News 2008


Wave of anarchy blamed on Kenya's 'General Coward'

As the post-election death toll nears 1,000 and towns go up in flames, more Kenyans are saying the 'holy' President and his elite advisers are to blame

Xan Rice in Othaya

Sunday February 3, 2008

The Observer

Mount Kenya rises in the distance, its glaciers reflecting the sharp morning light. Tea bushes cover the slopes around the huge estate, with its high walls and three separate entrances, one manned by heavily armed policemen. If the pre-election predictions had been followed, the 76-year-old golf-loving, aloof owner of the estate in Othaya should have been strolling in its neat gardens, enjoying his first month of retirement and reflecting on his legacy of furthering Kenya's passage towards democracy.

But instead Mwai Kibaki is holed up in State House in Nairobi, three hours' drive away, fighting to entrench his presidential power following a highly contentious election victory that has plunged Kenya into its worst crisis since independence. In little over a month more than 900 people have been killed, 300,000 people displaced, and entire towns split along ethnic lines.

Yesterday the violence continued. In the town of Kericho in the Rift Valley, hundreds of homes belonging to people of Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe were being set alight by gangs of youths.

Kibaki's handling of the crisis, so far limited to one brief visit to displaced people and reading out a few pre-written statements insisting he won fairly, has invited fierce criticism. The normally pro-government Daily Nation newspaper warned Kibaki: 'If Kenya disintegrates, history books will record that the collapse of a once great, united and prosperous country happened on your watch'. The Nairobi Star was headlined: 'Where is Kibaki? ... as Kenya slips into anarchy'.

Other questions come from millions of Kenyans struggling to understand what is happening in their country. How could people have misread a man who has been in government since independence, regarded as the gentleman of Kenyan politics? What motivated an already wealthy President, with little apparent ego, caricatured in newspapers as enjoying afternoon naps, to stage what the opposition has called a 'civilian coup'?

'I have spoken to nearly every prominent columnist in this country and asked "Did you see this coming?"' said Wycliffe Muga, one of Kenya's best-known journalists. 'None of them did. From being a detached, almost aristocratic President, Kibaki suddenly seemed to change overnight into a scheming, duplicitous leader willing to see bloodshed in his thirst for power.' Some are looking into Kibaki's past to see whether they missed the warning signs of a leader who would take more than 40 years to reveal his true colours.

A brilliant student at the London School of Economics, Kibaki entered Kenya's first post-independence government in 1963. Six years later he stood in Nairobi's Bahati constituency against Jael Mbogo, the popular head of Kenya's biggest women's association. He won by a wafer-thin margin in remarkably similar circumstances to December's election; behind in the early tallying, the verdict was delayed for days and a crack squad of police officers swarmed around the vote-counting centre when the result was announced. 'I was so far ahead in early vote counting that even the BBC even reported that a young woman had felled a government minister,' Mbogo, now a civil society activist in Nairobi, told The Observer. 'Kibaki stalled the result, and then robbed me of victory. Because he looks so holy, people are still asking if he really was capable of stealing this election. What I say is "Of course, he has done it before".'

As Vice-President under Daniel arap Moi, Kibaki was well regarded. His family become rich through his contacts, but he was never tainted by corruption. He was happiest on the golf course and in the colonial-era Muthaiga Club where he held court with Nairobi's elite Kikuyus; politicians and businessmen, the lines between them often blurred.

His reluctance to press for multipartyism earned him the nickname General Coward. But by the 2002 election, after 24 years of Moi's misrule, a strongman was the last thing Kenyans were looking for. Kibaki was a safe pair of hands.

'Kibaki is the one politician I have always trusted in Kenya,' said Philip Machila, 67, who used to attend party meetings with Kibaki. 'The only problem he has always had is some of the people around him.'

The 'bad-influence' theory is always used to excuse Kibaki. Throughout his first term in office he was surrounded and shielded by old friends, virtually all Kikuyu. Initially Kibaki needed protecting. Badly injured in a car accident a few weeks before he was sworn in in 2002, he was then reported to have had a stroke. For much of 2003 it was unclear whether Kibaki would complete his term. His memory was as shaky as his walk. His health improved but access to him has not. He has not given a single media interview since he became President in 2002 and does not take questions at rare news conferences.

Several of Kibaki's Kikuyu golfing friends have assumed significant influence at State House in recent years. 'Some of these people hold very strong thoughts about the superiority of the Kikuyus and their inherent right to govern,' said a former government minister. 'It's a case of "We helped end British rule using the Mau Mau, and we are the ones that keep the economy ticking over. The other 42 ethnic groups are welcome to live in Kenya, but only we can rule".' He said he did not believe 'the President is calling the shots at all. He always has to consult the hardliners around him'.

'It was not until September last year that we could even get him out on the campaign trail,' said an adviser to Kibaki's PNU party. 'He seemed very reluctant for a long time.' But the adviser rejected the assertion that Kibaki is not completely in charge: 'He attends a security briefing even morning. He understands his legacy will be hurt if this current crisis does not end well.'

Even with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in Nairobi this weekend, supporting mediation efforts chaired by Kofi Annan, Kibaki made a speech to the African Union that could hardly have been more antagonistic towards opposition supporters, already on edge after the murder of two opposition MPs last week. He reiterated that the election result was fair and that the opposition was to blame for the violence. It should take its election grievances to the courts, he said, and blamed unnamed foreign countries for suggesting a power-sharing. This hardline stance at a time when towns like Kericho are in flames - and his quiet dismissal of Murage a fortnight ago - means there is an increasing body of people who now believe that Kibaki alone must take the blame for the country's mess. 'I honestly believe he is the man driving the whole operation; the ineptly rigged election and the aftermath,' said David Ndii, a Nairobi-based analyst. 'Kibaki very much knows what is happening, and must be held responsible.'