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THE SONKONIZATION OF NAIROBI: How Mike Sonko Is Reshaping City Politics

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On June 2, 2010, the then Speaker of the National Assembly Kenneth Marende declared the Makadara seat in Nairobi vacant. The MP, the late Dick Wathika had lost the seat after a successful petition by Rueben Ndolo, a former holder of the seat (2002—2007). The by election was slated for September 20, 2010.

Three weeks to the by election, I had an interview with Wathika — popularly known as Mwas, his mtaa (estate) nickname — at a posh Nairobi hotel. He was in his element: exuding an unusual confidence. He boasted to me how he was going to wallop yet again his opponent Ndolo, who was contesting on an ODM ticket.

Finding him vain, I reminded him the fight was no longer between him and his known adversary, but was now going to be a three-pronged battle, which in my view, needed a different tact and strategy. A third contestant had entered the fray and his name was Gideon Mbuvi Kioko alias Mike Sonko.

“Wewe Dauti ni nini sasa…kwani umesahau kule tumetoka?” (You Dauti what’s up with you? You’ve forgotten where we’ve come from?), he chided me. “Huyo ni nani unaniambia stori yake. Ndolo ndiye opponent wangu. na nitam KO.” (Who’s that you telling me about? My opponent is Ndolo and I’ll knock him out). Wathika, in his heydays, just like Ndolo was an amateur boxer, the only difference being Ndolo had taken his boxing a notch higher and fought as a professional.

Within two and a half years, Sonko was transformed from a political neophyte to a juggernaut.

Mwas could afford to get up close and personal with me, because I had known him since childhood. We had grown up together in Maringo estate. In 1991, after former President Daniel arap Moi had repealed the infamous Section 2(a) of the old constitution, multi-party politics had returned to the fold.

The following year, Wathika joined politics through the Ford Asili party which had split from Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), the first opposition party formed after the political liberalization. Kenneth Matiba formed Ford Asili, while the then doyen of opposition politics Jaramogi Oginga Odinga formed Ford Kenya.

As luck would have it, Mwas was a boy wa mtaa (local boy), all the electorate; young and old who had desired change voted for him and he run away with the popular vote. Wathika was elected as the Maringo ward councillor — defeating the KANU incumbent, Kiura Kirandu — hands down.

Wathika had had a great run as a politician from 1992, when as a 19-year-old elected rookie, he become one of the youngest minted multiparty party era politicians. In between 1992—2010, he had served three terms as a councillor, a mayor for two years and an MP for two and half years, including a stint as Assistant Minister for a year and four months. But his streak of luck would suddenly end with the arrival of Sonko.

Sonko, shot to political prominence, when he was first elected to parliament as Makadara MP on September 20, 2010. To the utter surprise of Wathika and Ndolo, Sonko, then 35 years old and running on a Narc Kenya ticket, caused a major upset by polling 19,535 votes against his closest rival, Ndolo’s 16,613.

Wathika, the incumbent pooled a poor third. “I must admit I did not see the defeat coming…I had had it too easy,” he was later to tell me when we again met in December 2010.

The entry of Sonko into the abrasive city politics immediately did two things: He sent Wathika packing — first to an emotional declaration of quitting politics altogether, and after he had recollected himself, into exile in Mukurweini constituency in Nyeri County. Sonko also confined Ndolo to ODM party politics. Within two and a half years, Sonko was transformed from a political neophyte to a juggernaut.

The naming of his matatus completed the picture and in a somewhat subtle way, told Sonko’s own shady story. They bore names such as — BROWN SUGAR, CONVICT, FERRARI, LAKERS and ROUGH CUTS.

By March 2013, he was so confident he had outgrown his parliamentary seat, he threw his force into contesting the newly created senator seat. He won the Nairobi senator seat by the biggest number of votes cast for any senator or governor countrywide. Running against his closest competitor Margaret Wanjiru, he polled 808,705 votes against the burly priestess’ 525,822 votes.

In Nairobi County, Sonko proved to all and sundry he was the king of politics. Running on The National Alliance (TNA) party, he polled even more votes than either his party boss, Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, who got 659,490 votes, or he latter’s rival, Raila Amolo Odinga, who received 691,156 votes. It was evident that Sonko had stomped the city politics like no other and, any politician who ignored him could only do so at their own peril.

