Kibaki was East Africa’s ‘good thief in the night’

Saturday April 30 2022
Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki during the celebration of Kenya's 40th Independence Day at Nyayo Stadium in Nairobi on December 12, 2003. PHOTO | AFP

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Emilio Stanley Mwai Kibaki, Kenya’s third president from December 2002 until April 2013, died on April 21. He was 90. And with that, the exit of easily East Africa’s most enigmatic leader.

Warts and all, and an administration that had its fair share of corruption scandals, Kibaki nevertheless was the most reformist and game-changing Kenyan leader of the past 60 years.

He got an economy that had all but collapsed, growing at 0.6 per cent, and he left with growth at 7.1 per cent and the most exciting technology market in Africa. Access to financial services, for example, expanded twentyfold over 10 years, and his government splashed on infrastructure like it was going out of fashion.

In 10 years, he masterminded the most dramatic economic turnaround any African leader has ever managed in a contentious and fractured democratic context. Yet, it wasn’t only in Kenya that he left an imprint. He was also one of the most significant East African leaders. The unique thing about that is that he didn’t look the part. Consider what happened in early 2005. Rwandan economist and former Finance minister Dr Donald Kaberuka was elected president of the African Development Bank (AfDB), going on to serve until 2015.

I was an Executive Editor at Nation Media Group at the time and spoke to Dr Kaberuka shortly after his election. He told me in a light-hearted tone that he had been “President Kibaki’s candidate,” and that partly accounted for his victory. Puzzled, I asked what he meant.

“Seriously, I was nominated by Kenya, not Rwanda,” he said.


Rwanda at that time, and still today, tended to trigger too many people. A Kenyan nomination of Kaberuka was diplomatic subterfuge by Nairobi and Kigali. Yet, for Kibaki, there was also cold beans-and-ugali calculation in backing Kaberuka. Some of the “economic miracle” with which Kibaki was to be credited was made possible partly by funding by the AfDB. The lion’s share of the funding for one of the jewels of the Kibaki era, the Thika Highway, was ponied up by the AfDB.

Kibaki was then just into his second year as Kenya’s president. He was viewed by some as not being on top of things, not having fully recovered from his near-fatal road accident in December 2002, days ahead of the election that was to make him Kenya’s and the old East African Community’s first opposition leader to beat an incumbent party at a democratic election.

In July 2003, Kibaki landed in Uganda on an official visit. The red carpet was laid out, and the gun salute fired up. Uganda is a country that has been raised on a staple of visiting African leaders with rhetorical flair: Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings, and Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara (all of them now departed). Some strong anti-imperialist and spicy pan-African slogans, a dramatic waving of the arms, and wagging of the finger was always expected.

Kibaki’s performance, by contrast, was underwhelming. He mumbled mostly technocratic phrases and talked about money, development and the East African Community. He didn’t clench the fist and bang the pulpit. He was considered lifeless, and some said he was obviously still unwell. Even his personal security was considered unimpressive; they weren’t menacing and didn’t carry big guns.

That image of Kibaki as a lacklustre figure, who was away with the fairies, endured to the last days of his presidency. However, it was a signature of the “below the radar” approach of his presidency. Thus Kibaki’s fronting of Kaberuka never made the news and remained an obscure fact of pan-African horse-trading. Yet, he — or Kenya for that matter — cashed in.

But was Kibaki really as absent-minded, bumbling, and hands-off as popular perception had it, or was there a method to it? Was there a reason he didn’t climb the mountain to declare his role in diplomatic manoeuvres like fronting Kaberuka and claim the glory?

Some of the best answers came at the end of 2007, after the election fiasco, and the deadly violence, the worst in Kenya’s post-independence, that followed. That event was to stain Kibaki’s reputation more than all the stumbles of his administration. The December 2007 vote was botched badly, and there were many signs that it had been stolen. The late-night frenzied swearing-in of Kibaki was quite undignified too.

The remarkable thing is that while many thought the election was flawed, no one ever directly accused Kibaki of orchestrating the theft – sitting in a warroom and directing ballot stuffing and ordering opposition votes to disappear, as some of his more committed peers who take rigging and power seriously do. From the outside, even that controversial swearing-in, looked like an event into which he was shepherded after they had lied to him that it was going to be a barbecue. Absent Kibaki seemed a cunning act that made it hard to blame him directly for the cock-ups. It was a method that allowed him to keep the blood off his hands.

