Hon. Mwai Kibaki, President of Kenya. Photo credit. Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. Flickr/Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).
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The other side of Mwai Kibaki

Kenya’s third President Mwai Kibaki was buried in Othaya, Nyeri County, his ancestral home, on April 30, 2022, after being eulogised as a generous and kind-hearted old grand man. However, deep insights and anecdotes from Kibaki’s erstwhile comrades show a darker side to “the gentleman of Kenyan politics”.

I got to know Prof Wangari Maathai in the early 1990s. I was then a member of the Release Political Prisoners (RPP) pressure group. It was a vibrant organisation with politically conscious Kenyans of all shades of life. 

In 2002, Wangari contested the Tetu constituency seat in Nyeri County and won with an overwhelming majority. It was an ecstatic time: Mwai Kibaki running on a National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) ticket had also overwhelmed one, Uhuru Kenyatta of Kanu to win the coveted presidential seat. 

Prof Wangari’s fame reached its apex in 2004, when she became the surprise recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the first African woman to do so. Sometime in 2005, she invited me to her office at the Ministry of Environment, where she was an Assistant Minister. 

It was vintage Wangari regaling me with stories, laughing abundantly in the office as she fixed us tea with mahamri.  She told me how her new “elevated” position as an assistant minister had clipped her wings by making her part of the government and hence, “collective responsibility” also applied to her. “I just cannot criticise the government anyhow, you know, neither do I have the authority to offer or put into effect policy solutions relating to the ministry.” She was really in an awkward situation.

Kibaki’s disdain for Wangari stretched to the presidency. He didn’t have time for her, Nobel laureate or not – in fact, the prize exacerbated Kibaki’s hatred for her

All this was a calculated, deliberate move to curb the person of Wangari by President Kibaki. There was no love between the two – nothing new, I’m saying here, yet what many people may not know is that Kibaki’s disdain for Wangari stretched to the presidency. He didn’t have time for her, Nobel laureate or not – in fact, the prize exacerbated Kibaki’s hatred for her.

Prof-Wangari-Maathai. Photo: Green Belt Movement

In the 1970s, the swashbuckling, younger Wangari was married to Mwangi Mathai, one-time Langata MP for 10 years. Mwangi was a close buddy of Kibaki. By 1977 Mwangi and Wangari were already separated, two years later, they were divorced.

In the messy divorce proceeding, which took a turn for the worse, after Waruru Kanja alias son-of-Wairimu name was dragged into the case, the civil matter become all but political. Waruru, a controversial Nyeri town MP and nationalist politician was a mortal enemy of Kibaki. When the court granted Mwangi his divorce plea, Kibaki, then a Vice President, was ecstatic; remember Waruru’s mention in the matter was less than honourable.

So, when several months down the line Mwangi told his friend Kibaki that he had settled his differences with Wangari and was ready to accept her back, “he was livid,” said Wangari. “If you go back to that b…consider our friendship over,” Kibaki gave Mwangi an ultimatum. “Between choosing to lose Kibaki’s friendship and salvaging our marriage, Mwangi caved in to his friend’s selfish demands,” opined Wangari.

“Kibaki hated my guts,” Wangari told me. “And the fact that I could stand up to him. His view on women in general was, sadly provincial. He told Mwangi I was a p….and chided him for not having a better taste.”

(L) Prof Wangari Maathai was married to Mwangi Mathai for 10 years. (R)Former Lang’ata constituency Member of Parliament Mwangi Mathai.

Yet in ensuring that Mwangi and Wangari didn’t come together again, Kibaki was also neck-deep in playing regional politics. As the Vice President, Kibaki was, by dint of his position, as the country’s second-in-command and in the ruling Kanu party, the senior most Nyeri politician. But the son-of-Wairimu, was a hardcore nationalist politician who didn’t give a hoot whether Kibaki was VP or not, and always tried to torpedo his immaculate credentials.

The Mwangi/Wangari rapprochement wasn’t a good idea because it would have meant that Kibaki’s enemy Waruru had won. “That’s how Kibaki viewed our reunion. For him, it was all about politics,” observed Wangari. “Kibaki carried that hatred even when he became the President. He never wanted me to triumph politically and every chance he got to pull me down, used it to the fullest.

