Unravelling Sonko: The sick man of Nairobi

Unravelling Sonko: The sick man of Nairobi

BY Kevin Motaroki

A common trait amongst hawkers is their innovative craftiness. In their trade, this kind of novelty rests on distraction. They work in clusters, mostly for safety – from shop owners and county government officials. But safety is all that the bands provide; to sell, it is everyone for oneself. Whenever one thinks one’s fellow hawkers are drawing too much traffic and one is not, a  common trick is to yell, make as if to gather one’s stuff and run – cue for “county askaris are here” – thereby signalling one’s colleagues to scamper.

Presently, however, the genius will calmly spreads his/her mat again and continue calling out to customers. Of course, some have learnt to tell when such an antic is a bluff, but most take no such chances; they scatter. By the time they return, the culprit has sold stock enough to quickly leave – and avoid their wrath in the process. It’s not an amusing tactic, but it works. But it is not just hawkers; politicians too employ this trick, often with less success.

Mike Sonko, the unlikely governor of Nairobi, is an astute politician. He even excels in that vocation. One need only look at how he has handled the vacant DG’s office – nominating an antagonist in Dr Miguna Miguna, someone he understands is an impossible sell given his legal trysts with Government – to recognise the brilliance in the man; he grasps the principles of staying ahead. But that is where his excellence – as an elected leader at least – ends. His genius is street-smart, nothing more.

Our Bling Governor flagrantly takes the honour out of the venerated office he holds in the same manner a silent fart destroys the tranquillity of a room. He is the brawl in any conversation where he happens to participate. Deafeningly lacking the intelligence to engage rationally or make any convincing argument, he often, quickly too, resorts to braggadocio and self-praise. Violence usually follows in short order.

No one, he says, quite does it like him. And he is right – just not in the sense he imagines. Often, the battle of measuring balls – our governor happens to have the largest, by his calibration – ends the conversation, but where the governor’s audience is not too persuaded, his hired guns are happy to translate, quite aggressively.

Early May, Job Mwaura of K24 called Sonko to ask him about his link to goons who carried out a physical attack on Timothy Muriuki, a former Nairobi CBD Association chairman. He expected, as reporters often do, a vehement denial and singing of (his) good graces, from the governor. What he got instead was a loosing of the verbal and intellectual bowels – in the way of expletives – from the governor of Kenya’s most important county.

To paraphrase his words, he is not the cause or excuse, he told Mwaura, for all the “impotence – perhaps even a reference to Muriuki’s inability to defend himself against seasoned gangsters – floods, fighting any imaginable problem of the citizens of Nairobi”, and could we all please give him a break! All Mwaura could do, at the end of that barrage, was politely thank the governor – who, from his tone and manners, sounded quite pleased at having put the reporter in his place – for his time and response.

A few days after the violence on Muriuki, pictures had been circulated on social media of him at a wedding with two of the gangsters, prior to the attack, a fact he now seemed to be denying. He didn’t know them, he asserted.

It wasn’t the first time, and it certainly will not be the last. His mostly violent – often whimsical – reactions to anything and anyone who dares attack his rote templates, which he likes to imagine as well-thought out and creative responses to crucial situations, and attacks on anything remotely functional or objective are well documented. He is as vulgar as he is dysfunctional.

His idea of looking distinguished is posing with firearms. They symbolise not just brute force, but also stopping power. That’s his signature. That is his culture; as has been judged and cannot be repeated too often, Sonko is a gangster, and not the nerdy type.

Let’s assume Sonko has always wanted to do something nice for Nairobi. Let’s say he believes in ideals like quality of life – such as safe streets and neighbourhoods; basic needs and rights – like those to clean, safe drinking water and food; as well as equality and all its associated virtues.

Let’s imagine that, like the Nairobians who voted him in, he cherishes accountability and in life’s little decencies, like holding himself to his word, and that he, when he made his campaign promises, honestly wanted to make life better. If this be the case, the place to begin – seeing as he has, many, many times, graciously admitted to being intellectually inferior to most anyone, including his predecessor – is to appoint well-suited technocrats to drive his vision for the city.


But, Sonko is also agonisingly paranoid. Like the insecure man who gets jealous whenever his wife talks with or smiles to neighbours, he cannot fathom the idea that people can exercise freedom of conscience and thought without “betraying” him.

So, as a staffer confided to this writer, he has appointed spies to follow his ranking officials, which has made life – personal and working – extremely difficult for them. And, to express their displeasure at this intrusion of privacy, many have resorted to let the Governor run the full show, the city be damned.

“Nobody cares about drawing up plans for execution…because the governor will randomly recall a dream or sound bite on TV by somebody who used to work for Dr Kidero and imagine you have been in contact with the former governor. In his book, no two people can think alike, and denying that “fact” is undermining his authority… People are scared, pushed to a corner…some don’t care anymore; they just want to earn their salaries and go home.”

But, why can’t they resign in protest?

“The governor will still be there when you leave, his ego and attitude will still fill every room at City Hall, and that is about sums up story. What exactly are you going to achieve by leaving, except to forfeit a fat salary for someone else?”

