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Remembering Mwai Kibaki, Kenya’s 3rd President and the last of a generation of leaders

Mwai Kibaki, Kenya’s third President died on April 21 at the age of 90. We look back at his life, leadership, missteps, and legacy. 

And then there was one. After the recent death of Kenya’s 3rd President, the country only has one living President. Mwai Kibaki was a president at the epicentre of one of Kenya’s most transitional periods. For his role as a change-maker and the missed opportunities of his tenure, the former President’s passing is another opportunity to reflect on the country’s direction in the wake of another unique election.

A brief biography

Emilio Mwai Kibaki, born November 15, 1931, in Gatuyaini, served as president of Kenya between 2002 and 2013. Up until his death on the 21st of April 2022, he was the last of the generation of leaders that facilitated Kenya’s passage from a British colony to an independent state. It is important to note that he was Kikuyu, a tribe that has stood at the helm for most of the country’s independent years.

He attended Makerere University (B.A., 1955) in Uganda and the London School of Economics (B.Sc., 1959). He worked as a teacher before joining the struggle for independence. Once the country gained independence, he won a seat in the National Assembly as a member of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party. He later became minister of finance in 1969 and held the post until 1982 and Vice president between 1978 and 1988.

In 1991 he left KANU to form the Democratic Party which was set to make history from its genesis. With the support of the party, he unsuccessfully contested famous dictator Daniel Arap Moi in the 1992 and 1997 presidential elections. Despite this, he became the official head of the opposition in 1998.

President Daniel arap Moi and his successor President Mwai Kibaki.

His rise reached its zenith in 2002 when even confined to a wheelchair from a serious car accident he defeated Moi’s chosen successor and current President Uhuru Kenyatta to become Kenya’s 3rd president. The fete was achieved through the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), a multiparty alliance he helped create. The concept of a party that could represent more than one view and one set of interests essentially changed the government and brought leadership to the people.

In his inauguration speech, he championed hope and new beginnings saying, “I am inheriting a country which has been badly ravaged by years of misrule and ineptitude… You have asked me to lead this nation out of the present wilderness and malaise onto the promised land, and I shall do so.”

A changed country and missed opportunities

The then-incoming President Kibaki’s major pledge was to eliminate the corruption that had stalled the country’s development and kept it dependent on loans and financial aid. He also pledged to make primary education free and provide universal health care. His attempts were unfruitful and clumsy. He was unable to pass anti-corruption bills through the anti-corruption courts he established. He made the misstep of giving legislators large raises to curb bribes, which backfired and became a periodic practice that further exploits the country’s scarce resources.

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan
EPA-EFE/Justin Lane

Aside from this and power wrangles in his administration, a failed referendum, his reelection bid was in 2007 had some of the worst election violence in the country’s history. A power-sharing plan had to be brokered by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and Jakaya Kikwete, President of Tanzania and chair of the African Union, to salvage the situation.

Unable to hold a third term, he stepped down in 2013.

His legacy

Despite the failings of his regime, Kibaki will be remembered for shaking authoritarian rule at a time when it was unimaginable. He started the repair of a rouge banking system, slashed sky-high interest rates, and rebuilt broken revenues, with strong competencies at the Kenya Revenue Authority. Many sectors recovered from collapse and the development of neglected regions was ignited.

Kibaki will be remembered for shaking authoritarian rule at a time when it was unimaginable

He also introduced the Constituencies Development Fund (CDF) in 2003 to support constituency-level development projects and facilitated the formulation of the long-term national strategy Vision 2030.

And maybe most visible of all was championing information communication and technology (ICT) and positioning Kenya as an investment hub for local and global technology firms. By launching the 5,000 Kilometer East African Marine System fibre optic undersea cable in 2009, he set Kenya on a course that is lucrative to date. He supported the move by directing the National Treasury to zero-rate value-added tax on mobile handsets, causing a massive influx of devices and ultimately starting the high penetration and innovation global companies study today.

Intangibly, those of us who were young during his regime will remember him as Kenya’s funniest and most entertaining leader. His antics are still chuckled over in households across the country.

Friday the 29th of April has been marked as a public holiday to mourn his passing. 

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