Nairobi's corruption busting new leader tries to undo Moi's years of misrule

President Kibaki breaks with chauvinist tradition by naming three women ministers in his country's new slimline government

Declan Walsh
Saturday 04 January 2003 01:00
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To mark Daniel arap Moi's many anniversaries in power, state companies used to clog national newspapers with advertisements. The fawning notices, paid for by taxpayers, celebrated the continuation of a rule most Kenyans despised. But when Mwai Kibaki became President, the backslapping was done by well-heeled men wearing Pringle sweaters.

"We offer our commitment to support his Excellency ... in leading this country to great heights of prosperity," were the solemn words of the Muthaiga Golf Club, a plush enclave of privilege once reserved for white colonists, in Wednesday's Daily Nation.

The small ad, if not the most profound of the many changes surging across Kenya, was certainly a telling one. A quarter century of Mr Moi's "Big Man" misrule has nearly ruined Kenya. After his euphoric election last weekend, Mr Kibaki, 71, is promising radical transformation – in every possible way.

Mr Kibaki says he intends to turn Kenya's notoriously corrupt government upside down. It started yesterday, with the announcement of a slimline new cabinet. The number of ministries has shrunk from 28 to 21. The long-time finance shadow David Mwiraria was appointed Finance Minister. And in a break with the naked chauvinism of the Moi era, a handful of women were also named – three as cabinet ministers and one, the firebrand environmentalist Wangari Maathai, as a junior minister.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, we are in business," proclaimed Mr Kibaki from the wheelchair to which he has been confined since a car accident last month. The corruption-busting crusade is inspiring ordinary Kenyans. On Wednesday, furious bus passengers ganged up on a traffic policeman in Machakos, 40 miles south of Nairobi, and forced him to return a 100 shilling bribe he had extracted from the conductor. They reportedly lectured the errant cop that Kenya was entering a new, corruption-free era. "The war starts with us, the citizens," Thomas Muinde, a passenger, said afterwards.

So far, so good. But while poverty-stricken Kenyans have invested Mr Kibaki with a messianic quality, doubts are surfacing about whether he can deliver on his promises. The honeymoon may not last long.

The problems of Kenya – collapsing infrastructure, sliding economy, endemic corruption and a horrific rate of Aids – will take years to solve. Disappointment seems inevitable. Secondly, to secure election victory, Mr Kibaki had to assemble a loose coalition of highly ambitious opposition leaders. Some jumped from Mr Moi's Kanu party only recently. Now the elderly neo-conservative, who is famously indecisive, has the difficult task of steering them through the choppy waters ahead.

Mr Kibaki is no stranger to government. He was the longest serving finance minister, from 1969 to 1982, and served as vice-president under Mr Moi for a decade until 1988. But the differences between the two men have always been sharp. A doughty political fighter, Mr Moi was a master of the dark arts of political manipulation and cunning. While keeping his ministers on a short leash – several were usually forced to accompany him on trips abroad and many were fired through curt announcements on the lunchtime news – he kept in touch with ordinary folk by whipping around the country in an exhausting round of never-ending rallies.

Mr Kibaki, on the other hand, is one of the great gentlemen of Kenyan politics. He rarely engages in mud slinging and at election time does not employ gangs of rowdy youths to campaign for him. In parliament, he looked almost out of place among the rough and tumble of vicious exchanges that occasionally degenerated into fistfights.

"He was a straightforward and intellectual man," said Jeremiah Nyagah, 82, who served with him as a cabinet minister for 25 years. "I can't remember one time when I saw him being aggressive."

If Mr Moi was most at home meeting the wananchi (ordinary people), Mr Kibaki is accustomed to more rarefied surroundings. He lives in a mansion in the upmarket suburb of Muthaiga near his beloved golf course. He is also a member of the Muthaiga and Karen Clubs, other bastions of former colonial rule.

Both are a far cry from his spartan upbringing. Born near the slopes of Mount Kenya in 1931, Mr Kibaki spent his early years living in a mud hut and herding cattle. His schooling was rough but successful. He boasts that his mattress at Nyeri Boys School consisted of a timber board covered with a clump of hay. But in class he excelled, later collecting scholarships to Makerere University in Uganda and then the London School of Economics.

His family were from the Kikuyu tribe and staunch nationalists – a brother, Kinyma, was killed in action as a commander of the Mau Mau militia. Mr Kibaki was living abroad during the worst of the violence, but as the heady winds of peaceful nationalism crossed Africa in the early 1960s, he returned home to join Kanu.

As finance minister during the coffee boom of the 1970s, he was deemed to have done a steady job. "He had a good record in good times," said Francois Grignon, a political analyst who has published three books on Kenya.

But if Mr Kibaki is a conciliator, he has also been accused of being spineless. He never saw a fence he didn't sit on, goes the joke. He can't even make up his mind about his favourite beer – he will drink any brand, warm or cold, according to his own website. In the months before multiparty politics were introduced in 1992, he famously declared that calling for democracy was like "trying to cut down a fig tree with a razor blade". Then he jumped ship to the opposition.

Meanwhile another politician, Kenneth Matiba, did the real fighting for multipartyism – and paid for it with long-term damage to his health after a period of detention.

During his decade in opposition Mr Kibaki has tried three times to defeat Mr Moi at the ballot box, failing in 1992 and 1997. This time he won a landslide victory, but Kenyans did not have a sudden revelation about Mr Kibaki's qualities. Rather, a fatal mistake by Mr Moi in effect handed victory to the opposition. An attempt to foist Uhuru Kenyatta on Kanu sparked a party revolt and an exodus to the opposition benches. The long-squabbling opposition leaders – including Mr Kibaki, Raila Odinga and Kijana Wamalwa – finally saw a chance to unite under one banner and seized it. The National Rainbow Coalition – Narc, the political alliance that took the election – was born. During campaigning, Mr Kibaki looked old and tired beside the sparky Mr Kenyatta. Yet Kenyans wouldn't touch anyone associated with Mr Moi, and the various leaders rallied their tribes to Narc. "People didn't vote for Kibaki, they voted against Kanu," said Mr Grignon.

The wages of that election pact were paid out yesterday. Senior ministries were doled out to all the main opposition leaders, irrespective of ability. Some, particularly the Kanu malcontents who defected only a few months ago, are tainted by association with tribal violence or corruption. The former vice-president George Saitoti, who has been implicated in Kenya's biggest scam, was appointed Minister of Education while Kalonzo Musyoko went to Foreign Affairs, a portfolio he held for four years under Mr Moi.

Nevertheless an unmistakable air of excitement is running through Kenya. The West is also getting involved – more than $350m in donor aid was frozen in late 2000 due to Moi-era corruption. Early signs are that the money taps may soon be flowing again.

The litmus test of his early months will be constitutional reform. At the start of his campaign, Mr Kibaki promised to introduce a new constitution to water down the concentrated powers of the presidency.But in Monday's inauguration speech, Mr Kibaki somehow failed to mention that promise. Already there are worries he may forget it altogether.

Voters have shown exemplary calm and discipline in bringing Kenya across a Rubicon. Now the elderly technocrat must provehe's worthy of their trust, and with speed. There will be little time for golf.

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