Mwai Kibaki, the gentleman of Kenyan politics

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Kibaki’s death marks the end of an era for one of Kenya’s most suave politicians, whose story is part of the country’s economic history.

For the 50 years that he straddled Kenya’s economy and politics, Kibaki pushed Keynesian principles – like the economist he was – and as president he rebuilt the Kenyan economy from the ashes of destruction left by the Daniel arap Moi regime.

While it was his skills as a politician that saw him survive the rough political terrain in the 1970s and 1980s, his cool mien coupled with wit and intelligence saw him outsmart his challengers in the 1990s to become Kenya’s third president in December 2002.

Kibaki was the last of the 1963 members of parliament to leave the political arena, making him one of the longest serving MPs in Kenya’s history.

How he navigated the Jomo Kenyatta succession minefield, survived the attempt by President Moi to eclipse him and later on endure the falling-out that followed his election as president is a classic case of making painful concessions while balancing the political gains.

In retirement, and dogged by ill health, Kibaki stayed away from national politics, hardly commenting and hardly showing interest.

That was the classic Kibaki.

Born on November 15, 1931, and named Mwai after his uncle from the mother’s side, Kibaki hasn’t talked much about his early life but we know that he was taken to school because he was the youngest in the family. As the missionaries scouted for children to take to school, young Kibaki was picked by his polygamous father, because he was “least useful in the shamba”. He was to turn out to be one of the most useful economists in the country.

In 1939, a barefoot Kibaki left home for the 50 cent-a-term Gatuyaini village school, recently established by the Consolata missionaries. Here they taught the new arrivals catechism and elementary education. The Catholic faith remained part of Kibaki’s identity.

Unknown to many, this would also mark the rise of the young Kibaki into academia and politics.

His parents, John Githinji Kibaki and Teresia Wanjiku, had seven other children. Like everyone else in the village, they all grew up hewing wood, tilling the land, grazing cattle and milking them. It was this tradition that Kibaki left as he started his journey to international limelight.

From Gatuyaini Primary School, where he was for two years, Kibaki joined Holy Ghost Catholic Missionaries Karima Mission School (now Karima Primary) for the next three years and had to cover 10 kilometres to and from school daily. He passed his exams to proceed to Mathari School, a boarding institution now renamed Nyeri High School, and his father had to sell two goats to pay the annual Ksh18 ($0.16) boarding fee. At Mathari, he learned carpentry and masonry and he would join fellow students in repairing furniture and building materials for the school.

It was his 1947 entry to Mang’u High School, a prestigious secondary school started by Fr Michael Joseph Witte in Kabaa, which would significantly alter the course of his life.

Mang’u was different. It was the citadel of the emerging African elite. The inaugural principal, Fr Farrely, wanted to craft a typical Irish school that had no tight schedules – unlike Alliance High School – and where the students were moulded into the Catholic faith and ethos. He believed that these two led to academic excellence and Kibaki scored straight As.

The entry of Kibaki into Makerere University College in Uganda in 1951 to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics, History and Political Science was a turning point. At Makerere, his leadership emerged as he served as vice-chairman of the Makerere Students Guild between 1954 and 1955. Despite the demands of student leadership and studies, he still emerged among the best students in the Faculty of Arts in 1955, attaining a first class honours degree in Economics. This earned him a scholarship to the London School of Economics for a Bachelor of Science degree in Public Finance. Here, he became the first African to graduate with a first class degree.

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