Mwai Kibaki, the man who embodied the tragedy of Kenya | Opinions
Predictably, the death of Mwai Kibaki, Kenya’s third president, has drawn much comment. There were the usual hagiographical tributes from politicians and journalists, touting him as “the gentleman of Kenyan politics”, praising his stewardship of the country’s economy as finance minister and president, as well as his supposed integrity. But, and this is quite rare, the coverage has not been extremely sickening. Among the gushing memorials were other important pieces exposing his record of cowardice, deceit and betrayal, his lust for power that nearly destroyed the country, and his personal enrichment and tolerance for corruption.
For me, Mwai Kibaki embodied the tragedy of Kenya. There is no doubt that his genius is a man from humble beginnings, who excelled in school and became one of the most influential and promising Africans of his generation. But in the end, he was unable to extricate himself and confront the colonial system that had opened doors for him but closed them to so many of his compatriots.
“Will the elite, who inherited power from the colonialists, use that power to bring about the necessary social and economic changes, or will they succumb to the lure of wealth, comfort and status and become thus a part of the old establishment?” he asked in 1964, months after Kenya had gained independence from Britain. Kibaki, who was in government from the very beginning, as Permanent Secretary of the Treasury, and eventually as Minister of Finance, was one of those elites, and as history shows, they settled happily into the colonial state and continued its theft and brutal ways.
With Kibaki at the helm of the economy between 1969 and 1982, Kenya experienced an initial period of relative prosperity. However, the luster quickly dissipated with the fall in growth, which at least one study has blamed on the “oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 compounded by poor macroeconomic management, breaking the tradition of fiscal responsibility and monetary policy cautious approach followed during the first years of independence”. ”.
All the while, the Kenyan elite has been indulging in a wave of self-enrichment. Among them, Kibaki clearly “succumbed to the lure of wealth, comfort and status” and was happy to serve in the oppressive and kleptocratic administrations of his predecessors, Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi. Although he spent most of his working life in public service, he died one of the wealthiest men in the country. And even as he left office in 2013, he crafted an exorbitant and immoral “retirement package” for himself, forcing Kenyans to shell out $2.5 million in gratuities on top of tens of thousands more in monthly pension payments and benefits later declared unconstitutional.
Although he showed flashes of courage, such as when he distinguished himself by being the only cabinet minister to attend the funeral of JM Kariuki, a populist politician whom the Jomo Kenyatta regime assassinated in 1975, during a much of his career, he was said to have never seen a fence he didn’t want to sit on. He had the dubious honor of proposing the 1982 constitutional amendment that made Kenya legally a one-party state. Undoing this would become the focus of political reform efforts later in the decade, which Kibaki would ridicule by trying to chop down a tree with a razor blade. But once these efforts were successful in 1991, he was among the first to join in, abandoning the ruling party, KANU, to form his own party.
In 2002, he again benefited from reform efforts when he was overwhelmingly elected president, with an overwhelming mandate to overthrow the colonial system and the corruption it breeds. Instead, he bastardized the constitutional review process, leading Kenyans to vote him down in a referendum in 2005. He presided over an orgy of corrupt looting that, in 2004, was describe by the UK Ambassador as a gluttonous meal. At the end of his first term, he was happy to tear up the “gentleman’s agreement” that five years earlier had allowed opposition parties to appoint members of the electoral commission, paving the way for his 2002 victory. This set the stage for the disputed 2007 elections, which many, including me, believe he stole, and the ensuing violence that left at least 1,300 dead, displaced hundreds of thousands and brought the country on the verge of anarchy. Many of those deaths were at the hands of police he controlled and a murderous gang that the International Criminal Court prosecutor claims had met him at State House.
Kenyans tend to regard the Kibaki years with rose-colored glasses as a kind of economic “golden age” and, despite all the theft and criminality of his regime, Kibaki himself as competent and exceptional. I have my doubts. When you collect the intermediate economy; gluttonous eating; the numerous scandals and state violence, including attacks on the press; and the weakening of the constitution, his tenure really doesn’t seem very exceptional.
In the end, he proved to be true to the system that made him. It is the same system that made Kenya and from which the country has been trying for 60 years to extricate itself. Comes the hour, comes the man, says the proverb. Unfortunately, when Kenya’s time came, Kibaki turned out not to be the man.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.