His government also offered Kenya its ten most freedom-filled years, punctuated by the odd cracking of a journalist’s skull here and there, the bludgeoning of a noisy civil society activist, and the turning off TV transmission. 

On the whole, it was party time. And, in typical Kenyan fashion, even his disgruntled ministers would mouth off in the media, with few consequences.

His close aides were later to reveal that Kibaki was not a conviction free speech devotee. He enabled the freedom for strictly utilitarian reasons; it allowed many of his potential and real rivals to expose themselves and reduced surprises. Freedom was, ultimately, a tool of control.

In this environment, many were caught by surprise that seemingly unthreatening Kibaki sent Kenyan troops into Somalia in October 2011 to pursue Al-Shabaab, following a string of terror attacks in Kenya. Al-Shabaab too had probably banked on him not doing so, handing Kenya the advantage of surprise when it made a beeline for Kismayu. The reverberations, and the heightened crisis around the vast refugee camps that followed, sent many delegations to State House.

I spoke to some members of one such high-powered international delegation that came to Kenya to meet Kibaki ahead of their meeting. They had planned and strategised. There was a need to keep the meeting short, and not ramble because Kibaki was likely to fall asleep. He didn’t fall asleep, but he didn’t talk much either, beyond occasionally asking his ministers and officials to speak. The surprise came at the end when he sprang to life and offered a summary of the meeting and the action points agreed upon. The visitors were stunned. He asked if everyone was in concert and that they were an accurate representation of the proceedings. Everyone agreed that they were and the meeting ended.

I had dinner with them later that day. They were still dazed. “What a surprise!” one of them said, “Was that the sleepy Kibaki in that meeting or a body double? He was absolutely brilliant.”

Remember that supposedly underwhelming performance in Uganda? It was the springboard for a major expansion of Kenyan businesses, especially banks, in East Africa. Not too long after, talk started about uniting East African stock exchanges, and Kenyan companies began cross-listing on the Ugandan and Tanzania stock exchanges.

Uganda and Rwanda, once allies, had fallen out and fought a brief but bitter war in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in 2000 after they had initially backed the ouster of the corrupt strongman Mobutu Sese Seko there in 1997. The split between Kampala and Kigali that was later to widen into a gulf had started in earnest.

The Burundi civil war was still raging, and Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda had become entangled in it. Jakaya Kikwete, Tanzania President Benjamin Mkapa’s Foreign minister from 1995 to 2005, had wrestled diplomatically to resolve it and reportedly felt frustrated that Kigali wouldn’t yield to his view of a settlement. In 2005, Kikwete was elected president. At about the same time, Rwanda started its quest to join the East African Community. The old EAC had two leaders in Museveni and Kikwete, who viewed Rwanda as pesky, and there was early uncertainty how its entry into the bloc would be shepherded. The climb would have been high – except that Kibaki was president in Kenya.

In June 2007 Rwanda and Burundi were admitted. Without Kibaki, it would have taken longer.

A year after, Rwanda, with an eye on winning quick regional credentials, removed permits for professionals from the EAC wishing to work in the country. A year later, the Kibaki government did the same for Rwandans and followed sometime later with the removal of work permits for the rest of East Africans – who didn’t reciprocate for quite a while.

Eschewing drama and chest-thumping enabled Kibaki to push significant milestones in regional integration, by stealth. But it all added up. In all this, Kibaki never uttered the word “pan-African,” perhaps thinking it was facile adornment.  He was the last of the great Makerere College (University) generation: proud, brilliant men who came to public life with a strong sense of destiny and an aristocratic air.  The year he ascended to office, the East African stars aligned in a strange way – four East African presidents had either studied or grown up in another EAC country.

In Rwanda President Kagame had been in power for two years. He had gone to Uganda as a refugee, went to school there, and fought in the war that brought Museveni to power in 1986.  Benjamin Mkapa was president in Tanzania. Like Kibaki, he had gone to Makerere. Museveni was president in Uganda. He had gone to university in Dar es Salaam, lived in exile in Tanzania (and Kenya), and he and other exiles started the war that ousted military dictator Idi Amin from power in 1979 there.

Kibaki was the one who walked most softly of them all but left a footprint many times bigger than the noise he made.

If East Africa ever had a good thief in the night, then Kibaki was it.