Mwai was the last born son of peasant farmers in Othaya, Gatoyaini village and his father was called Kibaki Githinji and his mother Teresia Wanjiku. Both are long deceased.
It is instructive that on taking over the presidency, the very first thing Kibaki did was to declare free primary school education to all even when the government did not know how it was all going to be financed. It was not like Kibaki a world renowned economist to make such a reckless move.
Mwai Kibaki: Kenyans still don't really know him.
In an ABC Prime Time TV interview in the US in 2004 former US President Bill Clinton identified Kibaki as the one living person he would most like to meet “because of the Kenyan government’s decision to abolish school fees for primary education”. Clinton added that, by providing free and compulsory primary education, what Kibaki had done would affect more lives than any president had done or would ever do by the end of the first year. The free education programme saw nearly 1.7 million more pupils enrol in school by the end of that year. Clinton’s wish was granted when he visited Kenya and met Kibaki on 22nd July 2005.
But to those who knew Kibaki a little better, it is no surprise that education would be so close to the president’s heart. After all a decision to take him to school so many years earlier had made the whole difference. In deed if there was ever a person for whom it would be said that education had opened all political doors for them, then Mwai Kibaki has to be at the top of that list.
For starters Kanu fetched him from Makerere University, Uganda for him to be Kenya’s first executive officer because it was felt that the Kanu leadership lacked enough depth due to the poor educational background of most. Even Tom Mboya, the most brilliant politician Kenya has seen, did not have a university degree. After independence in 1963 Kibaki quickly found himself at the heart of the country’s financial and economic planning. A parliamentary seat was found for him and won for him by Mboya (this was for Donholm Constituency, subsequently called Bahati and now known as Makadara, in Nairobi) and he was quickly appointed assistant minister and chairman of the powerful Economic Planning Commission in 1963 before he was even 32 years old. He was in the cabinet a short three years later as Minister of commerce and industry and in 1969 became the powerful Finance minister. By any standards this was a very rapid climb. All these doors were opened by his solid educational credentials which were rare in those days and badly required by the young Kenyan nation.
Kibaki himself recognizes this and greatly values educational credentials as we have already seen.
However the down side of this rapid climb which many have still not seen is that Kibaki never had the chance to cut his teeth properly as a bare knuckled politician. This glaring weakness was to show itself many years later when he climbed to the very top of Kenyan politics and became president. It is true to say that of all the three Kenyan presidents, Kibaki was the least qualified as a politician to hold the office.
In many ways this explains the way he has always ended up in the kind of troubles that a more savvy politician would easily have avoided. It also explains why Kibaki has always been the reluctant politician terrified of mudding himself in the normal political mud wrestling that goes with the trade. In fact many times he has gone to great lengths to avoid the “politics”. Odd for a man who has been a politician for so long.
Fascinatingly this characteristic served him very well in two important stepping stones to the presidency.
The first was as Daniel arap Moi’s vice president (1978 to 1988). It is important to note that Moi had greatly preferred Jeremiah Nyagah and was determined to appoint him as his Vice president on taking over power in August 1978 from Jomo Kenyatta. But Charles Njonjo, then the AG and whom we have seen held Moi’s hand through his first uneasy steps as president, advised him to appoint Kibaki instead. And Njonjo knew the right arguments to use to convince Moi. He knew that Moi was terrified of the Kikuyu as a political threat and Njonjo told him, Kibaki would be the perfect “window dressing” for Kikuyus to feel that nothing had changed much for them even after the death of Jomo.
Kibaki settled into the Vice presidency and literally “disappeared.” Which meant that there was absolutely no possibility of him ever overshadowing Moi? In those early years Kibaki concentrated on his Finance docket and visitors to Kenya would have found it hard to guess that he was actually also the Vice president.
The second time his hatred of bare-knuckle politics helped him out was as leader of the official opposition in 1998. Kibaki became leader of the opposition by virtue of his DP (Democratic Party of Kenya) political party being the opposition party with most seats in parliament. Most DP legislators hailed from the Kikuyu tribe who are usually loud and controversial in their politics by nature. Kibaki’s quite, sober character that avoided petty politics at all costs gave the party a much better image than it deserved and raised Kibaki’s profile immensely as a voice of reason in the usually radical opposition. This served him considerably well and later helped Kenyans across the political divide quickly warm to him as the opposition candidate in 2002. This was in itself amazing because before Kibaki took the helm the country had been served by only two presidents and one of them had been Kikuyu. And therefore it stood to reason that the third president should NOT be a Kikuyu. More blunt Kenyans would have told you that they had already had their turn to eat. This is one of the reasons why Moi was so sure of himself in selecting Uhuru Kenyatta as the Kanu candidate because he was certain that the opposition candidate would not be a Kikuyu and he would therefore have a huge advantage and an easy win in fronting Uhuru for the presidency. No serious presidential candidate in Kenya can ever afford to ignore the sheer numbers of the Kikuyu community.
But in retrospect Kenyans now know that they elected a man that they hardly knew to be their third president. And yet many mistakenly felt that they knew him well enough because he had been in politics for so long. Nobody wanted to remember that he was the longest serving non-politician in Kenyan politics and that the country would pay a very high price mainly because of this fact.
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