Who is Sonko and how is it that today he is the most talked about politician, only after President Uhuru Kenyatta and the leader of Opposition Raila Odinga?

Sonko appeared on the Nairobi scene in the early 2000s just like in the movies: with a bang. One day, Nairobian woke up to the sleekest No. 58 matatus operating on the Buru Buru Phase V, IV and III estates’ route. Sonko had invested in a fleet of matatus that came to be known as nganya — a super pimped matatu — a superlative of manyanga, which is an ordinary pimped matatu.

His crew staff did not disappoint: His drivers and conductors were the whippiest lads you could find anywhere in the matatu transport industry. They were funky and wore the latest fashions. Equipped with the latest hi-fi music systems complete with woofers, Sonko’s matatus could be heard a kilometre away.

The naming of his matatus completed the picture and in a somewhat subtle way, told Sonko’s own shady story. They bore names such as — BROWN SUGAR, CONVICT, FERRARI, LAKERS and ROUGH CUTS. His matatus were so hip, trendy Buru Buru schoolkids would not board any other matatus.

Sonko’s investment in the matatu industry has been surrounded with a lot of mystery and allegations of money laundering. He entered the industry with a great deal of razzmatazz, buying many matatus at one go and for a while, the quiet talk among his fellow matatu owners was that the source of his wealth was the illegal drug trade.

Two years after he was arrested and taken to Shimo-la-Tewa Prison, it is said he smuggled in cash in a briefcase into the prison, which his acolytes had passed onto the prison warders.

Indeed, the late Minister of Interior Security, Prof George Saitoti in December 2010, named him in Parliament as one of the country’s drug lords. Talking to one of his close buddies recently, he reiterated that Sonko has never been taken to court over that mention or the allegations that were swirling before and even after. “To the best of my knowledge, the mention by the late Saitoti about Sonko involvement in drugs, has remained just that: a mere mention, nothing, more…nothing less,” he said.

The source of Sonko’s wealth though has never been fully publicly explained. Years before, then known as Gidion Mbuvi Kioko, he was a middle man selling parcels of lands in the Coast region, where he had grown up.

Many a time, it is alleged, he would take off with all the money after a land sale. In 1997, he was accused of having falsified documents relating to land belonging to Eliud Mahihu, the former all-powerful Coast Provincial Commissioner during Mzee Kenyatta’s era.

Two years after he was arrested and taken to Shimo-la-Tewa Prison, it is said he smuggled in cash in a briefcase into the prison, which his acolytes had passed onto the prison warders. They, in turn, are said to have facilitated his escape after he was taken to Coast General Hospital feigning a range of ailments — from epilepsy, HIV/AIDS to Typhoid. Later, in mitigation, Sonko was to argue that he had run away from jail to attend his mother’s funeral.

Just a few years later, Sonko was hanging around then Wab Hotel, at the Buru Buru shopping centre, clad in denim jeans and a T-Shirt, chatting away the boys. His matatus then employed an upward of 50 youth.

In January 2003, after the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), an alliance dislodged the ruling KANU from its 24-year-old stranglehold of power, President Mwai Kibaki appointed the late John Michuki as the Minister of Transport. Michuki was used to getting his way — from his days as a colonial administrator in the 1950s, when he was a district officer in Nanyuki, up to even when he entered politics. The “Michuki rules” which he initiated immediately he assumed the transport docket and which quickly resonated with the people, remained a diktat, until Sonko went to court in 2006. Sonko won his case because, as the High Court reminded the Transport Ministry, without official publication in the Kenya Gazette, the rules were just that: Michuki “personal rules”. It was only after the court case that the rules were now formally gazetted.

One of Michuki’s more infamous edicts was that of barring matatus from entering the central business district of Nairobi. It was a clearly selfish decree because of the conflict of interest that arose from an exception to the rule, allowing in vehicles belonging to the City Hoppa matatu company in which the Minister had invested heavily.

Listening to him explaining his tribulations, Kenneth inadvertently casts himself as a “choice candidate” who was owed and had been let down by the Jubilee Party cabal at the Pangani headquarters.

