For Kenya's new leader, it's been a long road to the top

Mwai Kibaki will be inaugurated Kenya's third president, winning in a landslide.

Many thought he would never make it. Coming in third and second in Kenya's two previous presidential elections, Mwai Kibaki was this country's "nearly man."

But on Monday, this mild-mannered economist is Kenya's new No. 1. After years steadfastly plugging away - first as a member of the ruling party and later, with the advent of multipartyism, in the opposition - Mr. Kibaki won in a landslide and ousted the party which has ruled since independence 39 years ago.

Kibaki has come a long way from his small village on the slopes of Mount Kenya to the presidential residence on State House Road, home to only two men before him. His victory - and his promises to reform Kenya's government and clean up corruption - indicate that after 24 years of President Daniel arap Moi's absolute rule, Kenya is entering into a new, more prosperous, more promising era, say supporters.

"He is clean and wise and experienced," extols John Odhiambo, an enthusiastic Kibaki supporter, as he prances around his transistor radio in Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum, listening to the poll returns. "So he's a businessman and plays golf and sends his children to school overseas. But he is still one of us. He has felt our frustrations over the years, and he is here to help us."

Kibaki, who is from Kenya's largest tribe, the Kikuyu, was born in 1931 in a rural coffee-producing village called Othaya. Education was his ticket out. He excelled at his all-boys primary school, was top of his class at the Mang'u boarding school, and finally was packed off by his parents - with one little suitcase and wearing shorts and a ratty sweater - to the only institute for higher education in East Africa at the time, Makerere University in neighboring Uganda.

There, he studied economics and political science, and served as chairman of the Kenya Students Association and vice chairman of the student's guild. He also acquired a taste for jazz, graduated top in the department, and won a scholarship to the London School of Economics.

A few years later, armed with a first-class degree in public finance, an educated English accent, and a crush on his future wife, Lucy Muthoni (the couple has been married for 42 years and have four children and three grandchildren), he returned to Makerere to teach economics.

But he was itching to come home. It was the end of the 1950s, the Mau Mau struggle for independence against the British was still raging, and Kibaki wanted to be part of the action.

While he never fought - unlike his brother, who died commanding a Mau Mau unit at the time - Kibaki took the secret oath of the Mau Mau and was one of the original members of the nascent Kenya African National Union (KANU), which began ruling the country at independence in 1963.

"Some friends and I visited the African Corner Bar along Race Course Road for a drink," recalls Kibaki of one hot evening in early 1960. "During our conversation ... one of us suggested that we draw a constitution for the future. So, we borrowed stationery from the counter and started drafting.... The exercise eventually led to the birth of KANU."

Kibaki rose up through the KANU ranks during those early days, beginning as the volunteer executive officer and eventually becoming Kenya's longest-serving finance minister under the country's first president, Jomo Kenyatta. When Mr. Moi, then vice president, assumed power in 1978 on the death of Mr. Kenyatta, the well respected Kibaki became vice president.

After 10 years as the country's No. 2, Kibaki was fired by Moi in a cabinet reshuffle. Kibaki remained as health minister for several more years, until he quit to run in the opposition.

"He was the vice president in the days when that office was worth its name," reads Kibaki's website, in an attempt to respond to critics who see Kibaki as part of the old guard. "That was before power was concentrated in one man, and before the rampant, naked, shameless corruption became the order of the present administration."

With the advent of multipartyism in 1991, Kibaki was one of the first KANU men to peel off. He formed the Democratic Party of Kenya. He came in third in the 1992 elections, and in 1997, out of a field of 15 candidates, he ran a close second to Moi. He and other opposition figures were blamed for splitting the vote and allowing Moi to win. His detractors charged that he was lacking in drive and berated him for failing to be more forceful in building an opposition.

But dismissing calls that he retire from politics and concentrate on his growing banking and insurance ventures, Kibaki, the longest-standing member of Parliament after Moi, returned for another term.

This year, having learned the lessons of the past, some 10 opposition parties united, joining forces with KANU malcontents to form the National Rainbow Coalition, and running in the elections with Kibaki as their agreed leader.

The gambit paid off. Yesterday, Kenya's electoral commission announced Kibaki the winner with 63 percent of Friday's vote to 30 percent for Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya's first president (Moi was prohibited by the Constitution from running again.) Kibaki will be inaugurated Monday.

But, say observers, Kibaki's victory is just the beginning. He is inheriting a country with high poverty, crippling domestic debt, growing HIV incidence, poor infrastructure, and terrible corruption and mismanagement on all levels.

Kibaki has promised to change the Constitution, decentralize power, clean up corruption, bring back international donor aid, provide free primary education, and step down after one five-year term.

If Kibaki immediately turns his attention to fighting corruption, one Western diplomat says that important foreign aid will come pouring in.

In an impromptu victory speech yesterday in his garden, Kibaki told reporters that Kenyans had given him the challenge he had long been waiting for.

"I can assure you," he said, "I will rise to the occasion."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.