Statesman Mwai Kibaki

Mwai Kibaki

Former President Mwai Kibaki at Nyayo Stadium in Nairobi in 2006. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • He was elected chairman of the Kenya Students Association and vice-chairman of Makerere Students’ Guild while pursuing studies in Uganda
  • In December 1960, and aged just 29, Kibaki left his teaching position and returned to Nairobi.

Emilio Mwai Kibaki rose from the sleepy Gatuyaini village in Nyeri to become one of the most celebrated Kenyan presidents and an African statesman. He died yesterday aged 90.

Kibaki’s death marks the end of an era for a one of Kenya’s most suave politicians, survivor and whose story is part of our economic history.

For the 50 years that he straddled Kenya’s political economy and politics like a colossus, Kibaki pushed on his Keynesian principles and as president, rebuilt the Kenyan economy from the ashes of destruction left in the wake of the Daniel Toroitich arap Moi rule.

While it was his skills that saw him survive the rough political terrain in the 70s and 80s, Kibaki’s cool mien coupled with wit and intelligence saw him outsmart challengers in the 90s and rising to become Kenya’s third president.

From the 1963 Parliament – while all others fell out – Kibaki was the last to leave the political arena, making him one of the longest serving MPs in Kenya’s history.

How he navigated the Kenyatta succession minefield, survived the attempt by President Moi to eclipse him and later on endure the fallout that followed his election as President is a classic case of making painful concessions, while at the same time balancing the political gains.

In retirement, and dogged by ill-health, Kibaki remained out of politics, hardly commenting – and hardly showing interest.


Born on the morning of November 15, 1931, not much is known about Kibaki’s early life – though he was taken to school because he was the youngest in the family. As missionaries scouted for children to take to school, Kibaki was picked by his polygamous father because he was “least useful in the shamba”.

It was in 1939  that a barefoot boy left home for the 50 cent-a-term Gatuyaini village school where Consolata missionaries had opened a school. They taught the arrivals catechism and elementary education – a Catholic faith that remained part of Kibaki’s identity.

That would also mark the rise of Kibaki into academia, politics and finally, to a statesman.

Named Mwai after his maternal uncle, his parents – John Githinji Kibaki and Teresia Wanjiku – had seven other children. Like other villagers, they grew up hewing wood, tilling, milking and grazing.

From Gatuyaini Primary, where he was for two years, Kibaki joined Holy Ghost Catholic Missionaries Karima Mission School (now Karima Primary) for the next three years. He had to cover 10 kilometres to and from school daily. He passed his exams to proceed to Mathari School, a boarding institution, now named Nyeri High School. His father had to sell two goats to pay the annual Sh18 boarding fee. At Mathari, Kibaki learnt carpentry and masonry and he could join fellow students in repairing furniture and build materials for the school.

It was his 1947 entry to Mang’u, a prestigious secondary school started by Fr Michael Joseph Witte in Kabaa, that would alter the course of Kibaki’s life.

Mang’u was the citadel of emerging African elite. The original principal, Fr Farrely, wanted to craft a typical Irish school that had no tight schedules – unlike Alliance High School – and where the students were moulded into Catholic atmosphere. He believed these two led to academic excellence.  Kibaki scored straight As at Mangu.

He joined Makerere University College to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics, history and political science in 1951. Kibaki’s leadership style emerged as he served as vice chairman of Makerere Students Guild (1954-1955).

Best students

He emerged among the best students in the Faculty of Arts in 1955 by attaining a First Class Honours degree in Economics. This earned him a scholarship to the London School of Economics for a BSc in Public Finance.

He became the first African to graduate from the school with a first class degree.

In between, as he waited for the scholarship, Kibaki worked as an assistant sales manager in the Uganda division of Shell Company of East Africa.

After Kibaki returning to Makerere as an assistant lecturer in the Department of Economics from 1958 to 1960. He was asked to stop teaching and help in managing Kanu affairs.

“Makerere is where my academic and intellectual foundation was laid. Many of my leadership skills were developed and nurtured here,” Kibaki would say 52 years after he left the institution and as he received an Doctor of Laws – Honoris causa – degree at Makerere in January 2012.

It was as a student leader that Kibaki started dabbling in politics. He was elected chairman of the Kenya Students Association and vice-chairman of Makerere Students’ Guild.

Former President Mwai Kibaki dies at 90

The events taking place in 1960 catapulted him into Kenyan politics. Kanu and Kadu had been formed and new Colonial secretary Ian Macleod had summoned the Legislative Council for a constitutional conference in January 1960. One of Kibaki’s school mates in Mang’u, Tom Mboya, had become a big name among the youth.

