Roughly every 12 months, I like to make a public confession to one of the great blunders of my career in journalism.
This was when, back in 2001 — and alongside many others who considered themselves well-informed — I wrote off one Mwai Kibaki as a contender in any future presidential race.
My argument was that this was a man who had achieved much: he had been a near-legendary Finance minister in the years when the Kenyan economy recorded phenomenal growth (the late 1960s to the 1970s).
He had served as vice president for a decade. He had been a constant feature in Kenyan cabinets for the best part of three decades.
He had served as leader of the official opposition in Parliament. That was not a record which could be diminished by his two consecutive defeats at the hands of President Daniel Moi, in the presidential elections of 1992 and 1997.
I concluded by posing this question: insofar as Moi had practically isolated Kibaki’s Central Kenya stronghold by bringing the second most powerful opposition leader of that time, Raila Odinga, into his government, what hope had Kibaki of ever ascending to the presidency?
And also, within Central Kenya itself, we had an emerging political giant in Paul Muite, then MP for Kabete and a hero of ‘the Second Liberation’.
Surely it was best that Kibaki retire and let the likes of Muite work to forge new partnerships and thus bring Central Kenya back to the forefront of national politics.
Of course with my privileged position as weekly columnist, I did not just say this to my friends over a drink in a pub. I wrote it out in detail, in a column which was read by many.
When unforeseen events thereafter opened the way for Kibaki to be Kenya’s third president, through a landslide victory in 2002, I learned a useful lesson.
And this is that, when asked who is likely to be the next president of Kenya, it is always best to keep saying, “I have no idea” until the election is just three or four months away.
But the bigger point here is that Kibaki’s dogged (and repeatedly frustrated) pursuit of the presidency reminds us there is no direct and easy path to the top in Kenyan politics.
You must first go through the ups and downs of political life. And above all, you must be prepared to lose, before you win.
Our first two presidents, Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Moi, were of course more of classic African dictators — imprisoning their rivals with impunity and clearing the path to elective office for their favoured candidates. Electoral humiliation did not feature in their political careers.
In their case, the price of their rise to power is that they had to endure many years of being tormented by the powers of the day before they got to be president.
Kenyatta suffered years of imprisonment on trumped-up charges, under the colonial government. And Moi was routinely harassed by Kenyatta’s inner circle during the 11 years when he served as his vice president.
But our current President, Uhuru, is no stranger to electoral defeat any more than Kibaki was.
His very first attempt at getting into Parliament – in 1997 – met with defeat at the hands of a relatively obscure politician. Then of course he lost in his first presidential bid in 2002, being buried in the Kibaki landslide.
Uhuru persevered and rose to be deputy prime minister in the coalition government of 2007-2013. And was then elected President in the 2013 election.
His fellow deputy PM, Musalia Mudavadi, has not thus far been so fortunate. He lost by a wide margin in that same 2013 presidential election and has subsequently been out of office for the second time in his long career in politics.
But those who are surprised to see Mudavadi now clearly somewhere near the top of the political pecking order – after four years of relative inactivity – should bear in mind the lessons of Kenyan political history.
The pattern of his career is no different from those of others who have risen to the top.