From matatu conductor to commander in chief: Life and times of Mwai Kibaki

How Kibaki's brother-in-law set in motion events that led to the making of arguably Kenya’s best president

The late former President Mwai Kibaki

Were it not for his brother-in-law Paul Mureithi, the late former President Mwai Kibaki would have probably ended up as a herder in his village of Gatuyaini, Othaya in Nyeri County.

Kibaki was the last born of eight children and the only one among his siblings to get an education.

Mureithi insisted that the child be taken to school, which set in motion events that would later lead to the rise of arguably Kenya’s best president.

The former head of state’s unquestionable intelligence stood out at all levels of education as he set academic records.

During the school holidays, in high school, he worked as a conductor on buses operated by the defunct Othaya African Bus Union.

Kibaki wanted to join the military after high school but at the time, the colonial government limited the participation of the Kikuyu community in the armed forces.

It was no shock when he graduated at the top of his class at the Makerere University, where he was studying Economics, History, and Political Science.

This won him a scholarship to any learning institution of his choosing in the United Kingdom, and he chose the London School of Economics.

Before travelling to London, Kibaki briefly took up an appointment as assistant sales manager at Shell Company of East Africa, Uganda Division.

At the London School of Economics, he became the first African at the school to graduate with a first-class honours degree.

In 1958, he returned to Makerere, where he worked as an assistant lecturer in the economics department until 1961.

Kibaki married the late Lucy Muthoni, the daughter of a church preacher and afterward, in 1961, a secondary school principal.

Kibaki left teaching to join politics at the behest of the late Tom Mboya who was a rising figure at the time.

In 1963, he was elected as a Member of Parliament for Donholm constituency (subsequently called Bahati and now known as Makadara) in Nairobi. This was the start of his long political career that lasted up to 50 years.

That same year, he was appointed Treasury PS, Assistant Minister of Finance and chairman of the Economic Planning Commission, and was promoted to Minister of Commerce and Industry in 1966.

In 1969, he became Minister of Finance and Economic Planning where he served until 1982. He then move his political base to his rural home of Othaya where he served as MP for 38 years until he retired from politics.

After the late Daniel Moi took over after Jomo Kenyatta, Kibaki was promoted to vice president and kept his financial docket.

Kibaki fell out of favour with President Moi in March 1988 and was dropped as vice president and moved to the Ministry of Health. He seemingly took the demotion in his stride without much ado.

Kibaki's political style during these years was described as gentlemanly and non-confrontational. This style exposed him to criticism that he was a spineless or even cowardly politician who never took a stand.

Even when he took over as president in 2002, after beating his godson and current President Uhuru Kenyatta, one of his lecturers at Makerere did not think Kibaki had the personality and character of a head of state.

The issues Kibaki has to deal with require some ruthlessness and, honestly, I don’t think that is his nature… Kibaki does not crave prominence; he does not like to push himself forward. God help him,” said Prof Kenneth Ingham in a past interview.

President Kibaki's style was that of low-key publicity averse but highly intelligent and competent technocrat.

Unlike his predecessors, the late former president did not try to establish a psychopath following, never had all manner of streets, places, and institutions named after him, and never had state-sanctioned praise songs composed in his honour.

Some of the successes Kenya witnessed during his tenure include free primary education and subsidised secondary education, the introduction of the constituency development fund, economic growth, transformation of the telecommunication sector, vision 2030, and the adoption of the new constitution.

Some of the drawbacks that threatened his 10-year rule included ethnic balkanization which erupted into the 2007/8 post-election violence, corruption, and the emergence of the ‘deep state’.

President Kibaki was accused of ruling with a small group of his elderly peers, usually referred to as the "Kitchen Cabinet".

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