The life and times of the late former President Mwai Kibaki

The life and times of the late former President Mwai Kibaki

The late former President Mwai Kibaki delivers his speech during the national celebrations to mark the 49th Jamhuri Day, the day when Kenya gained independence, at Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi December 12, 2012. REUTERS/Noor Khamis/File Photo

Former president Emilio Stanley Mwai Kibaki still stands as one of Kenya’s longest-serving Parliamentarians, and by the time of his retirement from State House in 2013, he had clocked 50 years in the August house.

Within that time he had served as a Member of Parliament, Minister, Vice President, leader of government business, leader of official opposition and President.

No one could imagine that this last-born son of peasant farmers would rise to such prominence both politically and academically in post-independence Kenya. This is where his story began.

Kibaki was born on November 15, 1931; the youngest of eight children from a family of subsistence farmers living in Gatuyaini, Nyeri.

His intelligence and aptitude for learning stood out from a young age and in 1947 he qualified to study at the prestigious Mangu High School in Kiambu County. His star continued to rise in academic circles after he was awarded a scholarship to Uganda’s renowned Makerere University in 1951 where he pursued a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics, History and Political Science.

He graduated four years later with First Class honors. Whilst there, he also served as the Vice Chairman of the Makerere students guild between 1954 and 1955. Mwai Kibaki then received a scholarship to study at the London School of Economics from 1955 to 1958 where he excelled in Economics and Public Finance, graduating with distinction.

Upon his return to East Africa, Kibaki then served his alma mater, Makerere University, as an assistant lecturer in the Department of Economics from 1958 to 1960.

In 1960, Kibaki left Makerere University and joined the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party as he sought greater impact in national politics. After Kenya gained independence in 1963, he won a seat in the National Assembly for Donholm constituency, now Makadara, in Nairobi county.

His political career went a notch higher in 1965 when he was appointed Minister of Commerce and Industry and he later served as the Minister of Finance between 1969 and 1982. His economics background had prepared him to navigate this complex docket.

Kibaki was appointed Vice President when Daniel arap Moi rose to the presidency upon the death of Jomo Kenyatta in 1978.

In Moi’s cabinet, he was initially entrusted with the finance portfolio, but Kibaki increasingly found himself at odds with then president Daniel arap Moi, and in 1988 he was replaced as the Vice President by Josephat Karanja and transferred to the Ministry of Health; no reason was given for his dismissal.

During this time, civil unrest was increasing among people, and fierce opposition to Moi's oppressive policies forced a repeal of the constitutional act that had installed a one-party rule for KANU.

Kenya was now a multi-party State and this change enabled the introduction of two term limits to the presidency.

With the law now allowing more than one party on the political scene, Kibaki resigned his membership in KANU in 1991 to form the Democratic Party; in 1992 and 1997, he challenged incumbent president Moi at the ballot and both times he lost.

In 1998, he became the official head of the opposition. By this time, it was clear that Moi would constitutionally not be able to vie for another term and Kenya would have a new president from the year 2003.

In September 2002, Kibaki joined a group of notable politicians including Raila Odinga, Charity Ngilu and Michael Wamalwa in forming the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), a multiparty alliance that nominated Kibaki as its presidential candidate.

A few weeks before the election, Kibaki was involved in a car accident and suffered serious injuries. Although he was confined to a wheelchair, he continued his campaign and easily defeated Moi’s chosen successor, Uhuru Kenyatta.

In Parliamentary elections, NARC routed the ruling KANU which had dominated Kenya since the country’s independence. After 24 years, Kenya had a new leader.

President Mwai Kibaki and his team moved with haste to begin to implement some of the election pledges they had made including reviving the economy and tackling rampant corruption, especially in the public service.

But talking about what you would do and implementing them were two completely different matters especially when transitions were still underway.

Significant economic changes were implemented by Kibaki during his first term as president, however, the endemic corruption that he had promised to fight during his election campaign remained rampant.

Although he established anti-corruption courts, his attempts to pass anti-corruption bills were largely unsuccessful. Kibaki’s government also suffered from power struggles among the ruling coalition’s various constituent parties.

This tension increased as lawmakers struggled to draft a new Constitution, which Kibaki had promised during his campaign.

Disagreements concerning reforms, especially the creation of a Prime Ministership, further divided NARC and delayed enactment of a new Constitution, leading to public unrest.

Mega corruption reared its ugly head in 2005 with members of Kibaki’s administration implicated in the Ksh.50 billion scandal where 18 security-related contracts were awarded to companies that did not render services or deliver goods paid for.

A new constitution, backed by Kibaki, was finally put to referendum in November 2005, but it was rejected by voters; the rejection was viewed by many as a public indictment of Kibaki’s administration.

Before the dust had settled on that referendum loss, Kibaki was confronted by the reality of an election loss in the upcoming 2007 election. He quickly formed a new coalition, the Party of National Unity (PNU) with his strongest challenger being the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) led by Raila Odinga and his Pentagon.

After a delay in the release of the final election results, Kibaki was declared the winner in controversial circumstances, narrowly defeating Raila Odinga of ODM.

Odinga and his allies immediately disputed the outcome, with international observers questioning the validity of the final results.

Widespread protests ensued throughout the country and degenerated into horrific acts of violence which eventually led to the loss of life of more than 1,000 people and more than 600,000 were displaced in the election’s violent aftermath.

Frantic efforts to resolve the political impasse between Kibaki and Odinga were not immediately successful exacerbating the situation.

The late former U.N Secretary General Kofi Annan arrived in Kenya about a month after the election and successfully brought the two sides to the negotiating table.

On February 28, 2008, Kibaki and Odinga signed a power-sharing agreement called the National Accord and Reconciliation Act 2008, which established the office of the Prime Minister and created a coalition government. 

Two years later, a new Constitution was approved by 67% of Kenyan voters and promulgated on the 27th of August 2010.

Kibaki served the remainder of his term balancing the complexities of a coalition government with the pressure of solidifying his legacy after a hectic 10-year rule. The former president is credited with establishing free primary education, revamping the country’s infrastructure, investment in the criminal justice system, spurring a real estate boom and increasing the immunisation coverage for children against several diseases.

On April 6, 2013, Kibaki handed over to President-elect Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto at the Moi International Sports Centre Kasarani. At that time, the Kenyan economy was growing at 7.1% with national debt under Ksh.2 trillion.

President Kibaki was married to Lucy Muthoni from 1961 until her death in 2016 at the age of 80 years.  They had four children; namely Judy Wanjiku, Jimmy Kibaki, David Kagai, and Tony Githinji and numerous grandchildren. 

In 2004, there were media reports that Kibaki has a second spouse, whom he allegedly married under customary law; Mary Wambui, and a daughter, Wangui Mwai. 

State House in response released an unsigned statement that Kibaki's only immediate family at the time was his then wife, Lucy, and their four children.

Kibaki and his family kept a low profile after 2013 with Kibaki giving his maiden public lecture in December at the University of Nairobi.

After that not much was seen of the former president who would make rare public appearances at funerals and State functions.

On August 21, 2016, Kibaki was taken to Karen Hospital for treatment, and later flown to South Africa for specialized treatment.

In June 2020, Kibaki’s private secretary Ngari Gituku told the media that Kibaki would have regular check-ups at the Nairobi Hospital but, contrary to some media reports, the former president had not been admitted.

President Uhuru Kenyatta officially announced Mwai Kibaki's death on Friday in a televised address at State House, Nairobi. The retired President was aged 91.


President Mwai Kibaki Lucy Kibaki

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