When Rivals Think He is Down, It's a Fresh Start for Kibaki

The Nation (Nairobi)

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Kamau Ngotho

If Robert Greene's seventh commandment of power: Get others do the job for you, but always take credit (or bag the prize) was carved in stone, Mwai Kibaki would be the Moses to take it to the Israelites.

Once he was ushered into politics as Kanu executive officer in March 1960, events took their own course but with a characteristic trend that had luck and circumstances find him at the right place at the right time.

He did not work hard for it. At times he did not even want it. But because others wanted it and saw him fitting into their designs, they gave it to him. In the end many fell by the wayside.

But, by a twist of fate, the man they saw as a mere pawn in their game plan ended up taking home the prize.

The first casualty of the Kibaki bug was Oginga Odinga. The country's first vice- president had enthusiastically fetched Mr Kibaki from Kampala to use him to fight his arch-rival, Tom Mboya.

A quick reading of Mr Kibaki's character le Mr Mboya, a more cunning and a ruthless fighter than Mr Odinga, to move deftly to have Mr Kibaki in his corner and used him, knowingly or otherwise, to frustrate Mr Odinga.

As the 1963 independence elections approached, Mr Odinga's game plan was to politically finish Mr Mboya in his Nairobi political base. Odinga and Mboya had a balanced support among the Luo in Nairobi.

The decisive vote would come from the Kikuyu voters where Mr Odinga at first had a little edge over Mr Mboya because of his historical liaison with the Waiyaki family.

One-time Foreign Affairs minister Munyua Waiyaki was quite a force to reckon with in city politics at the time.

To offset the balance, Mr Mboya convinced Mr Kibaki to contest the then Donholm parliamentary seat (later renamed Bahati then Makandara). Mr Mboya himself would contest in neighbouring Kamukunji constituency.

The plot was to have Mr Mboya whip the Luos in both Kamukunji and Donholm into electing him, and Mr Kibaki as the latter did the same with Kikuyus in both constituencies.

It worked, and both went to parliament to the utter dismay of Odinga.

To reward him, Mr Mboya and James Gichuru talked President Kenyatta into appointing Mr Kibaki assistant minister for Finance with Mr Gichuru as the minister in the first independence Cabinet.

Retired politician John Keen, who played ball from Odinga's side in those days,remarks of Mr Kibaki: "He was a big disappointment on our side. We had expected him to shore up our numbers and humiliate the Mboya group.

Cut-throat politics

And what did Mr Keen think of Mr Kibaki those days? "I never heard him talk, and I thought he had no taste for the cutthroat politics of the day", he says adding, "those days we were hotheads who would tell off Kenyatta himself and get away with it. To us Kibaki did not exist, politically that is."

But while the excitable radical group of John Keen could not see much threat in the young Mr Kibaki, the pragmatic Mr Mboya saw a great potential in him as a tool to cut the hotheads down to size.

Mr Mboya had been appointed the first minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs with the sole mission of removing legal hurdles that stood in the way of an imperial presidency which Kenyatta wanted for himself.

Secondly and equally important, he was to use the position to politically tame the radicals coalescing behind Mr Odinga. He played the role to great satisfaction of himself and his boss.

But Mr Mboya had his sights set high. To get where he eventually wanted to be in the leadership of the new republic, he knew he had to have his pulse on the country's economic planning.

So in July 1963, he convinced Prime Minister Kenyatta to create the Economic and Planning department within the Ministry of Finance and appoint Mr Kibaki as it's de facto head though still an assistant minister.

It was done. Five months later, the department became a full-fledged ministry with Mr Mboya as the minister and Mr Kibaki his assistant.

Using the new ministry together with his position as Kanu secretary general, Mr Mboya worked overtime to push his political rival Mr Odinga off the political cliff.

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When the Odinga group finally walked out of the Cabinet in March 1966, a top beneficiary of the ensuing Cabinet reshuffle, courtesy of Mr Mboya, was Mr Kibaki, who was elevated to a Cabinet minister and moved to the Commerce and Industry docket.

When Rivals Think He is Down, It's a Fresh Start for Kibaki

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In June that year, Mr Kibaki accompanied Mr Mboya to Moscow where he shot down a five-year Kenya-Soviet economic co-operation deal negotiated earlier by Mr Odinga.