Sonko, whose matatus were affected by this unlawful rule, went to court. To the surprise of many, he won the case after a protracted battle. His matatus were allowed back into the city centre, along with a select few from other owners. The judicial victory improved Sonko’s standing among his employees and followers, who viewed him as their “Mr fix it”.

But more significantly, it, catapulted him to the chairmanship of the then amorphous and now defunct Eastlands Matatu Operators Association. The position gave Sonko influence and power commanding then close to 8000 matatus.

From being the darling of the youth, he became the darling of the masses. The passengers who used to be dropped off at the dusty Muthurwa, and who would then have to trek to the city centre — there were no boda bodas at the time — could not thank him enough. It was just a matter of time before he moved to the next level. When the Makadara constituency election was nullified by the High Court in April 2010, an opportunity availed itself and Sonko seized the moment and ran with it.

After becoming MP, Sonko sought to endear himself to his constituents. He would engage the City Council to get his constituents exempted from paying parking fees within Makadara constituency. The court injunction was only temporary but he had made his point: he would always be ready to fight for his people. For a while, he also made it tenuous for slum lords to arbitrarily evict tenants. He would go to court on behalf of the tenants and file a case.

On Sunday March 19, 2017 on national TV, Sonko ranted against Peter Kenneth, then one of his more formidable opponents for the Jubilee Party ticket for the Nairobi gubernatorial contest. From the onset, it was evident in the interview Sonko pulled no punches and held no prisoners when describing Kenneth. His apparent contempt for the former presidential candidate was palpable.

The 51-year-old Kenneth would later quit Jubilee Party, after losing the nomination battle to Sonko, to run as an independent candidate. He came off as a sore loser who had expected his path to the nomination to be smoothened for him. And therein lay his Achilles Heels: entitlement. Listening to him explaining his tribulations, Kenneth inadvertently casts himself as a “choice candidate” who was owed and had been let down by the Jubilee Party cabal at the Pangani headquarters.

But more than giving the implicit impression that he was the favoured son, Kenneth has been unable to shake off the label of being a “political project” or a front for other interests. First, he was a project of the “Murang’a Mafia”. Now, he is viewed as a “Governor Evans Kidero project”. It cannot get worse.

Yet, the project tag is not the only label he is struggling with. When Sonko first taunted him as a foreigner and a Johnny-come-lately to city politics, Kenneth laughed it off and made light of the remark by pointing out that even when he represented Gatanga constituency, he slept in Nairobi.

The bad news for Kenneth is that this refuses to go away. “Peter Kenneth is a foreigner to Nairobi politics”, says a Nairobi lady restaurateur known as Wa Carol. “Where has he been for four years?” the restaurateur, who herself voted for Sonko during the nominations, muses loudly. His goose was cooked the day he announced he was running in Nairobi, she says.

Still, of the 15 mayors Nairobi had between 1963 and 2012, only 4 were non-Kikuyu. Many Kikuyus have therefore come to regard Nairobi city as an extension of Kiambu County

“After PK first announced his bid in January, Maina Kamanda afterwards came over and addressed us Kikuyu business people in Nairobi and told us: ‘we need someone to protect our property and the man to do precisely that is Peter Kenneth’. I thought Kamanda was kidding me. I do not own any property in Nairobi”, says the lady who is in her late 40s.

It is the same reaction that my friend, Elvis Kinyanjui, who has been a street vendor in the CBD for the last three decades, had: “Kamanda is talking of protecting property — whose property?”

The Peter Kenneth who ran for presidency in 2013 is radically different from the man seeking to be the governor of the capital city. In 2013, he projected himself as a de-tribalised, smooth and urbane Kenyan — the poster child of cosmopolitanism with refined features. Barely four years later, he agreed to be repackaged as a Kikuyu sheriff coming to the city with a mission to rescue a propertied class ostensibly under siege.

Pitted against a man — Sonko — who has carved himself a niche as the spokesman for the city’s underclass and defender of their trodden rights, Kenneth’s apparent aloofness and association with the moneyed class casts him as removed from the everyday struggles of the city dweller.

In the nominations that he has bitterly disputed, Kenneth was walloped by Sonko, 138,185 votes to 62,504. Could Sonko have wrestled the power and glory from the Murang’a business elite’s grip on Nairobi, thereby redefining the politics of Nairobi?

