Mwai Kibaki: One of only two Vice Presidents to have risen to presidency

Mwai Kibaki

Mwai Kibaki is one of the only two Vice-Presidents who have ever risen to the presidency since independence. But unlike his predecessor Daniel arap Moi, who easily rode to State House in 1978 after the death of President Jomo Kenyatta, Kibaki’s path was long and torturous, providing a study on the intrigues and obstacles to the highest office. It is never automatic that sitting in the second slot easily catapults one to the glorified office.

In the 1970s, Kibaki was one of the few ministers and powerful politicians from the Mount Kenya region who associated with Vice-President Daniel arap Moi in the twilight years of President Jomo Kenyatta.

Then, a group of hawkish politicians led by then Nakuru North MP Kihika Kimani and Cabinet Minister Njoroge Mungai, and leaders of the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association (Gema), hatched a plot to change the constitution to block the incumbent VP from ascending to the presidency. The Change-the-Constitution Movement that was launched in Nakuru in September 1976 believed the presidency should not leave the House of Mumbi.

Kibaki, then the Finance minister, and Attorney-General Charles Njonjo – urbane and aloof individuals – were among the few Gema leaders who did not subscribe to this narrow thinking.


So when President Kenyatta died in August 1978, Njonjo ensured Moi was sworn in as acting President for 90 days as provided in the constitution then. On October 4, 1978, Kanu held elections for the party’s national executive committee and Moi was elected unopposed as the president of the party. At the time, the Kanu president automatically became the country’s president. So 10 days later, on October 14, Moi was installed as the second President.

As a thank you, President Moi appointed Mr Kibaki, then Finance minister, the Vice-President. Kibaki retained his Finance minister position. Later, in 1982, Moi took away the Finance portfolio from Kibaki and handed it to then Githunguri MP Arthur Magugu, who is remembered for the ignominy of postponing the reading of the budget in 1983 for a week and casually terming it a “small matter”.

Kibaki, Njonjo and GG Kariuki were Moi’s trusted lieutenants from the Mt Kenya region. The latter two enjoyed unfettered power in Moi’s earlier years at State House. In 1980, Njonjo stepped down as AG and in an orchestrated move, then Kikuyu Constituency MP Amos Ng’anga resigned, occasioning a by-election that Njonjo easily won. Moi then appointed Njonjo the Constitutional Affairs minister, a powerful docket that gave him control over the judicial system.

Writing in Decolonisation and Independence in Kenya, historian Bethuel Ogot referred to the Moi-Njonjo-GG Kariuki as “a mighty triumvirate of power never before witnessed in the history of Kenya”. But things were to change dramatically following the 1982 coup. Moi went on a purging spree to weed out anybody perceived to have been involved in the coup.


In May 1983, President Moi made a startling pronouncement at a rally in Kisii, that there was a “traitor”, a senior member of his Cabinet, who was plotting to overthrow his government with the assistance of foreign powers. Njonjo, widely known to have extensive networks in foreign capitals, was fingered in the scheme. He was named the “traitor” in Parliament, forcing him to resign from the House and government.

In the wake of the traitor affair, Moi called a snap election in 1983 to purge all those perceived to be Njonjo supporters or any other politician remotely believed to be anti-Moi. With the benefit of hindsight, this was part of the strategy to dismantle the Kikuyu hegemony in government.

After that, the only visible Kikuyu politician left in government was Kibaki. But only for a while.

Although Kibaki was retained as Vice-President after the 1983 election, it was an easy ride. With Njonjo out of the scene, the next casualty was to be Kibaki, and a scheme had to be hatched to hound him out of office.


Enter Elijah Mwangale, then a powerful Cabinet minister from Western Province. He was the hatchet man to finish Kibaki. For some time in 1985, Mwangale took weekly trips to Nyeri, Kibaki’s home turf and where he was Kanu chairman.

The mission was obvious: antagonise and destabilise Kibaki. Mwangale worked in concert with Waruru Kanja, an independent MP who was roped into the Moi camp to deal with Kibaki. A narrative was crafted that Kibaki was the Vice-President for Nyeri, that he never served the rest of the country and was therefore not fit for the job. There was some truth in the narrative – being an introvert, Kibaki never visited other parts of the country or expressed interest in associating with those outside his home district. But that was not the point.

