When President Jomo Kenyatta died in 1978, Mwai Kibaki was his long-serving Minister for Finance. Once Vice President Daniel arap Moi took over and constituted his Cabinet in October the same year, he retained Kibaki in the Finance docket and elevated him to the vice presidency.
At the height of the ‘Change the Constitution’ clamour, Kibaki was solidly behind Attorney General Charles Njonjo in his support for Moi. To show his distaste for the group behind the move, he offered to challenge James Gichuru for the position of National Chairman of the ruling party KANU in the abortive 1977 national party elections.
Gichuru was, albeit passively, part of the group agitating for an amendment to the Constitution to bar Moi from automatically succeeding Kenyatta in the event of the President’s death. Kenyatta was ailing at the time.
In a profile of Kibaki, the Weekly Review of 12 August 1983 noted that his decision to oppose Gichuru was his first public alignment with Njonjo “in a political manner”. While Njonjo was a pushy, ambitious member of Government who did not shy away from flaunting his extensive powers, Kibaki was a self-effacing, suave politician whose ambitions rarely came to the fore.
However, in an interview with the news magazine at that time, Kibaki said his decision to face Gichuru had come from feelers from KANU officials in Nyeri District and other politicians across the country.
By mid-1979, however, the relationship between Kibaki and Njonjo had soured. In 1980 Njonjo resigned as Attorney General, contested and won the Kikuyu parliamentary seat. Moi retained Kibaki as his Vice President and named Njonjo Minister for Constitutional Affairs.
After the infamous mlolongo (queue) method of elections of 1988, Kibaki was appointed Minister for Health and Josephat Karanja replaced him as VP. Calls were made for Karanja to be elected unopposed as Vice President of KANU in subsequent party elections, and Kibaki announced that he would not defend the seat.
Kibaki appeared to take his ‘demotion’ in his stride, performing his ministerial duties with the same professionalism he had the vice presidency. The man who was routinely accused of ‘fence-sitting’ because of his non-confrontational brand of politics continued to be loyal to Moi.
But just days after the repeal of Section 2A of the Constitution allowing the return of multipartism, Kibaki resigned from Government and from KANU, and announced the formation of the Democratic Party (DP) in December 1991. He was its party leader and its presidential candidate.
Kibaki was elected Kenya’s third President in the December 2002 General Election with the support of politicians who had rebelled from KANU following the announcement that Uhuru Kenyatta would be the party’s flag-bearer. Following the Opposition defeats in the 1992 and 1997 elections, Kibaki and the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) — a marriage between the National Alliance Party of Kenya (NAK) and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) — won with 62 per cent of the vote in the 27 December polls. He was sworn in while seated in a wheelchair on 30 December 2002, following a car accident on the campaign trail.
He was re-elected a second and final five-year term in December 2012.
Born on 15 November 1931 in Othaya, Nyeri, Kibaki was expected to look after his father’s livestock as a young boy. But a brother-in-law influenced his father to enrol him in school, where he turned out to be an exceptionally bright student. He went to Gatuya-ini and Karima Mission schools, and thereafter attended Mathari School (now Nyeri High) between 1944 and 1946 for Standard Four to Six.
In addition to academic studies, he studied carpentry and masonry, as students were expected to repair furniture and maintain the school buildings. Like everyone else, he grew his own food in school. During the holidays he worked as a conductor for the Othaya African Bus Union to earn some pocket money. At the end of his primary school education, he performed exceptionally well and was admitted to Mangu High, the top Catholic school in the country, in 1947. He sat his final examinations in 1950 and passed with six points, the best possible grade.
Influenced by soldiers of the Second World War who had returned home in 1945, he considered becoming a soldier during his final year at Mangu. However, Colonial Secretary Walter Coutts barred the recruitment of the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru communities into the army. This put paid to Kibaki’s military ambitions.
He enrolled at Makerere University College, Uganda, and studied economics, history and political science, graduating as the top student in the faculty with a Bachelor of Arts (First Class Honours) degree in 1955. After graduation, he got a job as an assistant sales manager at the Uganda Division of Shell Company, East Africa. But he did not stay long; his excellent academic performance earned him a scholarship to the prestigious London School of Economics for postgraduate studies in public finance. He graduated with a distinction and returned to Makerere in 1958 as an assistant lecturer in the Economics Department. He taught until December 1960 when he returned to Kenya to take up a position as the first KANU Executive Officer.
In 1962 Kibaki was elected the Member of Parliament for Doonholm Constituency in Nairobi. It was later renamed Bahati and is now called Makadara.
A brilliant debater, Kibaki was appointed Assistant Minister for Finance and Chairman of the Economic Planning Commission in 1963. He played a key role in drafting the famous 1965 Sessional Paper on African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya.
He was promoted to become Minister for Commerce and Industry in 1966 and later Minister for Finance and Economic Planning in 1969. During his time in the Finance docket, the economy was well managed and grew steadily. When he was appointed to the ministry, he promised to put the economy on a sound footing so Kenyans could reap the fruits of independence.
He was re-elected in Bahati in the 1963 and 1969 elections. But pressure from the people of Othaya convinced him to move his political base from Nairobi in 1974. He was overwhelmingly elected and re-elected to Parliament in subsequent polls: 1979, 1983, 1988, 1992, 1997, 2002 and 2007.
Kibaki was highly respected in global economic and academic circles. World Bank President Robert MacNamara once described him as “one of the greatest economic brains to have emerged from Africa”. In 1974 Time magazine nominated him among the top 100 people in the world who had the potential to lead.
In his 50-year political career, Kibaki eschewed petty politics and controversy even during the one-party regime when mass condemnation of those perceived to be enemies of the State was the order of the day. He has been described as the gentleman of Kenyan politics even though his detractors interpreted his suave style to mean indifference.