In the months of November and December 2002, Gallup International carried out its annual End of Year Poll. More than 67,500 people in 65 countries were interviewed.  The results were released in early 2003. The verdict: Kenyans were the most optimistic people on earth.

For a citizenry battered by the never-ending cycle of hope and disappointment, it is easy to downplay the enthusiasm and optimism that ushered in the Kibaki administration. The 2002 election was a momentous historical event. At the time, those aged 35 years and younger had only known a single president, Daniel Arap Moi, in their lifetime, the memories of their pre-teen possessive of only the scantiest details of the Jomo Kenyatta presidency.

Moi ruled Kenya for 24 years. Coming into power in 1978 following the death of Jomo Kenyatta, Moi presided over the highest number of human rights abuses, starting with the Garissa Gubai massacre in 1980, Malkia Mari massacre in 1982, Wagalla massacre in 1984 — all with increasing severity. He followed Kenyatta’s footsteps of regional marginalization, corruption, state sponsored violence and political persecution. Half-way through his Presidency, assassinations and disappearances of prominent personalities were commonplace: Robert Ouko (1990), Bishop Alexanger Kipsang Muge (1990), Julie Ward (1988), Fr Anthony Kaiser (2000), Titus Adungosi (1988), just to name a few.

Moi centralized and personalized power.  He replaced the Kiambu Mafia, a small Kikuyu elite that had dominated decisions during the Kenyatta presidency, with a Kalenjin ethnic elite. He cobbled up a Nyayo philosophy — a philosophy of “peace, love, and unity” — punctuated by constant traversing of the country often to the welcome of fearful citizens lining narrow and dilapidated roads to sing praises for Mtukufu Rais.

The end of the Moi rule was therefore a promising political, social, and economic prospect. The country was suffused with hope. The December 2002 elections proved countries shattered by dictatorial rule could also achieve transition through relatively fair and peaceful elections.

The elections pitted Moi’s preferred successor, Uhuru Kenyatta — a young unproven son of a former president, and Kibaki — a respected old hand in government.

Mwai Kibaki was a gentleman in politics, often viewed as a man of integrity, a veritable academic, economist, and technocrat. Kibaki had served for decades in the Jomo Kenyatta and Moi regimes: Permanent Secretary for the Treasury (1963), Assistant Minister of Finance and Chairman of the Economic Planning Commission (1963), Minister of Commerce and Industry (1966), Minister of Finance and Economic Planning (1969-1982). He served as the country’s fourth president (1978-1988), until he was demoted to the Ministry of Health (1988-1991). Under these regimes, Kibaki was a conformist and loyalist, never raised a finger against gross state excesses and actively executed some of the mechanisms that maintained their stranglehold on power.

Kibaki was not involved in Kenya’s long and painful pro-democracy struggles in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and only minimally in the 90s. It is often ‘forgotten’ that it was Mwai Kibaki who moved the motion that made Kenya a single-party state by law in 1982. At the height of the clamor for political pluralism, Kibaki derided those fighting for an expansion of the democratic space, commenting that trying to dislodge KANU from power was like “trying to cut down a fig tree with a razor blade”. But a few weeks after this statement, when pro-democracy fighters had succeeded in repealing Section 2A that restored multi-party democracy, Kibaki resigned from government on Christmas Day 1991 to vie under his new Democratic Party in the 1992 elections. He was the perfect political opportunist and Kenneth Matiba and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga criticized him for taking advantage of multipartyism without ever fighting for it.

In his campaigns against Kibaki, Matiba, would flash the two fingers FORD-Asili salute in Nyeri and sing about a General Kiguoya (‘General Coward’), a sobriquet for Kibaki. Matiba’s mocking of Kibaki as a traitor was part of his messaging that Kibaki’s loyalty to Jomo Kenyatta meant that he would not deal with the land question among the Kikuyu community if he became president.

Learning from history, opposition parties in 2002, knew that they had no chance against the KANU behemoth if they remained divided. A coalition of political parties was formed to field a single candidate. The complex tribal mathematics in Kenya’s political mobilization led to the “Kibaki Tosha” call — a re-engineering of Kibaki as a democrat, multi-party stalwart, and consensus leader. Kibaki was granted the opportunity to carry the hopes of millions of Kenyans.

When the National Alliance Rainbow Coalition (NARC) trounced the independence party, Kenya National African Union (KANU); expectations were justifiably high.

Mwai Kibaki had promised to finalize the constitutional reform process in 100 days; execute an economic recovery program to battle unemployment, poverty, and hunger; privatize non-performing parastatal companies; shore up the fight against HIV and AIDS; and restore law and order. Mwai Kibaki promised to slay the big old, entrenched monster — corruption.

