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Kenya is a county in East Africa with a population of over 47.6 million people. With a total area of 580,367 square kilometers, the county is considered the 48th largest nation in the world. The capital city is Nairobi, which derives its name from the Maasai term for cool water, “Enkare Nairobi”. Other essential urban centers in Kenya are Mombasa, and Kisumu City.
Similar to other African countries, Kenya went through a period of brutal European colonial rule. The British came into the coastal region of Kenya during the 1820s after an invitation from the Omani Mazrui Dynasty to assist with local power struggles. After many years of conflict between the European settlers and native African freedom fighters, Kenya finally gained its independence in 1963. On the following year (1964) it became a republic.
Here is a look at the first four presidents of Kenya since it gained its independence from British Colonial rule.
1. Jomo Kenyatta
The late Mzee Jomo Kenyatta became the first president of Kenya in December 1964. Before his presidency, Kenyatta served as the first prime minister in the country from 1963 to 1964.
Jomo Kenyatta was born during the 1890s as Kamau Wa Ngengi to Muigai and Wambui. After his Christian baptism in 1914, he took the name of John Peter, but later changed it to Johnstone. Several years later, he changed his full name to Jomo Kenyatta. Jomo is a Kikuyu term for “burning spear” while Kenyatta refers to the Maasai name for the bead belt the President loved to wear.
During his youthful years, it is believed that Kenyatta worked for a Briton named John Cook as a stores clerk and meter reader. The profession earned him a salary of 250 Kenya shillings per month, which was a high wage for native Africans in those days.
The high earnings gave him financial independence and increased self-confidence. He was able to live in the Kilimani neighborhood, which currently stands as one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Nairobi. Kenyatta also built another home in Dagoretti, which he called “Kinyata Stores”. He had adequate financial resources that allowed him to occasionally lend funds to European clerks working in the offices, and enjoy the lavish Nairobi lifestyle.
Kenyatta was actively involved in Kenya’s fight for independence. He started by joining African nationalist movements, such as the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), and managed to become KCA’s general secretary by 1928. He even traveled to London multiple times to petition for the rights of Africans. It was in Europe that he received formal education at Moscow University, and other institutions. The formal education allowed him to publish the book called Facing Mount Kenya. Additionally, he stayed in England during the Second World War lecturing and writing.
He came back to Kenya in 1946, and became the leader of the Kenya African Union (KAU) in 1947. Kenyatta’s fight for independence was stalled when he was jailed in prison for seven years on accusation of associating with the Mau Mau rebellion. After the formation of the Kenya African National Union in 1960, Kenyatta was chosen as president in absentia.
After his formal release on 21 August 1961, Kenyatta went to London during the following year to bargain for Kenya’s independence. In 1963, his party KANU was victorious in pre-independence elections. He became Kenya’s prime minister on 12th December 1963, and became the president one year later.
During his rule as president, Kenyatta promoted racial cooperation and capitalist economic policies. He also enforced a pro-Western foreign policy, and used his power to suppress any political opposition from radical organizations. He was able to transform the country into a one-party state, and the resulting stability lured foreign investors.
Kenyatta lived a long life, and finally died on 22nd August 1978 while still in presidency. The arrangement of the late president’s funeral had begun 10 years before his demise. A casket and coffin plate were created in advance when Kenyatta was still alive, and concealed in London. After his death, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s mausoleum was created at the heart of Nairobi, and it is a heavily guarded architectural masterpiece that rarely opens to the public.
It is worth mentioning that the founding father of Kenya had a total of four wives: Grace Wahu (died in 2007), Edna Clarke (died in 1995), Grace Wanjiku (died in 1951) and Ngina Kenyatta. From his four wives, he was able to have eight children: Peter Muigai (died in 1979), Margaret Kenyatta (died in 2017), Peter Magana Kenyatta, Jane Wambui, Christine Wambui Kenyatta, Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, and Muhoho Kenyatta. Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta went on to become Kenya’s fourth president.
2. Daniel Toroitich arap Moi
After Kenyatta’s death in 1978, his Vice President, Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, succeeded him. Moi ruled Kenya from 22nd August 1978 to 30th December 2002, making him the longest serving president in the country. Daniel Moi was born on 2nd September 1924 in Baringo, Kenya and died at the age of 95 on 4th February 2020.
Moi started his career as a teacher before leaving it in 1955 to pursue politics. He was able to join the Legislative Council for Rift Valley, and became part of the Kenyan delegation that went to London to attend the Lancaster House Conferences. Those conferences led to the drafting of the first post-independence constitution for Kenya.
