Born in Othaya, Nyeri district, Kibaki belongs to the majority Kikuyu tribe. After attending Mang'u High School, he studied Economics, History and Political Science at Makerere University College, Kampala, Uganda. During his studies, he was chairman of the Kenya Students' Association. In 1955, he graduated as best student of his class, and was therefore awarded a scholarship to do post-graduate studies in Britain.
After obtaining a B.Sc. in Public Finance at the London School of Economics, he became economics lecturer at Makerere. In early 1960 however, he gave up his job to become chief executive of KANU. He helped to draft the constitution of Kenya. In the 1963 elections, he took the Doomhold Road (Bahati) constituency. He has been an MP ever since.
His election was the start of a remarkable political career. Appointed Assistant Minister of Finance and chairman of the Economic Planning Commission in 1963, he was promoted to Minister of Commerce and Industry in 1966. In 1969, he became Minister of Finance. When Daniel arap Moi succeeded Jomo Kenyatta as President of Kenya, Kibaki was elevated to the Vice Presidency, but was allowed to keep the Finance portfolio, which he exchanged for that of Home Affairs in 1982.
Kibaki seems to have fallen out of favour in 1988, when he was dropped as Vice President and moved to the Ministry of Health.
In December 1991, only days after the repeal of Section 2A of the constitution, which restored the multiparty system, Mwai Kibaki left KANU and founded the Democratic Party (DP), which later became the National Alliance Party of Kenya (NAK). He finished third in the presidential elections of 1992, and second (with 31% of votes) in those of 1997.
In preparation of the 2002 elections, NAK allied itself with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to form the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). On December 27, 2002, NARC won a landslide victory over KANU. Kibaki got 63% of the votes in the presidential elections, against only 30% for the KANU candidate, Uhuru Kenyatta. On December 30, 2002, Mwai Kibaki was sworn in as the third President of Kenya.