Nairobi city politics have always been under the grip of Kikuyu business and political elites save for two major periods — between 1969 to 1970 and 1983 to 1992. In 1969, Isaac Lugonzo took over from Charles Rubia and in 1983, former President Moi disbanded the City Council when Nathan Kahara was mayor to form several commissions till the return of multiparty politics in 1991.

From way back in the 1960s, when the first Minister of Trade and Commerce was Dr Gikonyo Kiano, who like Rubia, the city mayor, hailed from then Murang’a District, the city’s business allocations and licenses tended to favour the Kikuyus from Murang’a. That is why, it not a coincidence that many of the city business godowns in the industrial area are owned by Murang’a tycoons. That is also why many of the buildings in downtown Nairobi, especially on River Road and Kirinyaga Road, are owned by the famous Rwathia group, which has its origin is in Rwathia in Murang’a.

Similarly, many of the small traders — from hawkers to street vendors— are Kikuyus from Murang’a many of whom are today settled in Starehe constituency. It is equally not a coincidence that Maina Kamanda, another Murang’a supremo, started his political career at Ngara West Ward (one of the wards that make Starehe constituency), eventually running for the parliamentary seat. The ward, and indeed the entire Starehe constituency, is populated majorly by Kikuyus from Murang’a.

“The thought of Sonko running the affairs of the biggest economy outside the national government at the City Hall is just frightening”, the earlier quoted businessman confided.

After the re-introduction of multiparty politics, the position of the mayor may have been whittled down, but still, Kikuyu political mandarins controlled the mayoral seat, if not directly, then indirectly. Between 1992, after the first multiparty elections and 2002, the mayors were all Kikuyus. From Steve “Magic” Mwangi, John King’ori, Sammy Mbugua, John Ndirangu to Dick Waweru, whose second term ended in 2002.

The only other time a non-Kikuyu was boss at City Hall was between 2003—2004 when Joe Aketch, a nominated councilor, was mayor. Aketch owed his mayoral seat to Kamanda. The vicious infighting between the Kikuyu councillors at City Hall that ensued after the Narc victory, forced Kamanda, the newly elected Starehe MP, to throw his weight behind Aketch’s candidacy.

Geoffrey Majiwa, then the Baba Dogo ward councillor was the Nairobi mayor after President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga formed the grand coalition government in 2008. George Aladwa served between 2010—2012, after he took over from Majiwa, who had to step aside after he was allegedly implicated in a cemetery land corruption scam. Following the 2013 election, which rung in new constitutional arrangements, especially devolution, Evans Kidero, a Luo, defeated his Kikuyu rivals to clinch the Governorship.

Still, of the 15 mayors Nairobi had between 1963 and 2012, only 4 were non-Kikuyu. Many Kikuyus have therefore come to regard Nairobi city as an extension of Kiambu County due to its proximity, notwithstanding the fact that Kiambu Kikuyus appear to have ceded control of the city businesses to their cousins from Murang’a. In March 2017, a Jubilee Party parliamentary candidate from Roysambu was interviewed on Inooro TV. When asked who should be the governor of Nairobi, his answer was curt. “A Kikuyu of course”. “Why?” posed the interviewer. “We Kikuyus are the owners of the city”.

This reasoning among the Kikuyus is buttressed by the notion that many of the city businesses and investments’ operations are run by Kikuyus. Also, because of the proximity of Kiambu and to a large extent Murang’a Counties, coupled with the fact that the first post-independent government of Mzee Kenyatta encouraged many Kikuyus to come to Nairobi, Kikuyus have always been numerically superior. According to some reports, one in three Nairobians is a Kikuyu.

Since Sonko declared his intention to run for the governor’s seat, a section of the city’s business community has become uneasy and wary of his burgeoning grassroots support across the city electorate. Towards the end of last year, Kikuyu businessmen in the city met and proposed a “sober and mature” person to run for the seat, in the hope of unseating governor Evans Kidero. “We had to act and come up with a name, in view of Jubilee Party’s apparent lack of a saleable candidate,” said one businessman who was privy to the meeting.