Mwangale’s visits to Nyeri tended to embarrass, frustrate and undermine Kibaki. Political upstarts like then Mukurweini MP Ngumbu Njururi had the temerity to attack Kibaki publicly.

Sometime in February 1985, Kibaki was forced to act. And he did the most uncharacteristic thing. During one of his visits to Nyeri, he attended a farmers’ cooperative meeting in Karatina and used the occasion to tear into Mwangale, whom he ridiculed as a “political tourist”. Quickly, the term “political tourist” gained currency. Moi, realising the backlash, directed politicians to stop that appellation. Since Moi’s word was law, politicians stopped using the moniker, but a statement had been made. Kibaki could no longer sit pretty as VP.

It did not take long before the full plot came to pass. In 1988, Moi introduced mlolongo elections, where voters queued behind their preferred candidates.

It was decreed that any candidate who had 70 per cent of those queuing in the party preliminary would stand elected. But it was a disaster. Those who had long queues were thrown out while those with shorter ones were declared winners.

Even rigging requires some level of intelligence.”

A newspaper published by the National Council of Churches described the elections as a mockery of justice. It was promptly banned by Moi, who had reached the zenith of his power consolidation.

Attempts were made to declare Kibaki a loser of the Othaya seat. He was piqued to the core. He took on the district officer and the entire provincial administration that had presided over the charade, telling them: “Even rigging requires some level of intelligence”. He was eventually declared the winner as the embarrassed system boys licked their wounds.

Little did Kibaki know that his goose was cooked. Kibaki had retained his seat, but on March 24, President Moi formed a new Cabinet. Kibaki was demoted from Vice-President and appointed Minister for Health. He was replaced by a political neophyte, Dr Josephat Karanja.


Dr Karanja, the first Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nairobi, had tried his hand in politics in his native Githunguri Constituency and had been trounced twice. He found himself in Parliament in 1986 as MP for Mathare in a by-election following the outing of Andrew Ngumba for financial larceny.

Despite his demotion, Kibaki stayed on. He suffered this humiliation in silence and although he was prodded by some of his followers to decamp, he stayed in government and Kanu. When the winds of political change started blowing in 1989, Kibaki was one of those who fought back.

On New Year’s Day in 1990, Presbyterian clergy Timothy Njoya delivered a searing sermon at St Andrews Church in Nairobi where he declared that it was the year of change. That single party rule had to go and give way for multipartyism. Bishop Henry Okullu of the Church of the Province of Kenya (Anglican Church) weighed in and asserted that the constitution had to be changed to make Kenya a de facto multiparty state. Kanu stalwarts hit back. Kibaki was polemical – he stated that those fighting Kanu were like demented fellows seeking to cut a Mugumo tree with a razor blade. But it did not take long. The tree fell eventually.

The wily Moi, realising the tide was overwhelmingly against him, set up a Kanu team to review the country’s political process and recommend changes.


The Kanu Review Committee was chaired by Vice-President George Saitoti and comprised all the party hawks. Kenyans who made presentations to the committee overwhelmingly called for constitutional change to introduce multipartyism.

But in its final report, the committee only recommended superficial changes and asserted that the single-party system should continue.

President Moi called a special Kanu delegates conference on December 4, 1990, that discussed the Saitoti report. Few changes were proposed and accepted. But it was not until a year later, on December 3, 1991, that with Moi surprise backing, Kanu delegates accepted and ratified the party’s Governing Council’s recommendation to repeal the section of the constitution that made Kenya a de facto single party state. Parliament consequently passed the law on December 10, 1991, ushering in multipartyism.


Oginga Odinga, Masinde Muliro, Martin Shikuku, Philip Gachoka, Ahmed Bamahriz and George Nthenge, who had earlier started a pressure movement, Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (Ford), quickly moved to turn it into a party.

Curiously, on Christmas Day of 1991, Kibaki, who had strongly opposed multiparty politics, jumped ship and together with John Keen, Njenga Karume and some wealthy politicians from the Mt Kenya region formed the Democratic Party of Kenya. He went on to contest the presidency and emerged third, after Moi and Kenneth Matiba, who had contested on Ford Asili ticket. Kibaki contested again 1997 and this time round, with Matiba out of the equation, he emerged second. His glorious moment was to arrive in 2002.

This is how Kibaki became the second VP to rise to the presidency, but after a long stint in the Opposition. For DP William Ruto, history has many lessons.