• Kibwana’s carefully constructed narrative ignores a crucial aspect of his record — the years he served in the Mwai Kibaki administration as a Cabinet minister and as an adviser.
• Kenyans would do well to remember this history when evaluating Kibwana’s candidacy.
This week, Makueni Governor Kivutha Kibwana announced he will be running for President in 2022.
The announcement drew many reactions, chief among them joy that someone outside of the usual suspects would be offering themselves for the top job, someone with a proven track record of fighting for constitutional reform against the Moi regime as well as a highly acclaimed two-term gubernatorial tenure.
Kibwana has already declared himself “Wanjiku’s candidate”, in one stroke both stealing the thunder from self-proclaimed “hustler”, William Ruto and`setting himself apart from the “dynasties” represented by Uhuru Kenyatta and his handshake buddy, Raila Odinga.
However, Kibwana’s carefully constructed narrative ignores a crucial aspect of his record — the years he served in the Mwai Kibaki administration as a Cabinet minister and as an adviser. It was a time when, according to his former comrades-in-arms in civil society, he “parleyed [his activist credentials] into electoral politics and easily won the Makueni parliamentary seat in the 2002 elections and was subsequently appointed Minister for the Environment in the Narc government”.
They go on to note that “Kibwana seem[ed] to have been effortlessly socialised into the modus operandi of the status quo and abandoned the principles he stood for while in the civil society trenches.”
Indeed, there are plenty of examples of instances and incidents that call into question his judgment and commitment to the cause of reform. He, for example, stuck with Kibaki long after it became clear his regime was as kleptocratic, if not worse, than that of his predecessor, Daniel Moi.
In the words of then British High Commissioner Edward Clay, public officials continued to “eat like gluttons” with their gluttony causing them “to vomit all over our shoes”. This was the era of the Anglo Leasing scam in which Kibwana’s colleagues in the Cabinet were implicated and when John Githongo, who had been picked to lead the anti-corruption fight, had instead been forced into exile for doing his job.
Through it all, Kibwana remained one of Kibaki’s most steadfast and loyal supporters. Not even the adulteration of the Constitution he had spent decades fighting for, the raiding of the Standard Group offices or the theft of the 2007 election was sufficient to prod him into taking a stand. His former comrades became his targets, as he called for Raila and Kalonzo Musyoka to be arrested on charges of treason over the Artur Bros saga, which we now know was actually the government’s doing.
It must be said though that in abandoning his principles for the sake of his position, Kibwana was not alone. He was, in fact, walking a well-trodden path. “If you want to find out what a man is to the bottom, give him power” said American orator Robert Ingersoll in 1883, adding that “any man can stand adversity — only a great man can stand prosperity”. The record of many Kenyan politicians testifies to this fact. Rare is the figure whose reputation survives a sojourn in government.
One can think back to the former scourge of Kanu, Dr Mukhisa Kituyi, showing his true priorities during a parliamentary debate on the President's salary in December 2006. He essentially said that economic benefits were to flow from the top down, starting with the political class.
Improvements to the economy, he said, justified increasing pay for the President and MPs while hinting at the future “possibility of implementing the promise of competing the five-year promise to teachers”. In a delicious irony given the lay of the land today, Ruto, now Deputy President, interjected to remind him: "In 1997, when I came to this House [Dr. Kituyi] could not afford to hire a car, but he now flies in a helicopter."
Kituyi's moral descent mirrored that of many other former opposition and civil society luminaries such as Kiraitu Murungi, who famously tried to get Githongo to “go slowly” on corruption investigations, and Martha Karua, a formerly staunch defender of Press freedoms, who after ascending to power, filed over 15 cases in court against the very same press, including over her portrayals in cartoons.
Kenyans would do well to remember this history when evaluating Kibwana’s candidacy. It is not to say that he is any less fit for office than his rivals, but rather to remember that the goal of such evaluation is not just about looking at achievements. It should also include an attempt to predict how the candidate would behave once in power.
And if there’s anything the Kibaki tenure should have taught us, it is that ignoring warning signals from the past can have terrible consequences.