With Mr Odinga politically vanquished, the country's political matrix dramatically changed. Mr Mboya became a favourite of the central Kenya political clique angling for the Kenyatta succession.

Mboya assassinated

Mr Mboya was ultimately assassinated in July 1969, only four months to the General Election, leaving Mr Kibaki a political orphan.

In that year's election, he survived by a whisker when he beat Jael Mbogo in Makadara by less than 500 votes amid allegations of massive rigging.

As with the proverbial cat, another opportunity came beckoning to give him a new lease on life.

It came courtesy of the simmering rivalry among the Kiambu politicians battling it out for the Kenyatta succession. On one hand was a group led by then Foreign Affairs minister Dr Njoroge Mungai.

The rival camp formed around then Attorney- General Charles Njonjo. With all Kiambu politicians lining up behind Mr Mungai, Mr Njonjo had to seek numbers from other Kikuyu districts of Nyeri and Murang'a.

Mr Kibaki turned out to be a big catch for Mr Njonjo, though, as it would turn out later, it was only for convenience.

After the 1969 election, Mr Njonjo managed to convince Kenyatta to appoint Mr Kibaki the Finance minister against the wishes of the rival Kiambu political group.

But while it was easy to secure a high profile position for him in the Cabinet, it would not be easy to salvage his political career in the city.

In addition to the hostility of the Luo voters in Makandara in the wake of the Mboya murder, in the coming 1974 election Mr Kibaki had to reckon with a candidate from his rural Othaya constituency fronted by Mr Njonjo's political rivals-- Dr James Muriuki.

A former Cabinet minister with origins in Nyeri district discloses that it was he him and Mr Njonjo who finally worked out a plan to salvage Mr Kibaki's career.

He had to camp in Othaya to identify elders who would go to him and convince him not to contest a parliamentary seat in the city but go back to his home.

Mr Kibaki's political career got a new lease on life when he finally agreed to return to Othaya in 1974 and was easily elected to Parliament.Lucky break

Kibaki's next lucky break would come in August 1978 following the death of President Kenyatta. Mr Njonjo had almost single-handedly fought off a rival Kiambu group to make sure Vice-President Daniel arap Moi took over as the country's second president.

For his deputy, Mr Moi wanted then minister for Water Development Gikonyo Kiano or then Agriculture minister Jeremiah Nyagah.

Once again, it was Mr Njonjo who intercepted to argue the case for Mr Kibaki. His argument, reckons veteran politician Joseph Kamotho, was that because the larger Kiambu district did not think much of the new president, a counter-balance should come from Mr Kibaki's Nyeri district.

Mr Moi, says Mr Kamotho, bought the argument though with much reservation.

As events would confirm, Mr Moi would not have time for either Mr Njonjo or Mr Kibaki, whom he saw as impediments to his becoming his own man at State House.

With Mr Kibaki demoted from vice- president to Health minister in 1988, political foes were almost writing his political epitaph when his second last lucky break came.

In December 1991, Mr Moi succumbed to local and international pressure to re-introduce multiparty politics in the country.

As the acrimonious crusade heated up in the 1988-91 period, Mr Kibaki had remained ambivalent, even hostile to the campaign. Indeed, even after Mr Moi had given up, he went to his Nyeri home and declared that "Kanu was like a giant tree which opposition wanted to cut with a razor blade".

But as Mr Kibaki hesitated, others put together an opposition party, the Democratic Party, and persuaded him to be their founder chairman.

John Keen, who was the party's founder secretary general, discloses: "Truth be told, Kibaki, and with all due respect to him as the head of state, at first had nothing to do with the DP.

"We are the ones who formed it and persuaded him to be our leader. His name had clout. That is why we installed him as our chairman, reluctant as he was."

Original Ford

Pressed further, Mr Keen reveals: "DP was actually a brainchild of the Kenyatta family. When the original Ford came up with Oginga Odinga as chairman, they really got scared by the prospect of an Odinga presidency, given his unfriendly past with Mzee Kenyatta".

The Kenyatta family, says Mr Keen, had hoped Kenneth Matiba, then recuperating from a stroke in London, would recover in good time and take over Ford.

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"When that never worked, they came up with a plan B which was Kibaki, hence the hurried formation of the DP."

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
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