The constitutional reform process was shaky from the very beginning. Kibaki was not willing to go the full length of the reforms NARC had promised the country. While all political figures agreed that the 1963 independence constitution was outdated and oppressive, reaching a consensus, for a process that had started in 1997, had proven to be elusive. Kibaki orchestrated the watering down of the so-called Bomas draft by pushing for a presidential powerhouse. Raila Odinga, who had uttered the historical “Kibaki Tosha” fell out with Kibaki, and in the run-up to the constitutional referendum led in opposing Kibaki’s Wako Draft constitution. Kibaki’s “Yes” (banana) faced Raila Odinga’s “No” (orange) — two highly polarized blocs.

The oranges vs bananas constitutional referendum was held on 21 November 2005. Out of the total votes cast, 6,081,395, 58.35% voted No, while 41.65% voted Yes. The rejection of Kibaki’s Wako Draft split the rainbow coalition and frittered a great opportunity at resolving Kenya’s long-standing disagreements over the centralization of state power, regional marginalization, and land reforms.

To reassert political authority, Kibaki dismissed the “No” team from the government. He swore in a new cabinet on 9 December 2005 made up exclusively of his political allies and began scaling back to ethnic centralization of power. He soon adopted the same tools for political repression he had observed during his long years in government and reignited corrupt political patronage networks.

The TJRC reported that between 2002 and 2008, Mwai Kibaki presided over numerous gross violations of human rights that included unlawful detentions, extra judicial killings and economic crimes and grand corruption. State-sanctioned killings and disappearances were common. The police was used to summarily execute individuals who were suspected to be criminals or members of proscribed criminal gangs.

Meanwhile, Raila Odinga, exploited the public approval of the “No” vote and the “orange” became Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), a political party, which began mobilizing to unseat Kibaki in the 2007 General Elections.

In hindsight, noting the constitutional disputes over the centralization of power in the presidency, regional marginalization, and historical land injustices, coupled with the typical high-octane nature of Kenya’s ethnic political mobilization, the 2007/08 post-Election violence would have been averted. But the shadow loomed large and Mwai Kibaki’s rigging of the 2007 election and swearing in at night sparked a nationwide revolt that almost plunged the country into civil war.

It took the post-Election Violence, mediation by Koffi Annan and a panel of other eminent African personalities, and the formation of the Grand Coalition government to bring back the constitutional reform process on track, carry out a referendum, and ultimately promulgate the new constitution on 27 August 2010.

The path of pro-democracy and constitutional reforms in Kenya is littered with moments of national happiness and pain, of sharp division and handshakes; and these paths show, from time to time, that Kenyans are in a constant state of imagining the nature of a perfectly functioning democratic republic. That journey, as the post-Kibaki era shows, is far from over.

Still, in recounting these national struggles, there are Kibaki reforms that shaped and continue to reshape the Kenya that we have today. Kibaki adroit economic steward. Immediately after taking over the presidency in 2002, it did not take long before his decades as an economic planning technocrat began to show. His first term (2002-2007) was an economic miracle. Kenya’s GDP grew from 0.6% to 7.1%. Kibaki’s years were a primer in fiscal discipline and sound monetary policies. Public debt management was at its most efficient. The doubling of debt stock was not met with a runaway skyrocketing of the debt to GDP ratio. In the words of a Kenyan at the street corner, “there was money in people’s pockets.”

Beyond economic stewardship, the introduction of free and compulsory primary education was the most impactful transformative agenda in the country’s education history. Implemented with donor support, the program began withering when donors withdrew funding over lack of transparency and accountability and financial mismanagement, but on the policy front, it was a path in the right direction. Under Kibaki, the number of public universities, chartered private universities, and polytechnics bloomed.

After decades of degraded infrastructure, when ‘potholes’ was a resident transport lingo, Kibaki refocused on roads, railways, and ports. The 50.4km Thika Road modification into a superhighway at the cost of Kshs 31 billion was a landmark project, and epitomized expansion of road infrastructure nationally. He is credited with expanding the Kisumu International Airport, launching mega-projects under the Lamu Port – South Sudan -Ethiopia Transport Corridor, as well as the Nairobi Commuter Rail Services Project at Syokimau.

Kenyans owe the modernization of ICT infrastructure to Kibaki’s policies. The rapid growth of Kenya as a hub for ICT innovations, mobile money and fintech innovations, high speed internet access and coverage, as well as growth in free and independent mainstream media, that Kenyans enjoy today were all spurred by Kibaki’s policies.

Kibaki passed on the presidency torch to Uhuru Kenyatta on 9 April 2013. The handover marked the end of his 50 years of public service.

The achievements of Kibaki over those 50 years, his failures and frailties as a man, and the influence his ideologies and leadership had on Kenyans, will continue to be recast by historians.

But for now, he traverses the land of no return, in his typical comical subterfuge.

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