Kenya: Nation Mourns Former President Mwai Kibaki

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Kenya’s third president has died at the age of 90. Under Kibaki, the country experienced its bloodiest crisis but his mixed legacy also includes free schooling and a new constitution.

His life is the story of an extraordinary political career: For more than fifty years, Mwai Kibaki was in the service of his country. However, the crowning moment for him came from December 2002 to March 2013, when Kibaki was president of the East African country.

Born on November 15, 1931, in Gatuyaini village, Nyeri province of Kenya’s Central region, Mwai Kibaki spent his early childhood tending his father’s sheep and cows.

His brother-in-law Paul Muruthi eventually insisted that the boy should go to school. A decision that completely changed the course of Mwai Kibaki’s life. He completed his schooling with top grades at the renowned Mangu High School and was awarded a scholarship to Uganda’s internationally acclaimed Makerere University.

Kibaki graduated in 1955 with honors in economics, history, and political science and also excelled in various student organizations.

After further studies at the London School of Economics, Kibaki returned to Makerere for a teaching position before returning home in 1960. The Kenya African National Union (KANU), which was to lead Kenya to independence, needed educated comrades-in-arms.

From lawmaker to finance minister

In 1963, when Kenya became independent from Britain, Kibaki secured a parliamentary seat in Nairobi.

With his economic expertise, he was appointed parliamentary secretary to the finance minister that same year. However, the country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, kept him on the sidelines for nearly three years before appointing him to his cabinet.

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First he became minister of trade and industry before becoming finance minister in 1969, a post he retained for a good decade.

The late Daniel arap Moi, who assumed the presidency in 1978 after Kenyatta’s death, picked Kibaki as his deputy.

But Moi’s penchant for power and his massive repression of political opponents led to dissatisfaction, even among his cabinet.

So when Kenya opened up to the multiparty democracy in 1991, Kibaki did not hesitate to step out of his president’s shadow and founded the Democratic Party (DP) that same year. The party did well in subsequent elections, becoming the third-strongest force in Parliament in 1992 and the second-strongest in 1997.

Ascending to the top office

Things got even better in the 2002 elections. Under Kibaki’s leadership, supported by opposition leader Raila Odinga, the National Rainbow Coalition, an alliance of 15 independent parties, was formed.

Moi surprised many after he handpicked and endorsed Uhuru Kenyatta. Kenya’s current president, and son of the first president, was at that time considered politically inexperienced.

Kibaki seized on the population’s desire for political change, promising to boost the economy and fight corruption. He expressed his conviction that “if we do not fight corruption, we will not be able to attract investors to the country.” Kenyans elected him president with a clear majority of 62.2% of the vote.

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Shortly after the election, disputes in the alliance over drafting a new constitution — a key election promise — erupted. Contrary to Kibaki’s previous pledges, the draft provided for a strong president and a weak prime minister.

Kenya’s darkest political chapter

Opponents of the draft rallied behind Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and challenged Kibaki in the 2007 General Election. However, when Kibaki allowed himself to be sworn in [at night] as president in December 2007 after a conceivably close and disputed election, Odinga cried foul. “We can talk about a coup d’état here,” Odinga said, “enabled by the electoral commission, which served Kibaki’s sole purpose of distorting the result.”

A wave of political violence ensued, with Kibaki’s Kikuyu ethnic group facing off against the Luo and Kalenjin ethnic groups.

More than 1,200 people died in two months, becoming Kenya’s worst political crisis.

The unrest stained Kibaki’s second term in office. Steps toward reconciliation between the two sides included Odinga’s appointment as prime minister in April 2008 and another attempt at a new constitution, which finally came into force in August 2010-after two-thirds of Kenyans voted in favor of it.

Economic reforms

Kibaki’s successes include turning Kenya’s economy into one of the fastest-growing regionally and internationally.