In 1960, Moi established the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) to rival Jomo Kenyatta’s KANU. However, after independence, Kenyatta persuaded him to merge the two parties. Moi was later appointed into the government in 1964, and received a promotion to Vice President in 1967.
In the first few years of his presidency, Moi was popular among the citizens. He went around the nation and interacted with the natives, which was different from Kenyatta’s style of ruling behind closed doors. Moi was also popular among Westerners. However, with economic stagnation and the end of the Cold War, his popularity only lasted until 1990.
Moi used a dictatorial and autocratic style of governance, particularly when Kenya was still a one-party state. Several coup attempts were made by different groups with an aim to seize power from Moi. However, the President was not one to back down without a fight. He went to the extent of using torture against his enemies at the infamous Nyayo House chambers.
Following widespread agitation and pressures from the outside world, Moi allowed the notion of multiparty elections in 1991. Together with his party KANU, he was able to win in the 1992 and 1997 contended elections. His skillful exploitation of Kenya’s blend of ethnic tensions allowed him to emerge victorious over his opponents.
Moi could not run in the 2002 presidential elections, because of the existing constitution. Therefore, he chose Uhuru Kenyatta (Jomo Kenyatta’s son) as his successor. But, most Kenyans chose Mwai Kibaki instead as the president during the 2002 elections.
Moi handed over his power to Mwai Kibaki, but the attending crowd was openly hostile to him. They openly sang “Yote yawezekana bila Moi”, which means “Everything is possible without Moi.
Looking at his personal life, Moi’s wife was Lena Moi, who was also called née Helena Bomett. The two of them entered marriage in 1950, but later separated in 1974. Lena died in 2004. Similar to Jomo Kenyatta, Moi was blessed with eight children, namely Jennifer Jemutai, Jonathan Toroitich Moi (died in 2019), Gideon Moi, Philip Moi, William Tuitoek (died in 1995), June Moi, John Mark Moi, Raymond Moi, and Dorris Moi.
After a health history of dementia, pleural effusion, respiratory complications, and multiple organ failure, Moi came to his demise at the Nairobi Hospital in February 2020. His body was put in parliament building for three days to allow the public to view him. During the same month, a state funeral service was held at the Nyayo Stadium, and he was finally laid to rest at his Kabarak home in Nakuru next to his ex-wife Lena.
3. Emilio Mwai Kibaki
Born on 15th November 1931, Mwai Kibaki served as Kenya’s third president from 30th December 2002 to 9th April 2013. He previously worked as Daniel arap Moi’s Vice President from 1978 to 1988. In addition, he held ministerial positions in the cabinet during both Kenyatta and Moi’s governments.
Kibaki was born in a village called Thunguri in Kenya’s Nyeri County as the youngest son of Kibaki Gĩthĩnji and Teresa Wanjikũ. The Italian missionaries to Kenya baptized him as Emilio Stanley, though he continued to use the name Mwai Kibaki all through his public tenure.
Mwai Kibaki did not come from a rich family. His parents were peasants, but thankfully, Paul Muruthi, his older brother-in-law, made it possible for him to enroll in school. Kibaki was an exemplary student, and he attended several institutions, including Gatuyainĩ School, Karima Mission School, Mathari School, Mang’u High School, and Makerere University.
He graduated with a First Class Honors Degree in Economics from the Makerere University, where he was also the best in his 1955 class. After the graduation, Kibaki enrolled for an Assistant Sales Manager position at the Shell Company of East Africa’s Uganda Division. Additionally, he got a scholarship to study at the prestigious London School of Economics, where he graduated with a distinction.
In 1958, Kibaki traveled back to Makerere to serve as an Assistant Lecturer until 1961. After that, he entered active politics in Kenya, and became an executive officer of KANU. He went on to become a Member of Parliament, Permanent Secretary for the Treasury, Assistant Minister of Finance, chairman of the Economic Planning Commission, and Minister of Finance and Economic Planning. Additionally, he took up the title of Vice President under Moi’s rule for ten years.
When Kibaki served as the Finance Minister for Kenya, the country enjoyed relative prosperity, backed by a boom in commodities, fiscal discipline and wise monetary policies.
In readiness for the elections of 2002, Kibaki’s Democratic Party partnered with a couple of the other opposition groups to create NARC (National Alliance Rainbow Coalition). Unfortunately, he was severely injured in a traffic accident on 3rd December 2002 while traveling back to Nairobi from a meeting. The accident led to his hospitalization in Nairobi, and then London, because of fracture injuries. As a result of the injurious incident, the remainder of Kibaki’s presidential campaign was run by his party colleagues in his absence.
