Mugumo trees and the odd ambivalence of Kibaki

Saturday January 19 2013

As the term of Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki’s comes to an end, commentary on his presidency by analysts and political actors of all shades has been laudatory. They have praised him for rehabilitation of the economy left for dead by the Kanu kleptocracy.

Some have praised him for expansion and improvement of the road network. Others have praised him for the free primary education initiative.

Yet others have attributed the new Constitution to him. The consensus is that Kibaki has passed the test of transformative leadership with high marks.

At a personal level, Kibaki comes across as pleasant and amiable. As a political actor, however, I have always found him ponderous and conservative.

Still, I have to concede that the man — unlike his predecessors — knew, or at least had an idea of, what he wanted to do with power. So only the very cynical would deny that, over the past 10 years, there has been movement in the right direction. 

Yet, as analysts, we have to ask ourselves whether Kibaki’s presidency could not have been more transformative, more revolutionary. In other words, could we, to continue with the road metaphor, have gone farther in the right direction during the past decade?


For if we were to change the yardstick from “where we were” to “where we need to be,” then the Kibaki legacy is a mixed bag of successes, spectacular failures and missed opportunities. 

Apart from a few implementation hiccups, the free primary education can be rated a success by whatever yardstick. It brought about the enrolment of thousands of children who otherwise would have been consigned to life on the margins of society.

If the free schooling is extended to secondary school level, as is the intention, it would go a long way in alleviating the cyclical poverty in families and regional educational, and therefore wealth, inequalities. 

In relation to the new Constitution, Kibaki can be commended for campaigning tirelessly for its passage during the referendum.

Credit for the new Constitution, however, really belongs to the hundreds who lost their freedom and lives under Kanu while agitating for a new democratic order.

Kibaki, a long time Kanu stalwart, was the man who in 1982 proposed the motion in parliament that turned Kenya into a one-party police state.

He would later infamously mock democracy activists as having taken on the ludicrous task of trying to cut down a Mugumo (fig) tree with a razor blade.

Though it would later be proved that the democratic idea was stronger than a razor blade and Kanu was no Mugumo tree, Kibaki still gets credit for the imagery, that so thoroughly captured utter hopelessness. 

Even after the promulgation of the Constitution, many have faulted the president for making decisions and appointments that contradicted both the letter and/or spirit of the supreme law.

This ambivalence would seem to point to a man temperamentally and ideologically more at home with a “controlled democracy” rather than an unadulterated liberal democracy.

But for me, it is on the economic front — where, ironically, Kibaki has scored highly — that much more could have been accomplished.

True, a 7 per cent growth rate is not to be sniffed at, but if our yardstick is going to be “where we need to be,” then nothing less than double-digit growth will do. And there are many areas where growth is needed.

For instance, the Kibaki regime could have revolutionised agriculture, helping farmers not only to record higher yields, but also to market their produce more efficiently.

Through irrigation and introduction of modern livestock management methods, the semi-arid areas of the country could have been turned into a huge economic asset.

Mega-corruption could have been stopped, energy made cheaper, bureaucracy rationalised further, politicians’ pay halved and the savings used to improve police salaries, etc.

All this would have meant more money in the hands of people, a lower cost of doing business, a more attractive investment environment, a wider tax base, etc.

Perhaps the greatest failure of the Kibaki administration was the opportunity it missed to re-engineer a national culture consistent with the values spelt out or assumed by the new Constitution: A less tribalised nation, a less selfish society, a culture where people claim their rights as well as their responsibilities, a culture that does not tolerate mediocrity and excuses, etc.

So like my teachers at Tigoni Primary School used to write in my report card, Mwai Kibaki has done well, but there is still lots of room for improvement.

Tee Ngugi is a social and political commentator based in Nairobi