Dr Dan Kibuka Gikonyo was Mwai Kibaki’s personal physician since 1992. But he only came to be known as such by the public after the accident in Machakos in the run-up to the 2002 General Election in which Kibaki was the united opposition’s candidate.
After that, Dr Gikonyo became a household name as he remained by Kibaki’s side as the wheelchair-bound President took over the reins of power in 2003. In an interview with the Saturday Nation, Dr Gikonyo reveals the extent they had to go to to get the Head of State healthy and active again: twice daily check-ups, sieving the list of people who wanted to see the President and removing “idlers” who wanted to “gossip”, and ensuring that a fully fledged medical team accompanied the Head of State wherever he went.
From the daily check-ups, the medical team had to prepare reports for people whose task was to take care of the President. He spoke with Walter Menya.
The former President was well known to you. You were his doctor for a very long time. Explain to us who Kibaki was from your perspective as his friend and doctor.
Friendship came first. I knew Kibaki long before he became president. I would later join the Democratic Party when he formed it. In fact, I paid Sh100,000 to be a life member. He was my friend in many ways.
One, he is a family-driven man. I finished medical school when aged 24 and had a girlfriend (Dr Betty Gikonyo). We were classmates at the medical school. We got married and we got our children in 1974, 1976 and 1978.
Our third child, Erick, was born with a facial deformity, a very difficult thing to reconstruct. Our paediatrician at the time – Prof Collin Forbes – said it could be done. But facial plastic surgery was not very well known those days.
The professor told us he knew someone, but the professional was in London. We were young doctors then, it was already tough getting fare to Nyeri and you are telling us to get air tickets to London (laughs). Insurance was not as good then and we could not have paid for it.
I had a friend called Mwangi Maathai who was once the MP for Lang’ata. He was married to Wangari Maathai, who was my neighbour back in the village; just a fence separated us. We grew up together. So I knew Wangari very well and that way, I knew Mwangi.
I told Mwangi my predicaments and that we needed to raise some money, 40,000 pounds. It was a lot then. It is him who took me to Mwai Kibaki. One evening, with the support of Kibaki, Mwangi organised a fundraiser with his friends in 1978 and the entire amount was raised.
So it was Mwangi Maathai who linked you to President Kibaki?
Yes, by then Kibaki was very senior. I only knew him by name. He was a Cabinet minister and MP for Othaya. I came from Tetu and it borders Othaya, only a river separated us. We grew up in high school hearing the names Mwai Kibaki, Dr Gikonyo Kiano, Dr Mungai Njoroge, Tom Mboya, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, and we always aspired to be like them. Even after the meeting, courtesy of Mwangi, I would only see Kibaki in the media.
But I would again meet him in the 1980s at the funeral of his friend, Mr Gitonga, who was a town clerk. Mr Gitonga had been my client. There were a lot of political turmoil at the time. At the funeral, I reminded him how he helped me back then.
But Mwai Kibaki was a very interesting fellow, he does not like things that happened jana (yesterday). He does not like being reminded of what happened in the past, that was done and don’t ever remind him again. He would say “yesterday is gone and has no value”. I reminded him and he only said “Okay” and that was the end of it.
In the early 90s, when the movement for change from the one party to multi-party came to being, I had gone to America and come back and had established my practice. I identified with the change movement for two reasons.
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One, in 1982, I was a lecturer at the University of Nairobi and after the failed coup, many of us lost our jobs. I, too, lost my job. I had gone to America in August 1982 under the Director of Personnel sponsorship through the university.
But by February 1983, barely five months, I was told that my scholarship had been discontinued, my leave cancelled and I must come back to Kenya. But at the time, all my friends were running away. Maybe they were paranoid. So I did not come back because I was afraid. Instead, I came back in 1986, tried to get my job back but could not.
So I had this feeling that the government was not for me, I could not get a job for which I was qualified. So I was very friendly to the call for change. I resonated greatly with Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia, Raila Odinga, Koigi Wamwere and more importantly, Njenga Karume. So when DP was formed in 1992, I identified very much with it because I had admired Kibaki, his mannerism and I joined his party, became a life member, paid Sh100,000 and I am still a life member today.
When and how did you end up being President Kibaki’s personal physician?
Njenga Karume. That is how it happened. I knew Karume and he had been my friend and client. He was there at my wedding. He even gave me a car for my wedding. I was with his daughter, Wanjiku Kahiu, at the medical school.
One day, he came with someone to the clinic, and who is this person? Mwai Kibaki. As I took Karume’s blood pressure, he told me “pima hata huyu pressure” as he pointed at Kibaki. That was in 1992, when Karume brought him to my clinic. It only came into the limelight that I was his doctor in 2002 when he got the accident. Had he not been involved in the accident, perhaps no one would have ever known.
At a personal level, who was Kibaki to you?
I would call him a friend, a confidant, my president. He was my elder brother or even father. I was a young doctor who needed help and he helped me. The loss to me is personal. If anything, it is losing a friend. He was my very good friend. It is not an issue about being my patient.
Would you tell us the last moments you had with him and perhaps the state of his health in the latter days of his life?
He was 90. It is not that he died because he was very sick. Even you, if you get to 90, you will be very lucky. When you are there, things get difficult. Time has been kind to him. Many of his friends never got there. The Karumes, Michukis they would be in their 90s now. It is not that he was so sick and died. He was ageing and gracefully left the stage.
How often did you see him?
There are two faces of Kibaki. There was Kibaki the president and the ex-president. When he was president, I was mandated by the state to check on him not once but twice a day every day of his presidency. It was my job.
I had to report the President’s health and for 10 years, I checked on him. I had to make sure he was fit. Intense therapy. I documented his health status and progress every day. He is the President, if he travels, I travel. When he was in America, I was there and that is how I ended up in the White House.
