We have reached a phase in Africa’s post-independence history where we cannot off the top of our head count the number of retired heads of states who are living peacefully at home or have quietly passed on into the great beyond. This is no mean achievement for the continent. Following independence from colonial rule, presidential transition was one of the things we in Africa often did badly; the tradition had long been for leaders to be shot out of power. This has changed. The eulogising through gritted teeth of the 1970s has given way to far more elaborate and socially reassuring mourning processes. We have come a long way.
Last week Kenya and the region laid to rest Mwai Kibaki, the country’s third president since independence. Many have reached out to me for comment or to write an obituary about him. I decided not to until the funeral was over and those essential rituals had been concluded by family and nation. It’s our African way. Others sought not my comments on my time with Kibaki but some sensational attack. I explained to one, “I don’t hate Mwai Kibaki, I never have. He isn’t a man who caused me to hate; he is someone who broke my heart.”
I had the honour of working for Mwai Kibaki from the beginning of 2003 until 2005 — the shortest stint in any job during entire my professional career. Kibaki employed me as his permanent secretary in the Office of the President in charge of Governance and Ethics. I had an office at State House, in part signifying the fulfilment of the campaign promise Kibaki had made to deal with corruption once he took office. At 38, I was truly excited by this honour to serve my country and the head of state. Being based at State House was a huge deal in the Kenyan political context. Random people would walk up to me and narrate long stories of their travails at the hands of, say, the judiciary, which they felt I could resolve simply because I “sat at State House”. We set up a Public Complaints Unit (PCU) to handle this and the rest of what became a flood of requests, entreaties, complaints and narrations of woe that, in particular, were directed to the president by ordinary wananchi at their wits end. The PCU was transformed into the Ombudsman’s office that was originally based at Cooperative Bank Building.
In my exuberance I had forgotten my own previous writings on the intrigues and machinations that took place in that House. Within a year, I realised that what I had considered a perk was no longer a perk at all. As time passed, I was reminded that while much that was good emanated from this seat of power, often too, a darkness also arose from this place that sprung from the most craven of our desires and our base greed. I came to discover that a drought was a business opportunity for some, that the reason the caps of policemen were falling part in the rain was a contract. Even the sausages, mandazis and bottles of mineral water that were served to us so efficiently could often be a racket. Shocked not only by the price the government was paying for mineral water but also by the utter resilience of the racket that was forcing his ministry to buy the water at five-star hotel prices, one minister took to buying his own water from Uchumi Supermarket.
All leaders leave behind them a mixed legacy.
Before working for Kibaki, the most memorable story I had been told about him was of a time he attended a meeting of the Gikuyu Embu Meru Association (GEMA) in the 1970s. At this meeting the proposal was floated that every effort should be made to ensure that the presidency never leaves the Kikuyu community. Kibaki, who I was told was never that great a fan of GEMA, stood up and warned the gathering that they should not become like the monarchist Kabaka Yekka — “King Only” — movement and party in Uganda that had been started by elements of the Baganda elite to exclusively serve the interests of their own community. This had helped fuel anti-Baganda sentiment among the then ruling elite, comprised mainly of leaders from the north of Uganda. Kibaki was a respected leader not known for expressing emotive off-the-cuff sentiments. His “Kabaka Yekka” comment disrupted the entire meeting and it was left to others to recover the ground they felt his sentiments had lost them. This and other such commentaries regarding his political values made a major impression on me; they chimed with his public profile as it already was: laid back, non-confrontational, erudite, not inclined to tribal groupings and too much noise on the political stage.
When I joined his administration, the Kibaki I found myself working with fit the image I had of him. Prior to this, in 2001-2002, I had worked as part of the team that crafted his transition and anti-corruption strategy. He wasn’t a man of too many words and even though the part of his legacy that has been spoken about most glowingly is the economy, Kibaki never gave lectures about economic policy. It was almost as if his understanding and posture in regard to restabilising the economy was implicit and he surrounded himself with people who “got it”, as it were. In truth, within months of taking office and inheriting a stagnated economy, he had not only turned it around, but Kenya was literally open for business again. This aspect of making Kenya a viable local and international investment destination, was his most profound legacy.
They chimed with his public profile as it already was: laid back, non-confrontational, erudite, not inclined to tribal groupings and too much noise on the political stage.
Kenyans laud Kibaki’s economic management in part because of the decline in public finance management that followed his departure. This is especially true now, in this historical moment, because it is “legacy time” in Kenya, with presidential transition elections less than 100 days away. President Uhuru Kenyatta is fighting to save his legacy from the damage wrought on the economy since 2013 by Jubilee’s graft that has been on a scale that it is difficult to qualify, rationalise, synthesise and even begin to coherently explain except as a form of collective delinquency. Add to this a rapidly changing global economic and political environment and a demographic youth bulge that in five short years has apparently been catapulted from being taken with the feel-good celebrity, flashy trappings of Kenyatta’s political “bromance” with his Deputy President, to being enamoured with half of the fractured pair, especially in the urban areas. For a man known as a teetotaller, Deputy President William Ruto has embarked on a hallucinogenic attempt to distance himself from the corruption.
