Emilio Stanley Mwai Kibaki, Kenya’s third president from December 2002 to April 2013, died on April 21. He was 90 years old. And with it the departure of by far East Africa’s most enigmatic leader.
Warts and despite everything, and a government that has had its fair share of corruption scandals, Kibaki was nonetheless the most reformist and pioneering Kenyan leader of the past 60 years.
He got an economy that was on the verge of collapse and grew at 0.6 percent, and left with growth of 7.1 percent and the most exciting technology market in Africa. Access to financial services, for example, has increased twenty-fold in ten years, and his government has splashed out on infrastructure like it’s going out of style.
In ten years, he has made the most dramatic economic turnaround of any African leader ever administered in a contested and fractured democratic context. But he left his mark not only in Kenya. He was also one of the most important East African leaders. What’s unique about it is that he didn’t look like it. Consider what happened in early 2005. Rwandan economist and former Finance Minister Dr. Donald Kaberuka was elected President of the African Development Bank (AfDB), serving until 2015.
I was Editor-in-Chief at Nation Media Group and spoke to Dr. Kaberuka. He told me lightheartedly that he had been “President Kibaki’s nominee,” and that was partly responsible for his victory. Confused, I asked what he meant.
“Seriously, I was nominated by Kenya, not Rwanda,” he said.
Rwanda tended to be a trigger then and still is many people. A Kenyan nomination by Kaberuka was a diplomatic subterfuge from Nairobi and Kigali. But for Kibaki, there were also cold beans and ugali calculation to back up Kaberuka. Part of the “economic miracle” that should be attributed to Kibaki was made possible in part by funding from the AfDB. The lion’s share of funding for one of the jewels of the Kibaki era, the Thika Highway, was raised by the AfDB.
Kibaki was then in his second year as Kenya’s president. He was considered by some to be out of date, as he had not yet fully recovered from his near-fatal road accident in December 2002, days before the election that would make him the first opposition leader of Kenya and the old East African Community to become an incumbent party at one democratic election.
In July 2003, Kibaki landed in Uganda on an official visit. The red carpet was laid and the gun salute was fired. Uganda is a country that grew up with many African leaders with rhetorical flair: Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings and Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara (all of whom have since left). Some strong anti-imperialist and spicy pan-African slogans, dramatic arm waving and finger wagging were always expected.
By contrast, Kibaki’s performance was underwhelming. He mumbled mostly technocratic phrases and talked about money, development and the East African community. He didn’t clench his fist and hit the pulpit. He was believed to be lifeless, and some said he was obviously still unwell. Even his personal security was considered unimpressive; They were non-threatening and did not carry large weapons.
This image of Kibaki as a lackluster figure traveling with the fairies lingered until the last days of his presidency. However, it was a signature of his presidency’s under-the-radar approach. As such, Kibaki’s fronting of Kaberuka never made the news and remained an obscure fact of pan-African horse trading. Still, he – or Kenya – raked in the cash.
But was Kibaki really as absent-minded, awkward, and carefree as popular belief had it, or was there method? Was there a reason he didn’t climb the mountain to lead his role in diplomatic maneuvers like Kaberuka and claim the glory?
Some of the best answers came in late 2007, after the election fiasco and the deadly violence , which followed, the worst in Kenya’s post-independence. This event should tarnish Kibaki’s reputation more than any of his administration’s pitfalls. The December 2007 vote was thoroughly botched and there were many indications that it had been stolen. The night’s frenzied swearing-in of Kibaki was also quite undignified.
The remarkable thing is that while many felt the choice was flawed, no one ever directly accused Kibaki of orchestrating the theft – he sat in a war room and arranging ballots and vanishing opposition votes, as do some of his more committed peers who take manipulation and power seriously. From the outside, even this controversial swearing-in looked like an event he was rushed into after they lied to him that it was going to be a barbecue. Kibaki’s absence appeared to be a cunning act, making it difficult to directly blame him for the mistakes. It was a method that enabled him to keep the blood off his hands.