That is when they proposed Peter Kenneth. There is no gainsaying the fact the bulk of the most influential Kikuyu businessmen in Nairobi hail from the greater Murang’a County. Before, the carving out of additional districts from the original Murang’a largely by President Daniel Moi, Murang’a District began just after Thika town extending all way to the border of Karatina town, which is in Nyeri District. The urban and thoroughly cosmopolitan Kenneth is from Kirwara sub-location in Murang’a.

When the businessmen argued that they did not know where Sonko came from and what business he does, they were subtly saying he is not one of them. It did not matter that he is a Jubilee Party loyalist. “The thought of Sonko running the affairs of the biggest economy outside the national government at the City Hall is just frightening”, the earlier quoted businessman confided. To calm the Murang’a Mafia fears and sooth their egos, Sonko has picked a mid-career corporate professional, Polycarp Igathe, who hails from Murang’a County as his deputy.

I was informed that Sonko oftentimes sneaks in at night to catch up with wazito — the gangland (heavy weight) leaders, who also boasted of having Sonko’s direct contacts.

Sonko’s mocking of academic papers during his high pitched monologues to Citizen TV host Mohamed Hussein — never mind he has himself rushed to get them — is a testament to how these credentials have come to mean nothing insofar as the governor’s seat is concerned. Dr Evans Kidero with his “excellent” academic papers and “management experience” and presumed “track record” has ensured that these qualifications will not be anything to brag about when canvassing for the governor seat’s votes.

Kidero’s rival was Ferdinand Waititu, a former MP of the larger Embakasi constituency. Waititu started off as a councillor for Njiru ward, which was then part of the constituency. He also deputized mayor Wathika. Waititu is always remembered for his “unparliamentary” behaviour of throwing stones and boxing his constituents.

Yet, in uncanny twist of fate, he outmanoeuvered his competitors to clinch the TNA party ticket. One of the more formidable candidates in the Nairobi governor seat elections in 2013 was one, Jimnah Mbaru who ran on the defunct Alliance Party of Kenya (APK) after he failed to secure the TNA nomination. He performed dismally, coming a distant third.

Like Kenneth today, Mbaru had always been dogged by claims of being elitist and not “a man of the people”, since the first time he entered electoral politics in 1992, when he first ran for a parliamentary seat. Waititu’s chief campaigners in 2013 rode on that narrative to besmirch Jimnah. He was painted by Waititu as a man who would not soil his (well pressed) suits to get into the mud to help the people.

A cursory glance at Sonko’s city support base today quickly reveals a demographic stratum that comprises voters who care nothing about academic qualifications and management experience. Disenchanted with Kidero’s apparent lack of vision for the city — Nairobians were hoping for a makeover and an invigorated capital city — this voter bloc has all but dismissed these “elite” qualifications.

Four months ago, I conducted a reality check in Mathare constituency, one of Sonko’s electoral bastions. Mathare is made up of six wards. In Huruma, the “area boys” told me Sonko was their guy. No doubt. Speaking to me in that lyrical Sheng only spoken in the toughest of the city ghettos, the young men spotting crew cuts dismissed Kenneth as an “impostor”. “Huyo mlami alikuwa wapi hizo siku zote?” Where was the white man all these time? “Kenneth ni candidate wa mababi”. Kenneth is the city’s bourgeoisie choice.

Of course, Mathare is not Sonko’s only voter catchment area. The entire Eastlands area — including the Central Business District — is considered to be his political playground. From the City Stadium roundabout, the area sandwiched between Jogoo Road and Lusaka Road is populated with Sonko’s presumed loyal supporters. This area straddles basically four constituencies: Makadara, Starehe and Embakasi South and Embakasi West.

In Makadara constituency, Sonko’s support is to be found in the larger Buru Buru, Ofafa Jericho and Jericho Lumumba, Maringo, Mbotela and Hamza estates. Add to these estates, Mukuru kwa Njenga slum. In Starehe constituency, Sonko’s biggest support base is in the Mukuru kwa Rueben sprawling slum which is adjacent to the other Mukuru and other scattered slums in the Industrial area. In Embakasi South constituency, his most ardent supporters are in the heavily populated Pipeline area. In Embakasi West, his supporters are to be found in Umoja I and II, Mowlem and Kariobangi South.

