action eminiscent of the pure rhapsody seen when he held aloft the soccer World Cup trophy last year and seemed like he would not let go.
In coming out so strongly to campaign for the proposed constitution leading to the crowning glory on Friday, the President had played a high-stakes game.
This was despite the fact that, politically, he had much less riding on the outcome figures than others with an eye on the next elections such as Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka, Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and Higher Education minister William Ruto.
Famous, for avoiding confrontation, playing safe and waiting to see which way the wind blows, President Kibaki surprised friend and foe alike with the aggression he displayed in the late campaign blitz that tilted the tide decisively towards the ‘Yes’ campaign.
In coming out so strongly, he consciously ignored the entreaties of church leaders who were leading the ‘No’ camp,and spurred seemingly reluctant PNU allies such as Mr Musyoka and Mr Kenyatta to come out, too.
So what was in it for President Kibaki? Simply put, it was his legacy. The President came into his second and final term following the 2007 elections with a lifetime of public service tarred by a tainted mandate from the flawed elections and the violent aftermath that nearly sank Kenya down the path of civil war.
For the President, unlike politicians with an eye on State House, there was no direct political gain or loss, whichever way the referendum went. But it was even more directly personal, for it was about winning back a reputation gained in a near lifetime in politics.
Mwai Kibaki came into public life just before Independence in 1963 when he was enticed out of a teaching career at Makerere University to run Kanu headquarters as executive officer. He went on to capture the Doonholm (later Bahati, now Makadara) Parliamentary seat, and since then has been a constant feature in Kenyan leadership.
He is the only sitting MP to have been present at Independence. He rose steadily through the ranks in a distinguished career that took him from an assistant minister to a well-respected Finance minister under the Kenyatta government, and then the number two slot under President Daniel arap Moi from 1978 until 1988.
He remained in the Moi government as minister for Health even after being dropped as vice-president. That was the post he quit at the end of 1991 to go into the newly-minted Democratic Party with repeal of the law that made Kanu the sole legal political party.
When Mr Kibaki won the race to succeed Mr Moi in 2002, the third time after failed attempts in 1992 and 1997, it was just reward for patience, perseverance and moderation.
Mr Kibaki, the gentlemen of Kenya politics, had risen to the helm of the triumphant National Rainbow Coalition because, among all the other contenders, he was the least objectionable. In the effort to craft a united opposition to the Kanu juggernaut, he was easily the consensus candidate.
When Mr Raila Odinga led a stampede from Kanu in protest at outgoing President Moi’s handpicked nominee for Kanu presidential ticket Uhuru Kenyatta, all the key figures who walked out to form the LDP also wanted the presidency, including Prof George Saitoti and Mr Kalonzo Musyoka.
So did another former Minister, Simeon Nyachae, of Ford People. The long three-way negotiations between the LDP, Ford People and Mr Kibaki’s alliance seemed to be headed for a stalemate until Mr Odinga’s “Kibaki Tosha” declaration that took even those in the ex-Kanu grouping by surprise.
One thing Mr Odinga realised early on was that a divided opposition could play into Kanu’s hands as happened in 1997 and 2002.
Therefore, rather than going it alone, it would be preferable for LDP to join either the Kibaki or the rival Nyachae camp. In the long run, went the calculation, Mr Kibaki would be more amenable to sharing power, delegating responsibility and accommodating divergent views.
The LDP group, though, was bitterly disappointed not long after. Once President Kibaki was safely installed at State House, it became clear that he had no intention of honouring all the elements of the pre-election power sharing pact, knows as MoU (memorandum of understanding).
There was also nothing they could do about it because it was basically a gentleman’s agreement. The coalition broke up in rancour after the 2005 referendum, and it was a President Kibaki with a tainted reputation who went on to seek a second term in 2007.
The gentleman of Kenyan politics was seen to have reneged on the gentleman’s agreement that propelled him to power. He was also accused of having gone back on a pledge to serve only one term.
From the onset of the campaigns, it was clear that President Kibaki was fighting a rearguard action. While the economic gains of his presidency were widely acknowledged, he was also seen to have presided over during his troubled first term a system that sought to restore the Kenyatta-era Central Kenya hegemony.
Another weak point was the perception that he had winked at corruption by close allies — the Anglo Leasing scandals — despite the promise of zero-tolerance. Although the he managed to hold on to some of his allies, particularly from western Kenya, from the previous polls, it was no surprise that the 2007 elections shaped up as central Kenya versus the rest.
That was not a good position for a leader who always trumpeted his cosmopolitan and nationalist redentials. All the same, it was a tight fight too close to call, but the real tragedy was the way it was bungled by the Electoral Commission.
Then there was the ignominy of a president who first came to power thorough massive national adulation being reduced to a hurried swearing-in ceremony behind the gates of State House as the country went up in flames as the whiff of a stolen election erupted out of control.
While his hardliners wanted to hang tough and damn the consequences, probably it was President Kibaki’s concern that his legacy might be that of the leader who lost the country that pulled him to the negotiating table.
It might also have been his fortune that leading the team across the other side was the ‘defeated’ opposition presidential candidate, Raila Odinga, who, too, did not want blood on his hands and played a crucial role in calming down allies prepared to burn the country.
It was the moderating influences of both Mr Kibaki and Mr Odinga that resulted in chief mediator Kofi Annan roclaiming “we have a deal.”
On many occasion after Mr Odinga moved into office as Prime Minister as part of the accord, it seemed that things were falling apart. But the two principles held the coalition together, and after a shaky start marked by inter-party feuds and mutual suspicion, they built a solid working relationship.
That was the relationship that ultimately delivered the new constitution, a new dispensation in which one principal secures a lasting legacy as he prepares to ease away from power; and the other rejoices in the glow of victory that immeasurably enhances his own prospects for the top job.