the day the president came to town

KAJIADO Kajiado waited for the president in silence. A one-intersection town in the sun-bleached Rift Valley, Kajiado residents politely polished…


Kajiado waited for the president in silence.

A one-intersection town in the sun-bleached Rift Valley, Kajiado residents politely polished their shoes and pressed their collars for Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki, who was to hold a rally there to boost his drifting re-election campaign.

A red carpet lay at the foot of a dais set in the middle of a dirt field residents called the stadium.

Hundreds of kids in blue shorts and red sweaters took a welcome day off school. Masai herders left their cattle, and Muslim women unable to drink water, as they fasted for Ramadan, sweated under their black hijabs.

They all arrived at the stadium in the back of trucks.

“They’ve been paid to come and cheer,” said Paul, a reporter with the Daily Nation, Kenya’s largest paper.

Tellingly, only one woman held a Kibaki sign.

“People of Kajiado, have you come for a funeral?” a campaign worker yelled into a microphone. “Can you say ‘Kibaki tena (Kibaki again)?’”

The crowd, about 2,000 strong, obliged for a brief moment then returned to being silent.

Maybe it was a funeral.

Kajiado is enemy territory for Kibaki.

The Rift Valley is firmly in the hands of the Orange Democratic Movement, the leader of which, Raila Odinga, currently leads Kibaki in the polls heading toward the December election.

But the polite yet indifferent crowd waiting for Kibaki in Kajiado is replicating throughout Kenya.

Though he’s quietly guided Kenya out of the economic and social ruin created during the 24-year kleptocracy of former president Daniel arap Moi, for whom he served as vice-president until 1988, Kibaki is struggling.

The first Kenyan president able to run on his record without his tongue firmly in cheek, he can boast economic growth of nearly 10 per cent and free primary school education among his achievements.

The Kenya Kibaki appealed to five years ago, however, has changed.

In the 2002 election, when Moi was constitutionally barred from running again, Kibaki was a safe bet for stability.

In politics since independence in 1963, he was adequately enmeshed in the shadowy networks that ran Kenya — a Moi light.

Five years on, however, strong economic growth can’t hide his lack of action to right the wrongs of Moi.

In 2003, Kibaki’s first year in power, Kenya placed 122 out of 133 countries in a Transparency International corruption study.

This year it placed 150 out of 179.

People involved in a gold scandal that skimmed $600 million from Kenya’s coffers in the 1990s haven’t been prosecuted.

Many believe the rot went right to the top — to Moi — and that Kibaki is protecting him.

And though Kibaki’s government commissioned a study that discovered Moi and his cronies funneled nearly $2 billion from Kenya’s coffers into foreign accounts, it has been buried for four years and only recently exposed through a leak.

For some, Kibaki showed his true face in August, when he appointed Moi as Kenya’s peace envoy to Sudan.

Moi later backed Kibaki for president, securing him votes, but raising eyebrows.

“We were lost for words when he endorsed Kibaki,” said Nga’nga, a copyeditor at the Daily Nation.

None of the above has created public protest in Kenya.

But if James Carville’s famous mantra — “The economy, stupid” — holds true in Kenyan elections, Kibaki’s flagging popularity is evidence protest will come at the polls.

In his rival Odinga some see a quest for revenge for such endemic sleaze.

Son of former vice-president Oginga Odinga, Odinga was convicted for involvement in a failed coup against Moi in 1982 and imprisoned for seven years.

He’s the closest thing Kenya has to a freedom fighter, prompting former health minister Charity Ngilu to dub him “Africa’s second Mandela.”

But while he personifies the emerging Kenya — brash, rich and a touch disrespectful — there’s little substance or ideology to the man.

Few can point to proof of his pedigree: he was once the minister in charge of roads but they’re crumbling.

His riding contains Kibera, Africa’s biggest slum, and in 15 years as MP, he’s done little to lift it from poverty, according to critics.

Odinga recently drove his Hummer into Kibera to flaunt his wealth — and, as one Kiberan teenager told me in a hushed voice, “to hand out bribes.”

He may be a breath of air, but it’s hardly fresh.

Exactly three hours late, a stretched Mercedes-Benz limousine in a convoy of dozens of Mercedes-Benz sedans arrived in Kajiado.

The band struck up the national anthem, hitting sour notes. Kibaki emerged and walked to the dais with his pouting wife, Lucy.

The crowd clapped, politely.

“If he wins he has a good record,” said Paul. “If he loses, well, we saw it coming.”

Kibaki had arrived in Kajiado, maybe for the last time.

Former Yukon News reporter Tim Querengesser lives in Kenya.