Kibaki had participated in the drafting of Kanu’s constitution, which brought together smaller district parties into a block.

“Some friends and I visited the African Corner Bar on Race Course Road for a drink,” Kibaki recalled in a 2002 issue of the Christian Science Monitor.

“One of us suggested that we draw a constitution. So, we borrowed stationery from the counter and started drafting. The exercise eventually led to the birth of Kanu.”

But the rise of Kadu, composed of minority groups, complicated the political matrix.

The refusal by Ronald Ngala to join Kanu left the party with an organisation void. Kanu had been registered on June 11, 1960 and five months into its troubled existence Kibaki was hired to put order at the headquarters.

In December 1960, and aged just 29, Kibaki left his teaching position and returned to Nairobi.

“We thought it was very foolish at the time to abandon a teaching job at Makerere to be an executive officer of a political party,” recalled Absalom Mwangi, who was a third-year student when Kibaki left.

Kibaki was to become the executive officer during a delicate moment for the party since the Queen had legitimised colonial undertakings in Kenya by signing the Bill of Rights.

Kanu bought Kibaki a Peugeot 404.

“We moved around the country a lot. The car clocked 4,000 kilometres in a month. It was great working for a party that was popular,” he recalled in 1995.

The other challenge that faced Kibaki was that Kanu was to go to the General Election in March1961. At the headquarters, Kanu bosses coined “Uhuru na Kenyatta” as the party slogan.

Kibaki joined Kanu at a time demands for the release of Jomo Kenyatta from house arrest in Mararal were in top gear. Kanu President, James Gichuru, had made it clear that the party would not form the government after the March 1, 1961 elections if Kenyatta – described by Governor Patrick Renison as ‘a leader unto darkness and death’ – was not freed.

Kibaki knew that Kanu would not win without internal discipline. When Gichuru summoned an executive meeting in Nairobi but decided to skip it together with Mboya, Kibaki joined other officials in signing a press statement that criticised the pair.

“We had to reinstate the principle that leaders were at the service of the organisation and not its masters,” Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who also signed the statement, recalled in his book Not Yet Uhuru.

Kibaki’s style of politics was shown early when he confronted Kadu politicians who had burnt Kenyatta’s effigy.

“Burning an effigy or photograph is a sign of overwhelming hatred. It must be alarming to all African people to know that (Taita) Towett hates Kenyatta to such an extent. Kenyatta is the father of our nationalism and the African people will demand a complete dissociation of Kadu from this shameful act,” Kibaki told journalists.

From its office on Mfangano Street, Nairobi, Kanu was also trying to balance between the interests of the West and East. Kibaki kept them at bay.

Former President Mwai Kibaki dies at 90

The picture of Mboya and Kibaki jumping in celebration, with Kenyatta in the background, is the best indicator of his role as Kanu won the 1961 elections getting 19 of the 33 seats in the House of Representatives.

He contested the Donholm seat in the 1963 elections and was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury. Donholm was the constituency where the African middle class and politicians lived.

Kibaki’s style of leadership in Kanu had eclipsed others and though he had a deputy – J.O. Washika – so little was heard about him that in 1965, Majoge Bassi MP Zephaniah Anyieni asked Kenyatta to abolish the post.

“In our Kanu constitution, there is no post for an assistant executive officer. There is only one executive officer and that should be Mwai Kibaki,” he said.

Kibaki’s thoughts on the economy would emerge during debate on Sessional Paper number 10 of 1965. He was the assistant minister, Economic Planning and Development, deputising Mboya.

“We have been arguing before this paper was written, as if socialism was an end in itself, as if it was a system we could pluck from a tree and apply to our country,” he said during debate.

“Socialism or any other -ism, any economic system, any social system is a means to the good life, means to happiness, to prosperity, to abundance for the people. We who drafted it are interested in the living people of Kenya, not with dogma, not whether or not somebody who wrote a doctrine was right or wrong. In writing this paper the government was not arguing or trying to justify whether or not Karl Marx or Engels or Lenin or Mao Tse Tung or anyone else was right or wrong.”

In June 1965, Tanzania threw the region into a monetary crisis, announcing it would withdraw from the East African Currency Board which had been in place since 1919.

The development saw the collapse of the East African shilling, with the three nations issuing their own currency.

Common currency

Kenya launched its currency on September 14, 1966 while Uganda did so on August 15. Both also launched central banks.

Following the falling-out between Odinga and Kenyatta and the formation of Kenya People’s Union in 1966, Kibaki was elevated into a Cabinet minister on May 3, taking the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. He took over when the strongest pillar of the East African Union, the common currency, had collapsed.

How he navigated this space as a minister would determine his career in the government. Kibaki became a reliable minister.