My own sense was that Kibaki’s anti-corruption fight was important to him not only as a political deliverable to Kenyans, as he had promised, but as essential to doing what he had mapped out in his own mind to do for the economy. Kibaki set out to fight corruption recognising that leadership choices informed the behaviour of institutions rather than the other way around. In the entire time I worked with him I never bumped into people visiting him for tax waivers — an endemic problem under the previous regime. Kibaki genuinely wanted to fight corruption, especially at the beginning. In hindsight, I would say now that as politics became more complicated and cantankerous, and as relations with other NARC coalition partners grew more and more tricky to manage, and totally contrasting views vis-à-vis the raging debate around a new constitution kicked in, priorities drastically changed. It did not help that powerful commercial interests now viewed both NARC and the development of the draft constitution as it was unfolding as hostile to their personal interests. At the time, I missed the signals of the gradual transformation. As Anglo-Leasing rolled on, it became that dead rat in the rafters of our government’s hut — it stank, we knew it was there, we pretended to search for it but understood that that dead rat was very much ours.
Kibaki set out to fight corruption recognising that leadership choices informed the behaviour of institutions rather than the other way around.
Mwai Kibaki was a man of few words. Dunderheads bored him unless they were sincerely amusing. He avoided confrontation at all costs; it wasn’t in his DNA. This means that he often spoke in a kind of code even when unhappy with someone or something. And silence was very much one of Kibaki’s languages. “Hiyo maneno tutaangalia” (That matter we shall review) usually meant no to the proposal that was being presented. “Sikia huyu mtu sasa?!” (Listen to this guy now?!) usually meant someone was saying something disagreeable or that he considered dumb. “Bure kabisa!” (Totally useless!) meant just that, whether it was in relation to a person, a group or a proposal. When he said “Huyo wacha tuone vile ataenda.” (Let’s see how that one gets on.), it was code signalling his estimation that someone had embarked on a doomed project or initiative. He had absolutely no interest in sycophants bringing him rumours and tittle-tattle (fununu and porojo) about the minor political scheming of others. That said, in what was both ultimately a strength and a weakness, Kibaki trusted and believed in old friends deeply, including, as one colleague of his from Nyeri described to me, “the mercenaries who don’t care for him”. For me, his dropping the ball on the corruption agenda was devastating.
In retrospect, I can also see clearly now that the seeds of the 2007-8 post-election violence were planted in 2003-4. As Kibaki settled into office, the idea of a group of political and business leaders from the Mount Kenya region — the so-called “Mount Kenya Mafia” — took root fuelled by growing graft, going from myth to reality between 2004 and 2005 when the government dramatically lost the constitutional referendum held in November that year. I found it deeply ironic that the man I knew as having warned GEMA’s leaders in the 1970s about becoming an exclusivist Kabaka Yekka-type organisation, now found himself leading an administration that, between 2005 and the deadly 2007 election, was consumed by the very narrative he had warned against. It culminated in the most devastating part of his legacy: the relatively brief but deadly explosion of violence that irrevocably stained his record even more than losing his grip on graft did.
I wasn’t present in Kenya when the post-election violence broke out, even though I later bore witness to the damage it wrought, first on its immediate victims, and ultimately on the fabric of the nation itself. I will leave it then, to others to comprehensively reflect on that part of his legacy. What I can comprehensively speak to is that which I witnessed up close: the disintegration of the anti-corruption agenda with which he came into office. My own ultimate impression is that, witnessing his frailty, some of Kibaki’s most steadfast allies made up their minds: “Time may be short! Let’s make hay while the sun shines!” And so Kibaki became a commercial vehicle for a range of actors determined to line their pockets. Indeed, the most supreme irony is that he outlived some of the more avaricious of these friends. What they started, especially vis-à-vis the acquisition of commercial debt by the Kenya government, grew from the Anglo Leasing skunk inherited from the previous regime into the behemoth that is today’s public debt load that has forced Kenya back into the hands of the very IMF that Kibaki had seen off by 2005.
The late Mwai Kibaki was impossible to hate at a personal level – he simply didn’t give one cause. He was an easy-going and effortlessly brilliant interlocuter. My most traumatic and saddening moments in public service were when we exchanged loud harsh words. But in truth, all who manage to climb the slippery political pole to the top leave both enthusiastic supporters behind them and damaged ones too. Kibaki, unlike others who have served in the position of president in Kenya and in other countries of the region, may not have been a determined destroyer of men, but he too could be a political heartbreaker and a great disappointment when he moved smoothly on, having suddenly dropped you off unexpectedly at the red lights, leaving you in the hands of some of his less scrupulous handlers.
My most traumatic and saddening moments in public service were when we exchanged loud harsh words.
Mwai Kibaki has shuffled off this mortal coil. May he rest in eternal peace and may his family find succour at this difficult time of the passing of a brilliant, complex man.
John Githongo served as Permanent Secretary in the Office of the President of Kenya in charge of Governance and Ethics between January 2003 and mid-2005.