Goodbye, Mr Big Man!

Peter Kimani
9 January 2003

A 21-gun salute punctuated the installation of Mwai Kibaki as Kenya’s third president last week, sharply contrasting the stony send-off accorded former president Daniel arap Moi.

And if the cheers that greeted Kibaki reflected the great expectations Kenyans hold in his leadership, the jeers that underlined Moi’s farewell speech at Uhuru Park, in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, were the outward sign that the patience Kenyans had displayed towards Moi for 24 years had finally run out.

The Kenyan poll, which was endorsed by European Union, Commonwealth and American observers as free and fair, is more than just a change of guard; it is being hailed as a first for Africa.

‘Your peaceful conduct during the electioneering has earned Africa respect,’ said Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa.

Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Zambia’s Levy Mwanawasa and South Africa’s First Lady Zenale Mbeki were among regional leaders in attendance.

To many Kenyans, the polls heralded a new beginning, as evinced in the fierce fervent fervour displayed by the roiling swirl of humanity that turned up for the recent inauguration.

‘This is our 1963,’ enthused one woman. ‘This is the rebirth of our nation.’

Kibaki’s inaugural speech echoed this sentiment, and promised to restore Kenya to its past glory.

‘I am inheriting a country which has been badly ravaged by years of misrule and ineptitude,’ said Kibaki. ‘You have asked me to lead this nation out of the present wilderness and malaise on to the promised land. And I shall.’

Moi’s reign – the word seems appropriate even for an elected president – has left the country on its knees, and a once vibrant economy reclining to imminent collapse. The past year marked a steep decline, with the GDP growth rate of 6.2% shrinking to 1.1% in two decades.

The Kenyan poll clearly has a historical meaning, not least because it has effectively ended the 39-year rule of the Kenya African National Union (Kanu), passing on the baton to the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc), a loose affiliation of fourteen parties that came into being only two months ago.

Corruption has also resulted in the country’s marginalisation in regional and global geopolitics, with Uganda and Tanzania attracting foreign investment worth $190 million and $280 million, respectively, compared with Kenya’s paltry $50 million.

Quite tellingly, the Kenyan shilling appreciated by 3% on Kibaki’s inauguration, the highest for almost two and a half years.

Donor confidence has been oozing from all quarters, and observers predict a deluge of development aid in future, contrasting with the Moi regime, which was ravaged by minimal goodwill from bilateral donors.

The immediate beneficiaries of Kenya’s peaceful transition are other African countries, whose citizens are likely to demand more transparency in the running of their affairs.

Uganda, specifically, is likely to generate international attention as Museveni has delayed elections since 1986, when he romped to power after a decade fighting in the bush. He has since outlawed political parties, alleging that Ugandans are not ready to embrace multi-party politics.

Interestingly, that was Moi’s theme song too, one decisively silenced by the poll of his fellow Kenyans.

‘Look around you, see what a gorgeous constellation of stars we are, just look at this dazzling mosaic of people of various ethnic backgrounds, race, creed, sex, age, experience and social status,’ boomed Kibaki, as if to discount Moi’s prophecy that Kenya’s undoing would stem from ethnic strife.

Kibaki’s victory, however, was also made possible by the pivotal role of Raila Odinga, the son of Kenya’s former vice-president Oginga Odinga, and the father of opposition politics in Kenya.

Abandoning his National Democratic Party, the junior Odinga warmed up to Kanu, and fomented a rebellion from within, openly defying chairman Moi, before decamping to rejoin the opposition.

Moi, the self-proclaimed professor of Kenyan politics, rose from being a primary school teacher to lead the East African nation, which gained independence from Britain in 1963. He leaves a legacy of the good, the bad and the ugly.

He has had a towering presence in a region where peace and stability seem elusive, and he grudgingly led his country to cast a ballot every five years – while many of his African compatriots opted for the bullet to ascend to power.

He has also fostered peace in neighbouring Sudan, Somalia and Burundi, while hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees.

But at home, Moi’s desire to secure a place in Kenyan history saw him rename virtually all schools and roads after himself, while letting the country bleed dry through institutional corruption.

The latter seems to be Kibaki’s topmost agenda; he has vowed to reshape the country by leading by example, and will account for his wealth, as will other leaders in the new government.

Only time will tell whether all edifices named after Moi will survive beyond him.

But perhaps the most important lessons of the resounding victory of the Kenyan opposition is that Kenyans – like their fellow Africans elsewhere in the continent – have bid the ‘Big Man’ generation goodbye.

Hopefully forever.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData