Mugo Kibati sits in the office of East African Cables’ Group Chief Executive Officer, and looks like a modern-day young Alexander, always moving forwards searching for new worlds to conquer. It is not the office itself that gives this impression, it is sparsely furnished and restrained and about a quarter of the normal size of corporate chief executive offices in Nairobi. It is Mugo Kibati himself, who listens with his whole body leaning forward, vibrating with intensity. He didn’t always have this skill, apparently; it was his wife who taught him that other people had opinions too, and sometimes, some of them even made sense.
Mugo Kibati has always been the smartest guy in the room ever since he was about six, and finally went to a school that ranked its students. It was easier to ask him to remember the times when he was not #1 in his class. The first time he ever got a class ranking at all, he came in at number two, and mostly because he had just joined a new school where the classes were in English, and not Kiswahili, the language he knew. Before that, he had only ever spoken English in the half-hour English class at his previous school. He didn’t know anybody who actually spoke it all day, every day. Then, years later, he went off as a Form One Newbie to Alliance High School, and came in at number five that first term. He’d just finished coming first in his province in the national exams the year before, so that was a rude shock. His mother, chuckling at his puzzlement, said to his father ‘the young man may finally be challenged, after all.’
Challenged he was; it was after all, Alliance High School, where the incoming class is full of people who were first in their primary schools, or in their provinces, or in the country. The shock of adjusting to this level of meta-excellence and the pride in having been able to ratchet up his performance to meet this new expectation explain a lot about Mugo Kibati’s relationship to his former, and formative, high school. Alliance High School is one of the three most significant forces in his life: the other two are his parents and his wife. From his father, he learned about the fundamental injustice of arbitrary social hierarchies. It was at a family gathering when Mugo was still a tiny tot, but wanted to give his opinion about something the grown-ups were discussing. An uncle was about to dismiss his participation on the grounds of Mugo being a small child and thus preferably both invisible and inaudible. His father stopped that burgeoning form of oppression in the very bud. He said that his son, Mugo, had the right to speak his mind in his own home, and anywhere else for that matter—and that what was important was the quality of the statement and not the age or position of the speaker. Mugo Kibati never forgot that.
Mugo Kibati wins awards with “Young” as the first word of their titles quite frequently. He is accustomed, in addition to being the best, also to being the youngest of whatever peer group he is excelling amongst, and all of Kenya knows by now that he is the gold medallist equivalent of corporate stewardship, as well as being the youngest of the corporate heavy-hitters. I asked him for an instance of his failure. He told me of the time he did not get into the Imperial College of London (the MIT of the UK) but later got into MIT itself, where he again excelled.
He met his wife Laila in the United States, where she impressed him by contradicting him often and fighting hard to win her intellectual points against him. Laila, another over-accomplished Kenyan, has a strong sense of social justice and had turned down the lucrative possibilities of private law practice in the U.S. to work with legal aid organisations. She argued passionately with Mugo, and won, so, of course, he fell in love with her and married her as soon as he could convince her that it was a good idea. That was a few arguments later. Few Kenyan men could ever sound so happy about losing major points—to a woman. Few Kenyan men of that level of accomplishment listen to other people’s points, on anything at all. Laila’s mind is a very big deal to Mugo Kibati, and he talks about her often: his intense large eyes open wider when he does.
Mugo was School Captain of Alliance when he was a student there, and now he chairs the Alumni Association and sits on the Board of Governors for his old high school. He is the youngest Board of Governors member they have ever had, of course. I ask him what this high-flying trajectory is in aid of—what drives the effort behind his own excellence? When he went to university he was the student chair of his faculty (his first election win), in the U.S. he worked as a Congressional Intern (for a Republican Senator); he is the youngest person ever appointed to the position he now holds and he has just won the Young Global Leader 2008 award. Why is Mugo Kibati running this high-performing high-stakes excellence race, seemingly mostly against time and against himself?
His answer is the reason that he is a GenerationKenya Juror. Mugo Kibati wants to build a society based entirely on merit—a meritocracy, now, in his lifetime and preferably next week. He has a burning passion to make ours a society in which the best rise, no matter their background, or gender, or economic conditions, or creed, or colour, or anything else. Mugo Kibati wants a society in which excellence is the only measure by which we allow ourselves to discriminate amongst ourselves. It is not so surprising, considering his own life, but what often goes unsaid in listing his many achievements is how strongly he feels about the need to inculcate moral courage and positive, active social engagement in our citizens. Knowledge, or intelligence, is not merely a passive process of taking in what swirls around you—for Mugo, it is an energetic, active process of perpetual finding-out, aggressive seeking of new skills, new understanding, new perspectives, new possibilities, new futures. He is a man in a hurry, to excel, and to find and to promote excellence in all he does. He is GenerationKenya to the core—he will know how to identify other Kenyans with his type of mind.