Separate from the Jogoo Road/Lusaka Road axis, Sonko also commands great support in the area between Juja Road and Heshima Road, which runs through Bahati and Jerusalem estates. This area mainly encompasses Kamukunji and Embakasi North constituencies. In Kamukunji constituency, his greatest support resides in Biafra, Majengo — popularly known as Kije — and Shauri Moyo estates. Majengo, one of the city’s oldest and most densely populated slums, is heavily Islamized and Swahilised — cultural traditions that Sonko easily identifies with and vice versa.

In Embakasi North, the sprawling Dandora areas I, II, III, IV and V, including Gitare Marigu ghetto are Sonko’s forte. Away from Eastlands, Sonko can also call support in Dagoretti South, a peri-urban and semi-rural constituency.

To the macho ghetto youth, the fact that Sonko spent time in prison, means he is a “made man”. “Sonko ni mtu alikuwa piri…na saa hii yuko wapi?” (Sonko was in prison…now look where he is).

Sonko’s penetration of these urban poor areas was facilitated by his supposedly philanthropic outfit; the Sonko Rescue Team, which would supply the one golden commodity that is scarce to many Nairobians, rich and poor — water. For many of these people, they did not need to see Sonko physically: The SRT vehicles would announce the presence of the unseen Sonko.

Invariably, Sonko’s supporters will not be voting for him because he is in Jubilee — his core constituency is to be found across the ethnic divide and would vote for him wherever he would take them. It is that simple. Nobody cares to remember that Sonko is a Mkamba from Mua Hills in Machakos County.

My street vendor friends — many of them Kikuyus and who ply their trade in the CBD, have told me they are rooting for Sonko. They believe he will be kinder to them. “Sonko ni mtu anaelewa works ya vijana.” (Sonko is a man who understands the struggles of the youth). “Yeye hukuja kutucheki na ametupromise ata deal na mabigi wa hii tao.” (He comes by to say hello, and has promised, he will deal with the city’s bigwigs).

Sonko won the street vendors’ favour, when he confronted the city askaris, who consistently and persistently harassed the vendors. Sonko had been consistently vocal about the violence at least since 2014, and in January 2016, three notorious city askaris, who have since been charged with a spate of murders involving street vendors, were arrested days after he threatened to resign.

Sonko has promised to put the city askaris firmly in their place, should he win. “Sonko alitushow atanyorosha hao makanjo.” (Sonko told us he will straighten up the city askaris — if he becomes the governor).

Typically, nearly all the boda boda riders who operate in the CBD are Sonko’s supporters. Like their counterparts, the street vendors, they regularly fall afoul of the archaic city by-laws, and hence are a perpetual target of harassment by city askaris seeking to extort bribes; oftentimes violently.

Sam Ochieng who is an Advertising Executive, says he will vote for Sonko. “Sonko animates politics in a way no other Kenyan politician does.” My restaurateur friend, Wa Carol, told me she will cast her vote for Sonko, because she believes he is a man of action and will be accessible. “Kidero is a total flop. All he did was to increasingly levy taxies on small enterprises without offering any services. Look at my restaurant’s backstreet: piles and piles of garbage…and every month we are required to pay service charge.”

Away from Sonko’s presumed multicultural support base, his ethnic city support is also as good as assured. It is not for nothing that Mukuru kwa Reuben and part of the Mukuru kwa Njenga slums are solidly behind Sonko: in the city politics’ parlance, they are Kamba ghettos. So is Biafra in Kamukunji, Mbotela in Makadara and Pipeline in Embakasi South.

According to Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) latest figures on the total registered voters, out of the city’s 2.3 million registered voters, 450,000 are Kambas, the second-largest voting block after the Kikuyus. With his entry into the governor’s race, Sonko has complicated the ethnic arithmetic for Evans Kidero/Jonathan Mueke ticket. The retention of Mueke as a running mate was essentially to tap and harvest this Kamba vote.

Three weeks ago, Johnstone Muthama, one of NASA’s fundraisers and campaigners called for a meeting at City Stadium, where every eligible Kamba voter had an automatic invitation. On the agenda: how to marshall Kamba support for Kidero/Mueke NASA ticket. Regardless, Hannah Mutiso from Buru Buru, told me her vote for the governor is for Sonko and so did Mbula from Pipeline in Embakasi South.

If the Kamba vote will prove to be problematic to Kidero, the Luhya vote may also not be automatic. A City County Luhya employee, who requested anonymity, confided in me that not all Luhyas will vote for Kidero. “We have not forgotten how he caused so much grief for our people when he was the boss at Mumias Sugar Factory.” Kidero has been variously accused of mismanaging and misappropriating the company’s finances, a charge that has yet to be proven in the courts, but which has refused to go away and sticks out of Kidero’s lapel like a rotten flower.

Sonko’s works of charity — though driven more by his need to shore up his votes rather than real philanthropy — in places like Kosovo, another of Mathare’s wards, are seen as actos of noblesse oblige in one of the riskiest slums in Nairobi. There, I was informed that Sonko oftentimes sneaks in at night to catch up with wazito — the gangland (heavy weight) leaders, who also boasted of having Sonko’s direct contacts.

Some of the philanthropic activities that Sonko continues to dazzle Nairobians with include paying school fees for some needy students and providing a free ambulance service. As MP, he claimed to have regularly purchased a geometrical set for every pupil in his constituency who sat for the Kenya School of Primary Education (KCPE) examination.

In six short years, Nairobi politics has seen Sonko capture the aspirations of the hoi polloi sequestered in the dangerous, horrid city ghettos, where in the true Hobbesian fashion, “life is short, nasty and brutish”. If his criminal record is supposed to stick out as a sore thumb, the contrary is true. The record, which he does not shy away from, has proved to be a magnet to the youth — who form the strength of his fundamental support.

To the macho ghetto youth, the fact that Sonko spent time in prison, means he is a “made man”. “Sonko ni mtu alikuwa piri…na saa hii yuko wapi?” (Sonko was in prison…now look where he is).

Cutting the figure of a flashy, flamboyant, jewelry-clad gung-ho, Robin Hood type of a Mafia don, Sonko popularised the street slang name — sonko — connoting a man of limitless wealth. Adored by the millennial and generation Z, whose every day dream is to be a sonko, like the real Mike Sonko, they are expected to come out and vote for him en masse.

Sonko who converses in the “rebel language” of the slum-trodden youth, has impressed on them that you do not need an education to live it up. In the process, he has “sonkonised” the politics of Nairobi.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

Maendeleo ya Wanawake and the Politics of Silencing Women

7 min read. The main objective of Kenya’s largest women’s organisation has been to subdue women’s voices and to control the constituency of women, a purpose that was both necessary and effective in an undemocratic state. That it is being revived may indicate the type of politics the elite envision for Kenya’s women.

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Maendeleo ya Wanawake and the Politics of Silencing Women
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MYWO has always existed to subdue women’s voices and to control the constituency of women, a purpose that was both necessary and effective in an undemocratic state. That it is being revived may indicate the type of politics the elite envision for the foreseeable future

We are witnessing the Kenyan government’s attempt to reimpose silence as the preferred political language in this next phase of politics. These attempts are hidden in plain sight. Take for instance the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organisation (MYWO)’s recent public censure of the Member of Parliament for Kandara constituency, Alice Wahome, for criticising the president, or the Women’s League of the Kikuyu Council of Elders demanding that the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI)’s popularisation is the preserve of those aligned to the president.

According to its website, MYWO is a non-governmental organisation of over 25,000 affiliate women’s groups and over 4 million individual members. Registered in 1952 by a group of white settler women as part of the colonial government’s Department of Community Development and Rehabilitation, its purpose was to focus on women’s social welfare, which it did through organising women’s self-help groups around the country. In central Kenya where the movement for land, freedom and independence (the Mau Mau) was active, MYWO was treated with suspicion and there were rumours it was used to collect information on Mau Mau activities.

MYWO was initially funded by the colonial government and later the independence government and continued to focus primarily on social welfare and development. The post-independence MYWO continued to act as an appendage of the state, going so far as to merge with the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party in 1987. MYWO, therefore, has deep roots in the state and the state as an institution for the control of people. It is an organisation by women but not for women; its purpose is to serve the interests of the state.

MYWO has never deviated from its historical roots and purpose. It has never been an independent women’s organisation, nor has it ever been invested in women’s political agency. Despite being founded and growing as a social welfare and “development” organisation, MYWO gained political relevance as a voice for the ruling party KANU during President Daniel arap Moi’s repressive 24-year single-party rule.

