Kibaki vs Uhuru: From a fiscal conservative to ‘a military fan’

Former president Mwai Kibaki and successor Uhuru Kenyatta

Kenya's fourth president Uhuru Kenyatta (right) receives a sword as a symbol of authority from his predecessor Mwai Kibaki on April 9, 2013.

Photo credit: File | AFP

This time next week, contenders in Kenya’s August 9 elections will either be celebrating, crying in their porridge bowls, or assembling a team of lawyers to challenge the result in court. Either way, a vote will have been had.

If you consider that the modern democratic era in Kenya started with the return to a competitive multiparty system, this will be the third time a president’s two terms ended with a leader from a different party coming to power. We know politics and governance change with each new leader and party; a multiparty era Daniel arap Moi was exhausted and a little chastened by the onslaught of the democracy brigades.

There was a feeding frenzy, most notorious being the Goldenberg scandal, as people in this court sensed that the end might be near. A reluctant reformist, in his last years, the country relapsed into lethargy.

Mwai Kibaki’s era was marked by his plonk policy wonkishness and fiscal conservatism. He brought the country back from the edge of the grave’s mouth, gave it a leash of unprecedented freedom with the occasional hammer on the head, nearly lost it in the post-election violence of 2007/2008, lavished it with infrastructure, the boys and girls ate some of the goodies, but finished very strongly. He was the unlikely superintendent of a technological and innovation boom.

Made the capital look good

President Uhuru Kenyatta came to office with the International Criminal Court case against him, and his deputy William Ruto perched like a giant monkey on their backs. He was deflated when in 2017, the Supreme Court made history and nullified his victory. There are many places where the judges would have been rounded up and disappeared. They weren’t. They lived to hand him a few more black eyes in the courts.

The feeding frenzy close to that of the Moi era plagued his administration. And his last years were hobbled by the Covid-19 pandemic and the blow-back from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

His bid to remake the state through what he billed as a more efficient, less corrupt securocracy running state agencies faced fierce opposition, but he largely prevailed. Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) Director- General Maj-Gen Mohamed Badi has done the near-impossible—made the capital look good. The soldiers have done good things with the Kenya Meat Commission.

A few brilliant goals

For the problems he faced and the sticks he received, he still came out from under the scram and scored quite a few brilliant goals. He perhaps presided over the largest infrastructure expansion in Kenya’s history—though at a high cost. His handling of Covid-19 was a passing grade. Kenya’s economy grew fatter, though more debt-laden.

In the many battles, during the BBI case, over the appointment of judges, and over the many executive orders he made and were contested, Uhuru didn’t stick a knife in democracy’s back. In the furious contest of his rule, Kenyan democracy seems to have deepened. So yes, we know all those things and more. What is rarely canvassed is how the society, the people, has changed with successive presidential and regime changes.

This is slippery, as it’s tricky knowing what factors to look out for. However, art, sports, and crime are three suitable proxy measures. Starting with the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing, Kenya has won it a good five times since it was launched in 2000. A few days ago, Kenyan writer Idza Luhumyo won the 2022 Prize. She was the third writer to win it during the Uhuru era. Makena Onjerika won it in 2018 and Okwiri Oduor in 2014.

Misguided puritanism

In Kibaki’s time, it came home once, when Yvonne Owuor bagged it in 2003. At the tail-end of Moi's time, in 2002, Binyavanga Wainaina won it.

Then, despite the misguided puritanism of most of his administration, Kenya did very well in film. Wanuri Kahiu’s “Rafiki”, a film about a lesbian romance, garnered massive global attention, perhaps helped partly by the on-off bans and censorship.

The superhero film Supa Modo didn’t need any drama, finding one of the biggest audience successes of a Kenyan film internationally, winning more than 21 awards and being screened in over 30 film festivals globally.

When it came to sports, Kenya had its most successful Olympic outings in 2008, 2012, and 2016, winning 42 medals between them. A closer look tells us that it won one gold in Athens in 2004, six in Beijing in 2008, two in London in 2012, six in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, and four in Tokyo in 2020.

Three Olympics during Kibaki’s time produced nine golds, and two in Uhuru’s produced 10. Additionally, representation at the Olympics was up 85 per cent during the Uhuru period.

A particularly intriguing statistic emerges if one looks at Kenya’s crime data. After the 2007-2008 post-election, crime went up sharply. The sharpest decline in a long time came in 2019, falling by 39.18 per cent from 2018—the unforeseen result of the controversial Uhuru-Raila March 2018 handshake? Kenya has been living through its lowest crime environment today since 2008.

Surprise, surprise, but Kenyan society—and people—seem to have got better.


The author is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]

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