Honour Mwai Kibaki by applying his honesty and decency
The laying of Kenya’s third President to rest in Nyeri today ends the life of an iconic leader and a week of remarkable tributes from all over the world. As many identify themselves with his life, we must ask each other again whether we are preoccupied with the leader, his legacy, or the values his life leaves behind, for us to emulate.
I was 11-years old when my mother Brenda Jones-Houghton was summarily deported with 24 hours-notice. The charge? Writing an article on the succession of President Jomo Kenyatta. Mwai Kibaki, then Finance Minister, was the anonymous source for that 1977 international story. Quoting a high-level “Government source” the article hypothetically contemplated what might happen when the already ailing Kenyatta died. It is hard to imagine in the current world of social media that in 1970s imagining or speaking about the death or deposition of a President would attract a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment.
This anecdote echoes many we have heard this week. Kibaki was a centrist politician and gifted statesman. It is the boldest of his choices over a remarkable fifty years of service in the public interest that distinguished him. In 2002, he led the restoration of a democratic and open society and pioneered a development state with free universal primary education and a clear path to economic recovery.
Eight years later, he promulgated one of the most progressive constitutions in the world in a response to one of the nation’s darkest moments that also happened under his watch, the post-election violence of 2008. This moment also ushered the legal end to the imperial presidency, trickle-down Nairobi-centred policies, judicial subservience and the suppression of active citizens, civil society, and the media.
As we rightly reflect on “Kibakism” and its legacy on both state and nation, let’s avoid the temptation to roll around in nostalgia but distinguish ideas that ignite our national imagination. For his critics, identifying the dilemmas he faced or the frailty of his leadership at times serves no broader use than to enrich his expansive biography. Let’s ask some more fundamental national questions.
This week, we learned 200 Kenyan dollar millionaires have joined the 8,500 strong class of the 0.02 per cent while 15 million drop further in poverty and misery. Will the Government now decisively address rising poverty and inequality levels? It will be ten years since the late President assented to the Public Benefits Organisations Act next year, can the Jubilee Administration in its last few weeks, operationalise the Act in his memory?
Will parliamentarians have the courage to stop the runaway debt train by not raising the debt ceiling to accommodate unsustainable financing models? Will election candidates now seek votes and debate their policy manifestos without abusing or assaulting their opponents? Will parties, the EACC, IEBC and the judiciary prevent individuals with soiled histories from running for public office? Can leaders and everyday citizens internalise, enforce but not weaken our constitutional freedoms, rights, and responsibilities? Can both parents and children create 2030 visions for themselves and their families?
In the current scramble to be associated with the late President, can we also apply the values of planning, honesty, humility, decency to each other and public service that were so distinguished in his personal character and public legacy.
Kikuyu peasants and parents Kibaki Gĩthĩnji and Teresia Wanjikũ may have had a premonition while naming him. Emilio comes from the Latin word Aemulus which means rival. Mwai is probably derived from the Kikuyu verb for one who drilled logs to make beehives and Kibaki is derived from the Kikuyu word for tobacco, a lucrative past business. The names seem fitting for a leader born of a humble background who spent fifty years in active politics and ran a functional state in a growing economy before retiring.
Thank you for your service and rest in peace Sir.
Condolences to your fine family and our beloved nation. Eid al-Fitr Mubarak and Labour Day also to all Muslims and working people.
This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard, 30 April 2022
For more reading on increasing levels of poverty and dollar millionaires see