Whether or not a clear winner emerges from Monday’s March 4 Kenya election, thus avoiding a second-round run-off in April, one thing is for sure: In State House, President Mwai Kibaki will be packing his last suitcases, preparing to clear out.
A lot has been said about what Kibaki’s legacy will be; how the disputed December 2007 election and the horrendous violence that followed it will
impinge on it; and the extent to which he managed – or failed – to break away from the clientilist Kenyan politics of the past.
That however is a very local Kenyan story. In wider African terms, for all his failings, Kibaki did two extraordinary things. First, he became the oldest president (possibly in the world) to preside over a technology/innovation mini-revolution. So, first, we must ask how Kenya became touted as the “Silicon Savannah” under a president who is now 82 years old, while elsewhere other leaders who are half his age have failed to.
Secondly, the most consistent criticism of Kibaki is that he was too much of a hands-off, bumbling, and disengaged president. Part of this was a result of failing health during his first months in office following a car accident in late 2002. Still, how did he manage to dig Kenya from the economic grave in which it was in 2003, and made it one of the continent’s most interesting economies? How was it possible that this supposedly half-asleep president in less than 10 years poured more money into public infrastructure than other presidents since independence in 1963 combined had done; and the Nairobi Stock Exchange equity market capitalisation has grown by a record 1,137 percent.
My sense is that Kibaki did two things that are rarely done in Africa. First, informed by the difficult years Kenya had in the last 10 years of KANU rule, he took the ruling parties (Narc 2003-2007, PNU 2008-2012) out of government, and consigned them to being largely parliamentary parties.
There were no annual national congresses of Narc or PNU in which they made grand declarations about the economy. Several appointments to government were, to be sure, still informed by patronage considerations, but what Kibaki did was return government to some kind of technocratic management.
Without ruling parties meddling too much in government and policy, it opened up a space that was occupied by all sorts of creative forces; the technology community, telecommunication companies, and modernising bureaucrats like Information permanent secretary Bitange Ndemo.
Secondly, Kibaki introduced the “minimalist presidency”. No one had to sit and wait for what the president would do or say. Observers and analysts were reduced to reading Kibaki’s body language, who sat next to him on a podium, who went with him on the few foreign trips he
made. Amidst loud national denunciation about how he was a do-nothing president and addicted to fence-sitting, Kibaki most times refused to budge from the sanctuary of State House to speak on TV. He gave only one formal media interview in his presidency, to the Sunday Nation. And even with that, the questions had to be sent ahead. The new political certainty thus came from a strange source; the near-guarantee that Kibaki would keep off.
Kenya had in the past become accustomed to a rungu(club)-wielding Daniel arap Moi, a larger-than-life presence who had his finger in every pie.
Kibaki, we now know, was pulling a few strings behind the scenes. But his reluctance to publicly also be the country’s First Patriarch, forced Kenyan society to begin growing up again and to learn how to find its own way in the dark without being led by an all-knowing Father of the Nation.
I can’t think of an African president who has done that in recent times and got away with it. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela took his hand off government early, but the rule of the African National Congress and his obsessive deputy, Thabo Mbeki, were still overwhelming and ubiquitous.
I must admit that my pathological loathing of overbearing Big Men disqualifies me as an objective commentator on this subject, as I am likely to be “too soft” on a politician I think represents the opposite. I believe though that one day in quieter times, it will be written that Kibaki proved that sometimes the best thing a leader can do for his country is to get out of its face. If I were to write that story, I would call that the Kibaki Paradox.
(Also just published in Daily Nation; http://elections.nation.co.ke/Blogs/Obbo/-/1640520/1706138/-/bm31r8/-/index.html)