Though he kept away from the Kiambu group, which had built a wall around Kenyatta, his respectability as an economist enabled him to fight for his space in the government.

As a sober mind, and when relations between Kenya and the Soviet Union appeared to have hit rock bottom, Kenyatta dispatched Kibaki, Mboya (Minister for Economic Planning) and Bruce McKenzie (Agriculture and Animal Husbandry) to Moscow to review the Soviet-Kenya Economic Agreement, which had been negotiated by Odinga and Joseph Murumbi. 

It was this renegotiation that saw the completion of New Nyanza Hospital in Kisumu, now Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Hospital.

Three years later, Mboya was shot dead on Government Street, Nairobi, triggering a feud between the Kikuyu and Luo.

Kibaki and JM Kariuki were the two prominent Kikuyus who attended Mboya’s funeral in Rusinga island. Forty two years later, he would unveil a monument in honour of Mboya in Nairobi.

Whether that made him a marked man during the Kenyatta succession debate is not clear.

In the elections that followed the Mboya crisis, Kibaki almost lost his Donholm seat to Jael Mbogo and shifted base to Othaya in 1974 – a tactful retreat.

Explaining it later, Kibaki said he was under pressure ever since he left Makerere to go back to his Othaya home.

Kibaki’s managerial abilities were never in doubt, and in July 1974, Time magazine voted him one of the 150 men and women who would become the world’s new leaders.

It was because he always steered away from divisive politics at the time.

Kibaki never identified with the then politically-correct Gikuyu Embu and Meru Association (Gema), which had been founded in October 1971 with Julius Gikonyo Kiano as interim chairman and Jeremiah Nyagah, vice chairman.

Even when the Gema mantle was taken up by Njenga Karume in April 1973 at a meeting in Nyeri, Kibaki failed to identify with it. It was not surprising that shortly after the assassination of Nyandarua North MP JM Kariuki in March 1975, Kibaki was put under pressure by Gema leaders to have Nyeri district, JM’s birthplace, pledge loyalty to Kenyatta.

Kibaki led a delegation to Kenyatta’s Gatundu home, where he distanced Nyeri people from “rumours” that Kenyatta and Minister of State, Mbiyu Koinange, were behind the killing.

Kibaki was incensed with some Kiambu leaders and Gema chiefs who started a drive to block Moi from becoming president in case Kenyatta died. Kibaki joined hands with Moi and Njonjo to form their own camp of constitutionalists.

His appointment as Finance Minister in 1969 was the best indicator of the trust Kenyatta had in him.

During his time as Finance minister, Kenya recorded growth rates of up to seven per cent. World Bank President Robert MacNamara once described Kibaki as “one of the greatest economic brains to have emerged from Africa”.

In 1977, Time magazine recognised Kibaki as one of the African leaders of the 21st century with high potential.

In 1981, the magazine named him among its annual top 100 people who could lead the world in various capacities.

The death of Kenyatta in 1978 saw Kibaki elevated to Kenya’s vice-president. Kiambu and Nyeri Kikuyus were openly jostling for the position via an age-old feud. If Moi wanted to incense the Kiambu group, which was opposed to him, he did it by appointing Mwai Kibaki.

Kibaki was moderate and a neutralising factor in these battles.

He was dropped as Vice-President in 1988 after an attempt to rig him out of the Othaya seat failed. Kibaki was, however, retained as Minister for Health until 1991 when he quit to form the Democratic Party (DP) after the reintroduction of multi-party politics.

While he was criticised by Forum for Restoration of Democracy (Ford) members for failing to join their party, Kibaki’s moderate stand saw him attract many conservative politicians to his side.

The split of Ford into Ford-Kenya, led by Odinga and Ford Asili under Kenneth Matiba played into Kibaki’s favour and solidified his reputation as a stable and principle-driven person. 

He came third in the 1992 elections that saw Moi secure 1.9 million votes, Kenneth Matiba 1.4 million and Kibaki over a million.

In the opposition, Kibaki distinguished himself in Parliament as an astute debater and a voice of reason. He continued to shape his politics in an effort to oust Moi.

That would come when a team that included Raila Odinga, Kijana Wamalwa and Charity Ngilu joined hands to form the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc).

When he was wheeled onto the dais at Uhuru Park on December 30, 2002 – thanks to a car accident – Kibaki had achieved more than what missionaries had in mind when they picked the boy for school.

As Kenya’s third President, Kibaki was to undo some of the economic mess that had seen the country face negative growth and was tottering on collapse.

Elected on a Narc ticket and with the promise to rout corruption, Kibaki garnered 62 per cent of the votes while his party won 132 seats in the unicameral parliament of 222 seats.

There goes a great statesman.

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