Kibaki put Kenya on the right track but his foot wasn’t hard on the pedal
When a senior official dies in Kenya, the bureaucracy begins to deify the deceased. The man becomes a demigod who has dedicated his entire life to uplifting the poor. He hated corruption. Every shilling of his vast wealth was honestly acquired. Above all, he was a patriot who had no tribal bones in his body.
It’s a fantastic story. And yet, because we are a country easily seduced by myths like how people made their fortunes selling roadside chicken, these fantastic tales become our history.
Mwai Kibaki, the late Kenyan former president, was undoubtedly a brilliant mind. When we listen to his improvised speeches in the 1960s, we are amazed by his brilliance and his eloquence. He was able not only to clearly explain the problems facing the young country but also the political interventions of the government.
Today we hear politicians talk about debt in tired economic jargon. Kibaki grounded his arguments in economic theory, not dogmatically, but creatively to meet Kenya’s particular needs. If he and the late Tom Mboya had not joined politics and instead devoted themselves to finding economic solutions for Africa, we would have long since had a Nobel Prize-worthy plan for the continent’s economic renaissance.
Politics reduces brilliant minds to mediocrity and corrupts the integrity of honest people. This is because thieving systems and their operators hate honest and brilliant minds.
Thus, as Vice President under Daniel arap Moi, it was difficult to distinguish Mwai Kibaki from other sycophants singing like parrots as the President demanded. When the Moi regime banned democracy, Kibaki was euphoric about how quickly the bill making Kenya a de jure one-party state passed through parliament. Later, when the push for democracy began, Kibaki taunted democracy activists saying that trying to bring down Kanu’s ruling regime was like trying to cut down “a Mugumo tree with a razor blade”. .
It was only when the push towards democracy was irreversible that he abandoned the dictatorship he had served for so long. But, even then, instead of associating with others like Jaramogi Odinga, who had suffered greatly in the struggle for human rights, he formed his own party. Desperate pleas for him not to split opposition votes fell on deaf ears. So Moi won the presidency by a minority vote count.
It is true that Kibaki as president saved the country from a rabid and rapacious dictatorship. He renewed dead institutions. He freed the economy from the grip of cartels in government. Tax revenues have more than tripled. He tried, without much success, to fight against corruption. He introduced free primary education. The economy, in a coma under Moi, grew by seven percent. Unlike his predecessor, he facilitated the constitutional debate, which culminated in the 2010 constitution. No doubt Kibaki, as president, put the derailed train back on track. But he failed to press the accelerator at full throttle.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator