Lucy Muthoni Kibaki was buried yesterday, 9.12 am, Nigerian time, in Othaya, Njeri County, Kenya in the presence of about 300 guests and family members, after a requiem mass attended by over 3, 000 dignitaries and 20, 000 mourners. She was the wife of President Mwai Kibaki, the third president of Kenya, in office from 2002 -2013. She is definitely, one of Kenya’s most controversial public figures in the last 50 years.
There has been no other first lady like her in the history of Kenya and perhaps in the whole of Africa. It was indeed not surprising that her casket on its journey back to Nairobi, from Bupa Cromwell Hospital, South West London, where she died on April 26, was draped in national colours and that she received the equivalent of a state burial. Mama Lucy was that type of first lady who had she been denied such state recognition and if the dead could rise and return to sleep, would have stormed out of the casket and accuse the government of Kenya of disrespecting her. She was one hell of a woman. It seems Kenyans are afraid of her, in life, even in death. Ironically, there has been more focus on her positive attributes rather than her frightening negatives, perhaps because it is incorrect to speak ill of the dead.
Since the announcement of her death, Lucy Kibaki has been praised for her love of family values and the sanctity of the family. Some have called her the “embodiment of motherhood.” Indeed, she was a staunch defender of the interests of the poor and the disadvantaged in society, especially women, children and the girl-child. She bravely led the fight against the HIV/AIDS scourge in her country and apart from a misinterpreted statement about her saying young, unmarried men could have sex without condoms, and that abstinence is nonetheless crucial, her efforts at controlling the scourge was noteworthy. She had argued for example that government should enact legislation to compel doctors to disclose patients’ HIV status to their spouses to prevent people getting infected unnecessarily. She was later recognized for her efforts when she was made president of the coalition of 40 African First Ladies against HIV/AIDS. She was also patron of the Kenya Girls Guide Association. She also completed many development projects in many parts of Kenya.
The outpouring of flowery tributes has however shaded the truth about Lucy Kibaki. She was an outrageous, temperamental and cantankerous first lady. If a list of the worst African ladies were to be compiled, in the same manner in which some agencies prepare a list of Africa’s most beautiful first ladies, Lucy Kibaki will be the undisputed winner of the first prize, ahead of Aisha Hamani Diouri, Niger’s tyrannical first lady of the 60s.
Lucy Kibaki’s conduct as first lady is one of the reasons why students of contemporary African politics have often argued that the first lady syndrome, copied from the United States, often without the required finesse and sophistication, should either be abolished or moderated and that elected presidents and prime ministers in Africa should learn to keep their wives in check. Nobody could keep Lucy Kibaki in check during her decade-long season of influence and terror.
She was ungovernable, unapproachable and impossible. She was the most outspoken first lady on the continent. She had no qualms giving the impression that she was deputy president or perhaps a co-president. If President Kibaki was uncomfortable with her conduct, he lacked the power or the courage to say so, or show his displeasure. There were rumours that Lucy Kibaki was a husband batterer. She interrupted and overruled him publicly, making the president look like a “woman’s wrapper”. She also on many occasions, went overboard in trying to take charge of the government. She humiliated diplomats, government officials, state house staff, her own husband, members of the coalition government, and just about anyone who crossed her path. She was a violent first lady, with an anger management problem, which could not be cured, until she suddenly dropped out of the limelight (possibly due to failing health) in the last two years of her husband’s presidency.
Soon after Mwai Kibaki assumed office, the brand new first lady began to show her true colours by ordering that a bar inside state house, where ministers and other government officials often tried to have fun should be shut down and that instead of spending time drinking, the ministers should go and work for the people of Kenya! Within a year, the state house comptroller and private secretary to the president, Matere Keriri had also crossed her path. Without reference to the president, she gave him an ultimatum to resign or be sacked. Keriri had to go. She kept an informal, secret network whose assignment was to report on cabinet members. She summoned officials and gave them instructions as to what was expected of them as if she was their boss. They knew better, they would not dare disobey her. In one of the many post-humous accounts of her life and times, Francis Kimemia, former head of public service and secretary to the cabinet reminisces, for example, that “Of course if she called you, you prayed to your God that you had not done something wrong. But if you had, she would tell you to your face. She would correct you but she would follow up to see if things had been corrected.”
After God, it was Lucy Kibaki as first lady. George Satoiti, former internal security minister during the 2009 Sachangwan oil tanker fire tragedy will not contest that either. He was on that occasion publicly tongue-lashed by Mama Lucy for making insensitive comments, not showing enough empathy over an accident that led to the death of over 200 and many more injured. When at a public event, a state house official introduced Lucy Kibaki with a wrong name, calling her Mary Wambui, the rumoured hidden wife of her husband, the fellow got a dirty slap, delivered promptly and ferociously.
When the former vice president, Moody Awori, also had a tongue slip and called her a second lady, (a veiled reference again to the existence of Mary Wambui, also known as Wambui ma Mwai), Lucy Kibaki did not hide her discomfiture. She stood up and walked out of the state luncheon. In March 2009, amidst continuing speculations that the president had another wife or a mistress, Lucy Kibaki got her husband to hold a world press conference on the lawns of the state house, to declare his “one man, one wife” status. She stood beside him, growling like a headmistress with a cane in hand. She later grabbed the microphone and abused journalists who did not like her and her family and were always writing nonsense stories. Imagine a first lady upstaging a president at a press conference?
Lucy Kibaki never liked journalists. She believed that they did not know their job and she always offered lectures on how best to be a journalist. In May 2005, she stormed The Nation Media Group offices in Kenya to protest what she called negative media coverage. She and her bodyguards actually held the media house hostage till 5.30 am, the following day. When one of the reporters, Clifford Derrick Otieno, tried to record the ugly scene with his camera, Lucy Kibaki wrestled with him for control of the camera and slapped him. She was particularly good at dealing out slaps. Later, a member of parliament, Gitobu Imanyara, who had been Otieno’s lawyer, was a special recipient of that same Lucy slap. State house officials were already used to it: any minor mistake fetched them a tingling slap.
They wouldn’t dare retaliate when it was open secret that even the president was being battered almost on a daily basis. She would later report columnists of The Nation and The Standard newspapers to the Media Council of Kenya for writing articles that she considered disrespectful. Nothing came out of this eventually, but she just couldn’t stand columnists expressing radical opinions. I recall writing a column in The Guardian (Nigeria) on her anti-media indiscretions. I also got a protest letter and a phone call from the Kenya High Commission in Nigeria. This drew rich laughter from the very bottom of my then emerging big belly. The poor folks at the Kenya High Commission needed to be seen to be doing their job, of course, lest they lost it on Lucy Kibaki’s orders.
What a woman! She once went to a police station, wearing shorts, to report a World Bank official, for playing loud music and disturbing the neighbourhood. The official was holding a farewell party and was a tenant of the Kibakis. Mama Lucy wanted him arrested. Nobody was beyond her radar, not even members of the then Liberal Democratic Party led by Raila Odinga who formed a coalition party, the NARC, with her husband in 2002. When she felt they were not co-operating enough, she told them to go ahead and resign and get lost, because in any case, “Kenyans do not eat politics.” She loved to give speeches but there was always trouble if anyone disagreed with her. She once shut down parliament building because she felt presidential advisers did not appreciate her point of view, which she considered to be in the national interest, while they, in her reckoning, were pursuing personal agenda. She declared the programme ended, and ordered that the building should be locked.
No other first lady in Africa has been more insecure and disruptive. Her defenders insist she was motivated by a burning passion to protect her family and relationship with Mwai Kibaki, especially as Mary Wambui, her nemesis, perpetually hugged the limelight and operated as a presidential spouse. Even a Kenya state house press statement originally denying Ms Wambui was unsigned! Presidents are human beings. Every household has its drama. But when a president emerges, he or she has a duty to serve and concentrate and not disturb us with his or her household politics. Marital melodrama should not stand in the way of governance. What Amina Mama calls “femocracy”: the misappropriation of state power by presidential spouses, should never be allowed.
This is the big lesson of Lucy Kibaki’s legacy. Luckily for President Kibaki, Kenya prospered under his watch, even if ethnic irredentism and corruption as reported by Michela Wrong and John Githongo, cast a slur on everything else. Sadly, he remains known as the smart technocrat and indecisive president, who was always willing to sit on any fence, including Lucy’s. The Nigerian government should remember to send him a condolence letter.
Dr. Reuben Abati was spokesman and special adviser, Media and Publicity to President Goodluck Jonathan (2011 – 2015). He tweets from @abati1990.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer.