From Moi’s VP, Opposition leader, then State House

Written by on 27 April 2022

After founding President Jomo Kenyatta’s death in 1978, Kibaki vied, as he had done previously, for the chairmanship of Kanu, taking on James Gichuru and Jeremiah Nyagah. 

It was a remarkable stab at power within the powerful party – chairman was the third most powerful position in the Kanu hierarchy. 

In the end he prevailed, polling 1,191 votes against Nyagah’s 390. Gichuru had pulled out of the contest. 

When Moi became President, he appointed Kibaki Vice-President. His star was continuing to rise.

Throughout his life in politics, Kibaki endured the hardships and the trials most, if not all, politicians go through. 

As MP, he never lost an election, representing his people for 50 years and becoming one of the longest-serving MPs in the Commonwealth. However, there were attempts to vote him out or frustrate him out of elective politics; he bore it all with remarkable charm.

Many will remember the attempts to rig him out of Othaya through the infamous queue-voting system, popularly known as mlolongo in the 1988 election. 

In an uncharacteristic fight-back, Kibaki took on the system, then represented by the District Commissioner, remarking that “even rigging requires some intelligence.” 

He could be pointed and lethal at times, but few ever saw him display egregious bouts of anger.

When Kibaki eventually decided that he would go for the top seat, he knew he had crossed the Rubicon of caution. 

During Moi’s tenure, one had to have guts to take on a person who appeared unbeatable in the game of politics. But it required a man of rare insight to oust Moi.

When the time came for him to throw his hat in the ring, Kibaki knew he was not just an ordinary politician angling for a higher office. He was a cabinet Minister in Moi’s government – a government from which no one ever resigned. 

Until Kibaki did just that.

After reassuring Moi that he was not going to join the bandwagon of those clamouring for multiparty politics, Kibaki flew to Mombasa in December 1991 and simultaneously announced his resignation and the formation of the Democratic Party.

Obviously, it came as a surprise not only to Moi but also to other Opposition leaders who thought Kibaki would either stick with Kanu or join the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (Ford), which was beginning to gain traction in the country.

But Kibaki believed in charting his own path. He knew that if he joined the already crowded Ford, he risked becoming nondescript. Choosing to risk being condemned as a traitor, he elected to rule in his own political hell rather than serve in an obliquely indeterminate heaven of the Opposition.

Throughout his political life, Kibaki cultivated a debonair mien that made him stand out as a gentleman. He abhorred pettiness and he detested crudity. Because of this, he shied away from picking unnecessary fights.

This position earned him the moniker “coward”. The passage of time has, however, painted a different portrait of Kibaki.

In one of his most famous quotes he outlined how much he hated pettiness and the politics of smear and hate. 

VP demotion

While complaining about Cabinet colleague Charles Njonjo’s brand of politics in September 1982, he said: “You do not have to blacken the other fellow in order for you to shine… It is a mark of smallness of mind and spirit. Only people of very small minds and spirits think they can only shine if the other fellow is totally blackened.”

When he lost the presidential election in 1992, coming third after Moi and Kenneth Matiba, Kibaki found himself in supremely unfamiliar territory. 

For a man who had been in government all his political life, and Vice President for a decade, this was not an exactly comfortable place to be in.

Yet, again, he proved that the spirit that burns inside a man who knows his value and worth is never stymied by circumstantial setbacks. 

After all, this was a man who had endured the ignominy of being demoted from VP to Minister for Health.

At the time, many thought he would not endure that kind of humiliation; that he would resign to save face and spite the President. But his almost annoying resilience came to his aid – he took it all in his stride and went on to perform his duties at the Ministry of Health with gusto.

So when he landed in the Opposition benches he proved, once again, to be a master in political reincarnation. 

As Leader of the Opposition, his contributions were laden with wit and sardonic humour. For instance, in November 1994 when Parliament was debating the Capital Market Authority Bill, Kibaki rose to contribute to the debate.

Displaying his perfect knowledge of financial matters as usual, he waxed lyrical about the merits of amending the bill to give the authority much more autonomy. In the course of his contribution, Johnstone Makau, then the Minister for Information and Broadcasting, rose on a point of order: “On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, Sir, I said we should be cautious (about how we autonomise the Capital Markets Authority).”

Kibaki took on the Minister with remarkable pedagogy.

“Mr. Temporary Deputy Speaker, Sir, we should be cautious. That means that we have not made up our minds. That is why you should be cautious because if you know what you want, you do not need to be cautious. To be cautious means you are doubtful. If you tell someone to be cautious, it means that you are doubtful.”

In that answer lay both a philosophical elucidation of the meaning of the word “cautious” and a lesson in how to choose the right words when addressing the Leader of the Opposition, an office Kibaki imbued with character and dignity. 

He appointed a shadow Cabinet and brought new approaches to the operations of the Opposition.

In the 1997 General Election, he ran for president for the second time and came in a strong second, polling 1,911,742 votes after Moi’s 2,500,856 votes.

Again he went on with his work as Leader of Opposition. His supporters would have poured into the streets in protest but he urged calm.

He would wait in patience, looking forward to the time when his chance would come to lead the country. It would be another five years and it seemed like an eternity.  But he knew it was not going to be an inordinately long time.

That moment arrived in 2002, when the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) picked Kibaki as their presidential candidate to face Moi’s preferred successor Uhuru Kenyatta. 

Kibaki was overwhelmingly elected as Kenya’s third President with more than 65 per cent of the popular vote.

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