NARC emerged victorious over KANU at the 27th December 2002 elections. Mwai Kibaki was still using a wheel chair when he was sworn into presidency on 29th December 2002.
The governance style of Kibaki was low-key, but extremely intelligent and competent. Kibaki was aging, and the 2002 road accident prevented him from being as witty, sporty and eloquent as he was during his youthful years. At the end of January 2003, he was admitted to Nairobi Hospital for a blood clot removal.
Despite, his health problems, Kibaki made some positive changes in Kenya. For starters, he introduced the initiative of free primary education in 2003, which allowed more children to attend school. In addition, the economy was able to experience a huge turnaround, with GDP picking up significantly. Relations with non-western powers, such as China and Japan, improved and grew remarkably.
Taking a look at Kibaki’s personal life, his wife was Lucy Muthoni Kibaki. He married her in 1961, and they stayed together until her death on 26th April 2016. The two of them were blessed with three sons: Jimmy Kibaki, David Kagai and Tony Githinji and one daughter: Judy Wanjiku. Their grandchildren include: Sean Andrew, Mwai Kibaki Junior, Joy Jamie Marie, Krystinaa Muthoni and Rachael Muthoni.
4. Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta
Uhuru Kenyatta was born on 26th October 1961 to the late Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and Ngina Kenyatta. He became the fourth president of Kenya on 9th April 2013, and his tenure is expected to end in 2022. Jomo Kenyatta gave him the name “Uhuru”, which is a Swahili word for “freedom” in anticipation of the upcoming independence. When the first president died, Uhuru was almost 17 years old.
As a young boy, Uhuru got his education at the St. Mary’s School in Nairobi. After that, he attended the Amherst College in the USA to learn about economics, political science and government. He went back to Kenya after the graduation and established a company called Wilham Kenya Limited, which dealt with the trade of agricultural produce.
In 1999, Uhuru was appointed by President Moi as chairman of the Kenyan Tourism Board. Two years later, in 2001, he received a nomination to parliament and was later appointed as the Minister for Local Government. Additionally, he was elected successfully as one of KANU’s vice chairmen.
Uluru’s first attempt at presidency was in 2002, but he lost to Mwai Kibaki. For the 2007 presidential elections, he led his party KANU to enter a coalition with Mwai Kibaki who was vying for a second presidency term. While the coalition won the elections, disputes over the poll led to the 2007-08 Kenyan post-election violence.
Several years later, ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo presented charges against Uhuru as an indirect co-perpetrator of the post-election violence. Uhuru was charged together with William Ruto (his current Deputy President). However, the ICC charges were dropped in 2015 due to lack of evidence.
Uhuru’s second attempt at presidency was at the 4th March 2013 elections. This time he won successfully making him the fourth president in the country.
During his time as president, Uhuru has played host to a couple of international conferences, which have been attended by the former USA President Barack Obama, Pope Francis and other global leaders. Furthermore, his diplomatic skills have enabled him to mobilize numerous African leaders to pressurize the International Criminal Court (ICC).
A lot of people consider Uhuru’s style of leadership as exciting, fresh and suave. In spite of his immense wealth, he still maintains a down-to-earth and approachable demeanor.
In recent years, Uhuru Kenyatta has been ranked on Forbes Magazine as one of the richest people in Africa, with a fortune of at least $500 million. The Kenyatta family, which includes Jomo Kenyatta’s other offspring, owns a TV channel, a newspaper company, several radio stations, and a range of interests in Kenya’s banking, insurance, construction, tourism and dairy industries. Moreover, they own large acres of land in the central, coastal and Rift Valley areas of the country.
Uhuru Kenyatta married his wife Margaret Gakuyo Kenyatta in 1991, and they have three children: Jomo Kenyatta, Jaba Kenyatta and Ngina Kenyatta.
Kenya gained independence from colonial rule in 1963, and was declared a republic in the following year. Jomo Kenyatta became Kenya’s first President, and was succeeded by Daniel arap Moi in 1978 after his demise. Mwai Kibaki took over power from Moi in 2002, and later stepped down in 2013 for Uhuru Kenyatta.
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© 2020 Alice Njambi
Alice Njambi (author) from Nairobi, Kenya on June 03, 2020:
Thanks for reading Njuguna.
Alianess Benny Njuguna from Kenya on June 03, 2020:
It was an interesting read about the presidents of Kenya. I didn't know Kenyatta was a Maasai name. Good article!