He knows exactly how that sounds – uncouth, unfeeling and unprofessional, with the added bonus of sounding like he doesn’t stand for anything. He admits as much. The difference, he says, between that assessment and the truth, is in his out-tray. He has wonderful ideas by way of plans about what he wants to attain. He works away at his desk all day, sometimes past office hours.

“As you can see,” he says, selecting and fingering a blueprint form a sizeable stack, “it just requires some goodwill and commitment on the part of the governor. He has got everything he needs…But I will not be the one to take these to him. He has made it clear that he runs this town, and we will ‘do as you are told, when you are told, how you are told…” He tones it down to a whisper: “It is as if he is incapable of being helped.”

That conversation goes on for the next hour, during which the picture painted of the county chief is that of a flaky, ineffective leader. What goes on at the seat of the County is a rehashed routine, where only the most basic services are offered; there is no motivation or opportunity for what could be quickly labelled “insubordinate”.

It is hard to run a county without vision, even when the demand list is as barely itemised as water and food. When that county is Nairobi, it is decidedly more difficult to run and develop it if your idea of a vision is to run a parallel outfit that undermines, undercuts and intimidates the people legitimately mandated to offer those services in the first place – for that is what his Sonko Rescue Team (SRT) does. An outfit with armed goons that disconnects cheap, publicly-provided water just so they can sell at inflated rates, and grounds county ambulances so they can put SRT vehicles in business is, all at the behest of the governor is, to say the least, immoral and criminal.

Even where one is as lucky as Sonko is to have ridden on the popularity of the party that formed government, if the only imagination he has is to tether his charges for the flimsiest of reasons, there is little he can gain by way of counsel. And the stroke of luck that brought him to power was probably wasted.

In his public attempts to exonerate himself, the governor admits he has failed. But it is all politics, he says. Entrenched cartels, he says, have made it impossible for him to work by sabotaging his otherwise good plans, and cast him as a failure. And one would be inclined to believe him, for what is a good city without cabals to make its leader look bad if he doesn’t do what they say? But that would be lazy thinking and primitive loyalty on the part of those that still look up to the man.

Hawkers have taken over most city streets. All at once, it is either politically incorrect to remove them, or they are let to stay so corrupt county officials can extort them.
Even where there are hints of legality and structures are in place, a failure to maintain systems sees them give way in short order.
Some roads do not deserve that name because they are filthier than cattle pens.
Vehicular congestion is a blight to East Africa’s largest city. Half hearted, half baked attempts to solve this menace come to nought because not much thought goes into planning, as in the red continuous lines meant to reserve the innermost lane on the highway for PSVs only.

Sonko has consistently told whoever cares to listen that revenue collection is the highest it has ever been, because “I have sealed all corruption loopholes!” This statement is often preceded by “Our biggest problem is corruption.” Without dissecting anything, he is saying there was a problem that is not there anymore.

Soon after his election last year, he also said revenue collection had increased to Sh38 million daily, which puts monthly tallies at a modest Sh1 billion – the real figure is much higher if we include periodic fees such as rates and licences. As well, the county receives the biggest share of devolved funds, getting Sh15.8 billion in the current financial year. Says our source:

“Even if were to say that the county gobbles up all the money it collects every month in recurrent expenditure – which it does not – the share it receives from county government, well used, should even allow the city to wash its roads daily; Nairobi shouldn’t have any dust; but there are no roads to wash… the level of graft that goes on in here is colossal…and the governor has perfected the art of lying…”

“Just like Dr Kidero used to, he receives an eye-watering sum every week from the Chief Finance Officer… Don’t imagine for a minute that he pays for his stay at Nairobi Safari Club out of his pocket… He has survived this long because he is able to buy the loyalty of MCAs… that kind of money needs to come from somewhere.”

When former Deputy Speaker Kembi Gitura sponsored a Bill to convert Nairobi in a ministry under National Government, many told him off. The Bill flopped. But when one considers the man tasked with running Nairobi, Gitura’s idea becomes very attractive very quickly.

To employ popular slang, Sonko is a marauding but clueless hyena, presiding over mongrels (MCAs), in a pigsty controlled by hungry cartels. We cannot hope to win.

As part of Sonko’s chequered history is a litany of criminal offences – drug trafficking and fraud, among others. In Criminal Application No. 80 of 2001, Sonko, who had been convicted of obtaining money by false pretences and jailed for 12 months, made an appeal, three months to the end of his sentence, on two grounds: good behaviour, and compassionate grounds, as he was HIV positive.

Justice Samuel Oguk, then serving in Mombasa, released him on those grounds. Today, in what should be a proper miracle, Sonko is cured of the virus that got him released all those years ago, even considers “stupid”, those who get infected with the virus, and has gone on to sire many healthy children who he is never shy of introducing to the public.

What this anecdote seeks to demonstrate is that the person Nairobians elected as their governor is a fraud and a con. With him, what you see is most definitely not what you get.

To paraphrase Chinua Achebe, “a man who has been suffering from madness may say something to show you he has recovered, but soon he will say something else to tell you he is still mad.” Our governor is sick, but whether or not he can be helped is another matter altogether.

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