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The President is not a private citizen. He is the property of the state, which must make sure he is well and taken care of. You cannot just see him tomorrow or when you are called. You are like his bodyguard; you cannot go home waiting for a call. After his presidency, it was different. You see him on a need basis.
Did you see him shortly before his death?
No, the death came rather suddenly. He had been admitted to the Nairobi Hospital. He did not come to my clinic. I am glad I did not see him dying. So glad I did not. The trauma would be so hard on me. It is like when my father passed away. I was taking care of him in hospital and I am glad he passed away when I was not around. I was so terrified of his death.
God works in his own ways. Even when Elijah was taken by the Chariots, he was separated from his servants, God does not want to traumatise anyone. I am glad I did not have to see him in his last days; that to me would be too traumatic.
For a moment, let us forget about Kibaki the President and focus on Kibaki the man. What kind of a patient was he?
For patients, like I advise everyone, is to be compliant to the advice given by your doctors. If you smoke cigarettes and the doctor tells you to stop, you are not eating healthy, missing meals, any intelligent and decent fellow would follow the directions. Kibaki was not only intelligent, he was more than intelligent and he knew what was right and wrong and he would ask for opinions and would follow the advice given. He was compliant and that is how he got to 91.
You never had any incident when he was troublesome?
No, no, no. Kibaki was compliant. Even his ministers, he would listen to everyone, let you speak and maybe ask for another opinion and all of you would come to a solution. He never said “I will do this, or I have done” it was always “we”. Even when talking about himself, he would say “sisi or we”. Let us do this and that, even when talking about himself. He saw community and people participation. He was not the sole provider of knowledge and never showed he was better than you.
Let us talk about the accident in 2002. Many said it changed Kibaki in many ways. How bad was the accident?
I would not say the accident changed Kibaki in any way. He never changed. The only thing that changed was he was given a job by the state. He stopped playing golf, he stopped going to the club because 24 hours a day he was focused on the country. If you call that change, then that is how he changed. But in his person he did not change.
The fact that he did not talk much, people thought he was not doing anything, but in that silence he worked on state matters, day in and day out. He did not have much of a personal life for the 10 years he was president.
The country’s economy grew from a negative in 2002 to seven per cent by the time he finished his first term. We demobilised with our funny little ethnic clashes in 2007, but he was able to continue. It was not his fault. We can argue about that election but an election does not justify you to destroy your country. However aggrieved you are, there are channels to follow.
After being sworn in as president, as he was still recuperating, was there an instance you and his medical team perhaps considered flying him out for further treatment? How did this go?
No. You know when we went to London we did a lot of surgery on him. Had he been an ordinary citizen, he would have gone to the same doctor who conducted the operation to review him. But as head of state, you don’t just leave your country to go for your own little medicals when the same can be done in the country. There was no need to go back to London again.
So that was never considered at all?
Not at all. The requirements of the state were bigger than the niceties of going for a check-up.
What of having the doctor who operated on him fly in to Nairobi to check on his condition?
You know when I accompanied him to London, I remember talking to one of the doctors there and he told me something that I still remember: ‘Mr Kibaki will do very well because I have realised he has got a very good medical team back at home’. And it is true the president had a very good team at home. We should strive to make sure that our teams at home are as good as anybody else in the world.
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That is why it is important to have homegrown products. That’s why I am not in support of people flying out for treatment because the doctors they are going to see are people with whom we attended the same schools. They may have the equipment that we don’t have. Give me that equipment and I will do just as good.
At the beginning of his presidency, there were claims that some close aides were keeping ministers and Narc summit members from seeing the president. In response, the former State House Comptroller Matere Keriri admitted to having done that but he argued it was because the man was sick and needed rest. As his doctor, what was the true picture?
I don’t think we stopped anybody to come and see Mzee Kibaki. But we kept away idlers who just wanted to come and gossip. We would get the names of people who wanted to come and see him but would pick out others whose requests we declined. The government was running and his ministers would come and see him whenever there was an issue to share with the president, useful things.
State House stopped being a place for idlers. You know, in the old government, if you drove around State House you would see cars parked outside there, the occupants queuing to see the president. In Kibaki’s time, there was no such thing. What would they be coming to do? After all, he had given the ministers the authority and freedom to run their respective ministries.
If he gave you a job, you needed to do it. This idea that you want to come and gossip about your friend in the evening, Kibaki had no time for that. But he had time for serious people. That is how he was able to utilise his time to do the things we are all praising him for, the things that are useful.
I don’t think there is a time he refused to see Wamalwa (Kijana), or Raila, for example. They were his ministers and I don’t think such people could complain. But if you are a minister and you are coming to ask him questions about your ministry, he would not entertain that because you are the minister. And by the way, more often than not, those who push to see the president either want favours or want protection because they have done something wrong. Kibaki had no time for that.
You talked of the first six months of his presidency when he was limited in several ways because of the injuries he had suffered in the accident. How were you and your medical team managing the president in that period until he fully recovered?
From December 2002 and for the next 10 years he was president, we saw Kibaki the same way. There was no difference. As I told you, being a physician for the president is not a medical doctor job. It is a state function. You are employed by the state. You are a civil servant and your job is to take care of the president. So, for us, it was the same until he stopped being president.
We had a full medical team. It is just that only my name was known, but I had a lot of people behind me. I had a neurologist, Dr Mwinzi, whom you may not know; I had a surgeon, Mr Olunya, and three medical officers. We had to cover 24 hours. That is how the president should be. He should be covered by a medical team 24 hours a day. You cannot take a risk on the head of state. If he travels, we must have a medical team with him.