The trouble with being Sonko

He says he is disrupting the system. Is the governor misunderstood, or do we have him figured out just fine?

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By Kevin Motaroki

The subject is politics.

We have understood it to be an imperfect arrangement from the beginning. Necessarily transactional, there is no pretence at love or passion in it for most, just parties conducting business: you elect me, you get cited services. 

Governor Mike Mbuvi Sonko packaged himself as one of the few who would go beyond that description, because “I believe in leaving a better society than I found.” He was, he promised, that kind of politician.

When Sonko won City Hall as governor of Nairobi in 2017, the prize was attained, in part, for campaigning against the corruption and inefficiency of his predecessor’s tenure. Once he had settled in, he gave himself a puzzle to solve: just how much was City Hall making in revenue, and where was it all going?

Former governor Evans Kidero, he charged, was pocketing hundreds of millions from the county coffers monthly, besides skewing procurement rules in favour of his associates. The result, he said, was that money was getting paid out for services and goods not delivered. When EACC investigated Kidero, some of Sonko’s allegations made it to the charge sheet.

In 2018, he announced the county had raised revenue collection to between Sh35 and 55 million daily – he did not give a ballpark figure of how much was collected before. On September 7, it collected Sh99 million on a single day. It was good news everywhere. A year prior, in August 2017, he had, in a sting, found officials with Sh7 million of unbanked county money. It is not clear what happened to them.

In May this year, he announced the county would no longer outsource several key services, including vehicle maintenance and the manufacture of staff uniform, which would henceforth be done at the Dandora Greenlight Vocational Training Centre. He wanted, he was categorical, an end to wastage, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

His is a properly chequered profile, and there are all sorts of conclusions to be made about him. Several years ago, when he was young, self-assured and experiencing a high of sudden power, he placed an impromptu call to President Uhuru Kenyatta and put him on loud speaker for the benefit of his curious audience. What did he want? Winners Chapel in South B was being demolished, and he wanted the Head of State’s intervention to stop it. 

At another time, he made an impromptu visit to Pumwani where discovered the bodies of a dozen infants in cartons. Indicting his own officers, he swore hell. More recently, in June, he made available his ‘private’ phone lines for Kenyans to share details of politicians they wanted exposed for having secret affairs and families, for which they had abdicated responsibility. He began with his friend, former Kibra MP the late Ken Okoth, at his requiem mass. 

“Truth,” he told those who questioned his methods in defence “trumps friendship.” The clincher is as timeless as it is paradoxical.

Now charged with taking kickbacks running into millions of shillings from tenders awarded by the county, the governor seems unsure of what he must do next. In a Facebook post in September, he trashed his critics, calling them flowery words like “kumbaff” – idiots – and “bure kabisa” – good for nothing – asserting he was very much in charge of county affairs. 

If Nairobians were worried about anything when he took the reins of the country’s most crucial county, it was that he would not cut the “appropriate” image or possess the attributes of the kind of governor the city needs. A former convict, he was elected MP for Makadara in 2010 after a successful petition by the seat’s loser in 2007, Reuben Ndolo. Underestimated by everyone but himself, he won. Aged 35 then, he was an unlikely entrant into the city’s political scene: hip, abrasive and in the rough, he was ill-poised to make it; many thought he wouldn’t last. When he was elected to Senate in 2013, he shed his notoriety for flaunting House Rules, including incidences of inappropriate dressing; his refinement was difficult to miss.

So, what happened to Mike Sonko?

Last month he was accused of being at the centre of a multi-million corruption scandal in garbage collection tenders worth over Sh160 million. Ever the clairvoyant, he decided he wouldn’t go to back his office until he was cleared. Not that he is there often anyway, but the symbol and narrative fit.

It is all lies, he declared afterwards, but not without some hesitation. “All these are lies… But because I respect institutions, I will not get in the way of investigators, so I am keeping away. I will fight my personal problems as Sonko, not as governors,” he said.

But “…so damaging are the allegations,” the Daily Nation reported, “that the governor has set in motion the process of naming a deputy should he be required to step aside as the boss at City Hall.” 

By his admission, the county was in a crisis but there were plans to come up with a name to be forward to the assembly for approval. He also promised to resign if convicted.

The following week, perhaps having recovered from the shock of the episode, he denied everything again – there had never been a process to name a deputy, and he was still “very much in charge.”

Many complain that I am difficult to work with, but the truth is they want to keep doing things in the same manner that has robbed people of services in this city for far too long. That is the truth…”

Weeks later, two of his drivers, in a dramatic escalation of his woes in recent times, were hauled before the courts for obstructing President Uhuru Kenyatta’s motorcade along Mombasa Road. They were later released on bail.

There are not many politicians beside who have less time for the media. But, as he has said before and cannot repeat too often, with him, what you see is what you get: scratch him and you will discover he is the same underneath the skin and all the way to his core. What exactly is at that core however, is something he likes to keep under wraps.

An officer at City Hall who has worked there for 22 years says of the governor: “His demeanour makes him agreeable despite his idiosyncrasies. There are traits about him, as some have come to find, that make him endearing and loathed all at once.” He refers to the governor’s well-documented penchant for micromanagement, short but unhelpful bursts of attention and his eternal need to be seen to be all-powerful and in-charge. It is not, you will find, something he worries about too much: 

“Many have complained that I am difficult to work with, but the truth is they want to keep doing things in the same manner that has robbed people of services in this city for far too long. They will not tell you that, but the know, as I do, the reasons they were fired are different from the version they gave the press,” he said of some of his sacked county executives.

Of course, his justification for the shortcomings he knows he suffers are as edgy as they are besides the point.

Nevertheless, for every sting he renders, for all the scorn he inspires amongst those he slights, others swear by him: he is their saviour, benefactor, political prodigy and protector all at once, a real-life Makmende.

His philanthropy and generosity – whatever the ends – from the time he had a falling-out with Evans Kidero over his Sonko Rescue Team (SRT), which he went on to register as a non-governmental organisation, have distinguished him with the rest of his peers. In this regard, he is never shy of publicity.

In 2014, he adopted Satrin Osinya after he was shot in the head during an al Shabaab attack in March 2014, where the baby’s mother was killed. Then senator, he also adopted Osinya’s siblings.

A year later, in 2015, he defended a 100-year-old woman from a land grabber who had also demolished the her house. The woman had forcefully been evicted by goons hired by the private developer. He later donated household items, a wheelchair and construction material.

Earlier, in 2013, as a newly-elected Senator, Sonko un-detained mothers who had been held in Pumwani Maternity and Mama Lucy Kibaki Hospitals for accumulated hospital bills running into more than Sh1 million. In April this year, he again ordered all patients held at county health facilities over unpaid bills running into millions released.

More recently, in September this year, SRT rescued – pun not intended – a disabled Busia lad, Gilbert Otieng, who, it is said, has been crawling six kilometres to and from school. It was reported in media the governor enrolled him in a special school where he will board, cleared pending fees and sent him shopping. 

This ability to bring out the human in him has not been in vain. The governor is as popular as ever, despite the fact that clogged drainage continues to be a problem, water rationing is the norm, crime continues to skyrocket, joblessness and drug abuse abound, and some roads in the city are full of potholes. 

On occasion, he will don an apron and joins SRT in unclogging drainages in the city’s backstreets. It is very effective PR.

So, what is the deal with Mike Sonko?

His story reads like an epigraph for the ages. He is, among many other things, an apt prognosis of the double-edgedness, of the revelry and glossy nature of the politics and politicians of his era. (

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