If they say I am an alpha lion, why, I must be!

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By Kevin Motaroki

Governor Hassan Ali Joho has never been known to mince his words, like what he thinks about the relationship between counties and national government. This, in his own words, has earned him admirers and enemies in equal measure. This is one of those times…

Did you always want to do politics?
Politics is a way of life, and the only difference is how you play the game, both as an elected leader and as a private citizen. My desire to be in active politics was necessitated by certain dynamics, the greatest of which was the need to have robust representation of our people in view of the challenges we faced at the time.

You have done that for about a decade now. What lessons have you learnt?
Its always interesting how, apart from our constitutional mandate, wananchi will always look up to you to meet all sorts of issues and challenges. I find that that helps me grow and self-actualise, because, in one way or another, I get to make the world a better place than I found it. I would say the lesson here is to always embrace the chance to meet challenges; even where these challenges seem big, there is always something to be done to mitigate their effects. The other lesson is that I now understand and appreciate the mechanics of life much better because of politics. Lastly, politics is about team effort – with fellow politicians (to surmount policy challenges), with constituents and with whomever I happen to be working with towards realising a collective objective.

You are easily one of the most vocal champions of devolution. Now, national government has been accused of being a stumbling block to dispersion of power and resources. Is it getting better – the complementarity between the two levels of government?

I appreciate that you recognise the challenges that counties face, the biggest being the unwillingness of the National Government to support our initiatives, and even going out of its way to frustrate devolved governments and processes. If National Government genuinely set out to implement the aspects of devolution, to the true intentions of the Constitution, Kenyans would be, without a doubt, more empowered today.

The complementarity between the two levels of the government will never improve if the National government continues to perceive devolved units as a threat and, to some extent, a competition, rather than as an avenue to positively impact and improve the livelihoods of millions of its citizens. It amazes me that there is still denial about the reality of devolution!
To a large extent, we are still in the formative years of devolution, despite visible successes. What, in your view, have been its greatest achievements – things we would never have achieved without devolution?

Today, citizens can prioritise and craft their development agenda to suit their specific social, economic and geographical needs and peculiarities. In the past, this has always depended on the graces of central government. However, there have been constraints to the resources allocated to the counties. I can tell you that if we had a national government that supported devolution and focused on delivering its mandate while leaving the counties to deliver theirs, this is not something anyone would have to worry about.

In your opinion, have we – through policy and the Constitution – effectively restructured the former provincial administration to augment the new order? What could be done differently?
I would say we have made appreciable attempts. But we must also appreciate the transition challenges accruing from the previous Constitution into this new dispensation. For me, on a personal level, this is one of the areas the framers could have done better. The suffering of Kenyans under the provincial administration was one of the key reasons the country went through a constitutional review. Its administrators had become symbols of the excesses of a centralised system. We all remember stories of chiefs coming to take livestock and appliances from households.

There was a missed opportunity during the review process. The drafters should have considered redeployment of the entire administration to other government departments and agencies, or their transfer to the newly devolved units to become, say ward and sub-county administrators. Instead, they chose to leave this ambiguous transition clause that had them operate parallel to the devolved governments. You can see how much of a problem this has been in Mombasa. It was inevitable that the provisional administration would struggle to survive after the new dispensation. But the consequence of that has been that they are being used to frustrate devolution.

What have been your greatest successes as governor?
I must say I didn’t see that coming! Well, I do take a lot of pride in the strides thus far made towards building a more cohesive society in my county, where different cultures and tribes have come to appreciate one another, such that we have attained a level of cohesion that sees us speak as one people. I dare say the idea that we now live in better harmony is not a farfetched one. Part of what has helped me achieve this is that the composition of my government carries the face of Kenya.

Mombasa has this bubbling potential as both a gateway to the country and region, as well as a global tourist destination. But – and this has been suggested before – the city needs some ruthless restructuring and reconstruction for this to be realised. Where are you now in this scheme of things? What would it take to fully achieve this?

Devolution should never be selective. Mombasa County is the only port city in the world whose affairs or operations the local government (in this case the host county) has no role or mandate in running. As it is, we cannot even market Mombasa as a port city because we are completely excluded in decisions that directly affect it. These are made elsewhere and imposed on us; we do not even get the courtesy of being consulted. If this is not impunity, I do not know what is – I mean, the people of Mombasa are best placed to know what will and won’t work for them, including affairs of the port. I do not know how I am expected to talk about optimising, let alone utilise, benefits from a facility I do not control, to carry out the suggested reconstruction of our wonderful city.

Fair enough. It is safe to assume you have bigger ambitions after county politics. Those who love you say you are ready to take over as ODM leader. Those who don’t like you say you are just being a shrewd strategist. Do you feel like you want to respond to that? Phrased differently, are your recent activities a manifestation of a man who has ‘smelled blood’, or one who is simply rising to the occasion?

A leader needs to be decisive. Leadership is about making decisions that then define one. There are no two ways about this; people look to you to make decisions. Only when they are satisfied with this ability do they accept you as a leader. I cannot stress this enough. We must agree that the “lions” are always out there. And with this must come the appreciation that they must hunt, which then put them up there. If they are saying I am a lion, an alpha lion, why then I must be!

Part of leadership is about realising gaps and setting priorities. What, in your estimation are the gaps in Kenya’s national leadership?

There seems to be no recognition that we (leaders) have duties, first to the nation and people and then ourselves. Whichever government is in power needs to inspire confidence in the masses through being accountable and prudent with their resources; it needs to build trust in people, as well as enact policies that are consistent with the people’s wishes and aspirations. It must also fulfil its pledges and promises to the people, not for any eventual reward but because it is the right thing to do. It is a like in a home setting; if you promise your son a bicycle, you go out and get your son a bicycle. These are the things we are missing in our national leadership.

How would you fill those gaps?
By doing precisely the things mentioned above. I would set about fixing the lack of accountability in government by having individuals take responsibility for personal fails and mistakes; people need to know that their leaders do what they say they will do. This will have the additional effect of restoring public confidence in the State to do what is right by the people – among investors, farmers, students, development partners and every single stakeholder. After this, everything else would easily fall into place. We need to change (bad) decisions from the past and introduce progressive policies; that is how to prosper our country.

What three things that, if we did them, would turn around our country’s fortunes?
One, support devolution; two, embrace our diversity and finally become a nation; three, end corruption. In my view, focus in these areas will promote inclusive growth, so that the benefits of development will reach down to every last Kenyan. We must all be partakers.
I have recently talked about deliberate economic sabotage, specifically in regions seen to be pro-Opposition. This is not idle talk. There is a deliberate plot to colonise regions to make them bow to certain forces, to an authoritarian State. I pray that Kenyans can see this threat soon enough they – including its arising consequences – and stand up against it before it is too late.

Tell us about Hassan Ali Joho – traits, personal philosophy and experience, and how these define you.

He is a man who believes in fair play and opportunities for everyone. He is an honest man who also believes in taking chances. He believes in hard work, which is partly what has elevated from a humble early background to where he is today. The other part is God and a supportive family. My experience is such that there’s a lot more to life than just big positions and wealth. Always go for something as long as it’s right, just and fair. Always. How do you unwind; do you have a hobby?

I love to play golf, read and swim. I will also occasionally take a vacation when time allows.
What are you battling now – as a man & leader?

As a leader, one attracts admiration and hate in equal measure. However, I try to rise above narrow interests that impede growth – of people and regions. I have to be careful not to let the hatred bog me down.

As a man, in the truest African sense, and aware of the society we live in, I worry about my family. A man’s role is to provide for and protect his family. As a leader, this, for me, extends to the society I lead.

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