When Wangari won the 2004, Nobel, world leaders congratulated her, “save for President Kibaki, he just couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge the award. Pressure from bilateral and multilateral friends to make her a full cabinet minister fell on deaf ears. Can you imagine him seeing me every Thursday at State House for the cabinet meetings?”

Wangari told me, President Kibaki ordered Dr Newton Kulundu who was Environment and Natural Resources Minister, “to not give me any duties. I would go to the office spend all day doing nothing, literally nothing. For all the time I was an assistant minister, I was paid for doing nothing. My efforts to offer my help to the minister fell on deaf years. The man spent all his time drinking whisky and telling me he would summon me if he ever needed my services, so I shouldn’t bother him.”

Dead men – and women – tell no tales, that was Wangari’s anecdotes as shared with me. She died at 71 in September, 2011.

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Sometimes in early 2008 President Mwai Kibaki donned a fedora and a trench coat left State House under the guise of darkness and was driven to Dandora phase one in Eastlands. His friend, former Embakasi MP, David Mwenje had been ailing and was bed-ridden. It could have been the last time he was seeing him because Mwenje died in March, 2008.

Kenya elections
Kenyan policemen beat a suspected Mungiki sect member in the sprawling Dandora slums in Nairobi, Kenya, 14 April 2008. [Photo: EPA/JACOB WIRE]
Mwenje’s notoriety in Nairobi city politics was a known fact: He was the de facto don of the dreaded proscribed Mungiki group in Nairobi. His militia gang, which was composed mainly of the Mungiki was called Jeshi la Embakasi, the Embakasi army. His friendship with Kibaki goes back to when Mwenje choose to hitch his wagon with Kibaki’s Democratic Party (DP), which he had formed in 1991.

Essentially, he was Kibaki’s points man in Nairobi. He would mobilise the (Kikuyu) youth for Kibaki rallies. Hence, Kibaki was beholden to Mwenje. One time, Kibaki annoyed Mwenje. Mwenje reminded him he ran Nairobi, henceforth, Kibaki should organise his own rallies. Kibaki acquiesced. He feared Mwenje.

Mwenje in his heydays, was fearsome, he threatened officer commanding police stations (OCSs) around Nairobi, who arrested Mungiki youth. One time, Dandora Officer Commanding Police Post (OCPP), I forget his name, told me how he once arrested hordes of Mungiki, who obviously were a security threat to Dandora residents.

“They called Mwenje, then an MP, through emissaries. They had spent the night in the cells so, Mwenje came first thing in the morning. He demanded that I release them, I said I won’t,” I remember the OCPP narrating to me. “‘Oh, you’re playing hardball,’ retorted Mwenje. Okay, I’ll be back in a jiffy. No sooner had he left the police post than the station was surrounded by 500 Mungiki armed to the teeth.”

Two years earlier, in October 2006, Wanjiru Kihoro, wife of Wanyiri Kihoro, lawyer, land economist and former Moi detainee and Nyeri Town MP, had finally joined her ancestors. For four years she had been in a coma, after being involved in a plane crash on January 24, 2003. To cut to the chase, Wanjiru had been living in London working for a pan-Africanist organisation, ABANTU for development, which she founded in 1991.

When Kibaki was involved in an accident while campaigning for the presidency at the junction of Nairobi-Machakos highway, in November 2002, he was eventually flown to London, where Wanjiru, using her network, raised the equivalent of KSh16 million towards Kibaki medical bill. Two months later Wanjiru was herself involved in a much worse accident at the border town of Busia, Kenya.

For four years, Wanjiru was in comatose at Nairobi Hospital and then at the public funded Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH). She died at KNH, where the family transferred her after it could no longer afford to pay her exorbitant bills. In fact, by the time the family was transferring her, it had accumulated millions of shillings in arrears.

President Kibaki, who himself was also recuperating from his own accident, never found time to visit Wanjiru, his hectic State House diary notwithstanding. He didn’t find time to activate his network to, at least fundraise for Wanjiru. The Kihoros’ were in such financial dire straits, because of the mounting Nairobi Hospital bills that they sold many of their assets. I know it because Wanyiri told me about it. In fact, Wairimu, their last-born daughter had to miss school for a while, because between paying for Wanjiru’s hospital bills and her school fees, it was obvious which should precede the other. 

President Kibaki was buried in Othaya, Nyeri County, his ancestral home, on April 30, 2022, after being eulogised as a generous, hospital and kind-hearted old grand man.

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