Kenyan Press Cheers Kibaki

Kenyan President Kibaki
Kenyan President Emilio Mwai Kibaki, shortly after hearing he had been elected, Dec. 29, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

A wind of change has been blowing in Kenya since the country’s third president, Emilio Mwai Kibaki, took the reins of power on Dec. 30, 2002, succeeding Daniel arap Moi after his 24-year rule.

Kenyan commentators have cheered President Kibaki as “the people’s choice” following his landslide victory at the polls. Kibaki won 3.6 million votes, or 62 percent of the vote. His closest rival, Uhuru Kenyatta, of the former ruling party, Kenya Africa National Union (KANU), won only 1.6 million votes, or 31 percent of returns.

“After years of misrule and mismanagement of their country’s affairs, the people of Kenya finally saw their dreams come true by using ‘ballot power’ to root out the Moi government and usher in a new crop of leaders who have promised to resuscitate the nation,” wrote the left-wing People Daily, traditionally a fierce critic of KANU.

A jubilant crowd of an estimated 600,000 people turned up for Kibaki’s Dec. 30 inauguration in Nairobi, bringing the downtown core to a virtual standstill. Chanting pro-Kibaki and anti-Moi slogans, the frenzied crowd waited hours for Kibaki to show up to the inauguration, which was also attended by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, among a host of other dignitaries.

The crowd jeered every time Moi’s name was mentioned, and during his address, some of the assembled citizens began throwing mud at the podium before they were swiftly arrested by Moi’s bodyguards.

After Moi’s brief speech, Mibaki took the podium and was greeted by resounding cheers. “Fellow Kenyans,” he told his supporters, “I am inheriting a country which has been badly ravaged by years of misrule and ineptitude. There has been a wide disconnect between the people and the government.”

Kibaki promised to rid Kenya of corruption, to provide free primary education to all Kenyans, and to ease the life of the 60 percent of Kenyans who live in poverty by bolstering the country’s all-important agricultural sector.

Few could find fault with such fine promises. But Kenyans continued to express admiration for Kibaki after he announced the composition of his Cabinet—which he touted as a leaner, less wasteful council than that of his predecessor—on Jan. 3. “From the Cabinet ministers whom he has appointed, it is clear that Kibaki is serious about this country,” Allan Owinde, a sophomore at the University of Nairobi’s political science department said.

“Kibaki is the best president Kenya has had so far. By appointing the largest number of women ever to the Cabinet, he has shown that women can contribute to national issues on an equal footing with men,” Gladys Kirange, a women’s-rights activist, noted.

Mwenda Njoka, writing for the Jan. 12 Sunday Standard added his voice to those praising Kibaki. “It is encouraging,” he wrote, “That the Mwai Kibaki government has been firm on two crucial fronts: coming with a relatively lean Cabinet and avoiding engaging in deliberate acts of witch-hunting against the former administration.”

“Several ministries in the previous government existed only by name while some of the departments in these ministries sharply contradicted their core roles,” the independent Daily Nation noted with pleasure on Jan.12, referring to Kibaki’s scaled-down Cabinet. It added: ”It is also true that some departments were used to propagate some less-than-honest deals.”

Not everyone was happy, of course. “To the disappointment of many Kenyans, well-known eating chiefs [corrupt officials] have been rewarded with Cabinet positions, ostensibly to ensure ethnic balance and perhaps to establish and perpetuate political and stately loyalties,” Nairobi’s Kenya Times observed on Jan. 4.

Mutula Kilonzo, Moi’s lawyer and now a KANU MP, did not miss the opportunity to point out that some members of Kibaki’s government also served as ministers under Moi and were implicated in shadowy deals.

“Kibaki’s [rise] to the presidency has not only given Kenyans renewed hope for a better future but has also put a heavy burden on the new government because they want changes overnight,” observed Wahome Mutahi in Kampala, Uganda’s independent Sunday Monitor, on Jan. 5.

The Monitor was referring to the flurry of orders the Cabinet ministers have fired off since their appointment. First to make his presence felt was Education Minister George Saitoti, who served as vice president for 13 years under Moi’s rule. He abolished all primary school levies and set in motion the free primary education program promised by NARC.

Then Local Government Minister Karisa Maitha moved to repossess all public property allocated—fraudulently, Maitha alleges—to Moi’s cronies under the past administration. The country barely had time to react when Health Minister Charity Ngilu, the only woman to have vied for the presidency in Kenya (in 1997), ordered all government hospitals to release patients who had been treated but detained because they had yet to pay their bills. The order also applied to public morgues that had been holding corpses until the deceased’s relatives could pay their bills.

Roads and Public Works Minister Raila Odinga was the next to make headlines when he revoked the illegal sale of government houses to KANU loyalists at artificially low prices.

Their zeal has raised eyebrows in the international press. On Jan. 14, The BBC’s Joseph Warungu described “overzealous ministers” sending “decrees, warnings, pledges, and orders flying in all directions, causing alarm and confusion among the frightened civil service,” and “scenes of utter chaos.”

But in its Jan.12 editorial, Nairobi’s Sunday Nation had put a more positive valence on the same scenes: “Ministers are peeling off policy faster than the civil servants can take it down and directives are flying in every direction…Part of the reason for the ministers’ enthusiasm is the fear of failing the public, of letting their voters down. This is the right attitude and their efforts and integrity are widely appreciated.”

The same day, People Daily’s editorial took a similarly positive tone. “Since taking their oath of office, members of the Kibaki Cabinet have swung into action, making various proclamations on what they want to see done in their respective jurisdictions. [If these are] implemented, we [will] be years ahead in every sector in this society,” the editorial noted.

Others in Kenya urged the new government not to try to accomplish too much too fast. While lauding the ministers for their alacrity, the Jan. 12 Sunday Nation exhorted the Cabinet to “cool down and take more calculated approach, especially towards intractable macro-sociological problems. The public fully understands that no one can perform miracles overnight. What they want to see is a collected but sustained effort to deliver, spread over five years.”

The day before, The Saturday Nation’s David Makali made similar recommendations. “The government will have to earn its credit through sensible politics and actions. Its first week in office has been a zealous mix of bad manners and sheer disregard for procedure,”

KANU MP Moses Cheboi was equally indignant. “The ministers are issuing decrees even before consultations. They are behaving as if they are trying to outdo each other,” he told reporters on Jan. 9.

But assessing the new government’s first few weeks in office, Kevin Mwireri, a minister at a Nairobi church, took a different view. “The ministers are working. That is good. The fact that they seem to be going on overdrive should not worry Kenyans. We need results,” he said.

Karemi Gitonga, a Nairobi-based microbiologist, agreed: “Kibaki’s good education has put him in good stead to reward professionalism and talent. Virtually all the ministers have university degrees in disparate fields. I think this is the most promising Cabinet Kenyans have seen in recent times.”

As Ndirangu Wachira, who works at a Nairobi supermarket, put it, “We have no time for procedure. Now our children are going to school free of charge because no labyrinthine procedures were considered. We want the ministers to deliver as soon as possible. Most of the bureaucratic procedures just delay good results,” he said.For Wachira, as for many Kenyans, the Kibaki government will only be judged by the results it can achieve.