His government also offered Kenya its ten most liberated years, punctuated by the odd skull-cracking of a journalist here and there, the bludgeoning of a noisy activist of civil society and shutting down television broadcasts.
By and large, it was party time. And, in typical Kenyan fashion, even his disgruntled ministers have spoken out in the media, with little consequence.
His close associates would later reveal that Kibaki was not a staunch supporter of free speech. He made freedom possible for strictly utilitarian reasons; It allowed many of his potential and real rivals to bare and reduced surprises. Ultimately, freedom was an instrument of control.
In this environment, many were surprised when, following a series of terrorist attacks in October 2011, Kibaki dispatched Kenyan troops to Somalia to pursue al-Shabaab in Kenya. Al-Shabaab was also likely to bet he wouldn’t, giving Kenya the benefit of surprise as they headed straight for Kismayu. The reverberations and heightened crisis surrounding the huge refugee camps that ensued sent many delegations to the State House.
I spoke to some members of one such high-level international delegation that came to Kenya to discuss Kibaki in advance to meet their meeting. They had planned and developed a strategy. It was necessary to keep the meeting short and not ramble because Kibaki would probably fall asleep. He did not fall asleep, but neither did he speak much, apart from occasionally asking his ministers and officials to speak. The surprise came at the end when he came to life and offered a summary of the meeting and agreed action points. The visitors were stunned. He asked if everyone was in concert and if they were an accurate account of the proceedings. Everyone agreed they were, and the meeting ended.
Later that day, I had dinner with them. They were still dazed. “What a surprise!” One of them said: “Was that the sleepy Kibaki at that meeting or a stand-in? He was absolutely brilliant.”
Remember that supposedly underwhelming performance in Uganda? It was the springboard for a major expansion of Kenyan companies, particularly banks, into East Africa. Not long after, there was talk of unifying East African stock exchanges, and Kenyan companies began listing each other on the stock exchanges of Uganda and Tanzania.
Uganda and Rwanda, once allies, had fallen out and fought a dispute but bitter war in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2000, after initially supporting the overthrow of corrupt strongman Mobutu Sese Seko there in 1997. The schism between Kampala and Kigali, which would later widen into a rift, had begun in earnest.
The civil war in Burundi was still raging, with Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda mired in it. Jakaya Kikwete, Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa’s foreign minister from 1995 to 2005, had fought diplomatically for a solution and was reportedly frustrated that Kigali would not back down his view of a deal. In 2005 Kikwete was elected President. Around the same time, Rwanda began looking to join the East African Community. The old EAC had two leaders in Museveni and Kikwete who viewed Rwanda as a nuisance and there was early uncertainty as to how his joining the bloc would be managed. The rise would have been high – if Kibaki had not been President of Kenya.
In June 2007, Rwanda and Burundi were admitted. It would have taken longer without Kibaki.
A year later, Rwanda withdrew permits from the EAC for professionals wanting to work in the country in a bid to quickly obtain regional qualifications. A year later the Kibaki government did the same for the Rwandans and followed some time later by disbarring the rest of the East Africans – who didn’t retaliate for quite a while.
Drama and breast-avoiding -thumping enabled it Kibaki to secretly advance significant milestones in regional integration. But it all added up. Through all of this, Kibaki never uttered the word “pan-African,” perhaps thinking it was a superficial adornment. He was the last of the great Makerere College generation: proud, brilliant men who came into public life with a strong sense of destiny and an aristocratic air. In the year he took office, the East African stars were odd – four East African presidents had studied or grown up in another EAC country.
In Rwanda, President Kagame was in power for two years. He had fled to Uganda as a refugee, attended school there and fought in the war that brought Museveni to power in 1986. Benjamin Mkapa was President of Tanzania. Like Kibaki, he had gone to Makerere. Museveni was President of Uganda. He had gone to university in Dar es Salaam, lived in exile in Tanzania (and Kenya) and started the war there with other exiles that ousted the military dictator Idi Amin in 1979.
Kibaki was the one who gentlest of all, but left a footprint many times larger than the noise it made.
If East Africa ever had a good thief of the night, it was Kibaki.