Because women were for all intents and purposes excluded from mainstream politics, MYWO was one of the few spaces for politically active women. Thus, some of its chairpersons include such politically active women as: Hon. Phoebe Asiyo, who was first elected in 1980 and was also the first person to table a bill for affirmative action for women’s representation in elective politics in 1997; Jael Ogombe Mobogo, who almost beat Mwai Kibaki in the race for Member of Parliament for Bahati Constituency in the 1969 elections; and Ruth Habwe, who was expelled from KANU in 1966 after she dared to run against KANU as an independent. Other chairpersons of MYWO include such prominent women as Hon. Zipporah Kittony, who was first nominated by President Moi as a KANU MP in 1988 and again by Gideon Moi, President Moi’s son and the Chairman of KANU, to the Senate 25 years later in 2013; and Jane Kiano, who was also a patron of the organisation until her death in 2018.

Despite being founded and growing as a social welfare and “development” organisation, MYWO gained political relevance as a voice for the ruling party KANU during President Daniel arap Moi’s repressive 24-year single-party rule.

However, MYWO’s influence began to decline during the “second liberation” as demands for multipartyism grew and civic space expanded. As the public space for women expanded, including through the promulgation of the Constitution in 2010, MYWO continued to shrink. Its resurgence to chastise Alice Wahome for criticising the president is, therefore, worth reflection.It is also worth noting that President Uhuru Kenyatta first ran on a KANU ticket and his political mentor was President Moi.

For the first time in our history, men and women form a class of citizens, neither with superior status, and both with the right to representation in elective and appointive bodies. Yet over the past decade, and especially in the last seven years, we have witnessed some of the most hardened resistance by the state to women as citizens — from systematic violations of the Constitution to exclude women from Parliament, Cabinet, and parastatal and ambassadorial appointments (as required by the Bill of Rights Article 27) to laws undermining their equality in marriage and the increase in violence against women by men in the public and private spheres.

In other words, there has been no shortage of “women’s issues” over the past decade. Women and women’s organisations working in women’s interests have had to demand, advocate and fight for women against the state despite the law – from court cases challenging these unconstitutional actions by Parliament and by the president to public advocacy for compliance with the rule of law to ensure women’s full representation in public space and politics. Women working for and on behalf of women have been at the forefront of challenging state illegalities that harm women, undermine their citizenship and limit their opportunities. During this time MYWO has been missing in action.

The loud silence of MYWO and others, including the Women’s League of the Kikuyu Council of Elders, is because they aren’t concerned with or working in the interests of Kenyan women generally; they are working for and in the interests of the state and a minority of women within the establishment. MYWO certainly does not protect the interests of women as a class of citizens. This isn’t to argue that their position is invalid or does not deserve a platform but to provide context and to assert it is not the women’s position.

MYWO was established to subdue women’s voices and to control the constituency of women, a purpose that was both necessary and effective in an undemocratic state. That it is being revived may indicate the type of politics the elite envision for the future of women in the country. The Kikuyu Council of Elders is the preserve of men, and the emergence of a “women’s league” in a notoriously misogynistic institution is probably a sign that the interests and positions being advanced are those of men.

The homogenisation of women

Women have been speaking for the past decade on issues of national importance. Where are those voices of women who have been speaking when it wasn’t convenient or politically expedient? Indeed, what the 2010 Constitution did to the consternation of the political elite is to create opportunities for the largest number of women in Kenyan politics – women who demand public space and national platforms without apology and on the same terms as men, women who speak against the state’s failure to protect women.

The loud silence of MYWO and others, including the Women’s League of the Kikuyu Council of Elders, is because they aren’t concerned with or working in the interests of Kenyan women generally; they are working for and in the interests of the state and a minority of women within the establishment.

But the way in which women who have been speaking for and on behalf of women against the state are being covered today is an attempt to homogenise women, to deny women the right to multiple and diverse opinions (see how this is consistent with a view of women as not real citizens). A small class of politically active women are also trying use the media to manipulate the public into seeing them as the “leaders” of the constituency of women so that they can leverage this standing to secure positions in the negotiated politics that is the fashion post-BBI.

Women are insulted, raped and killed and MYWO is silent, but a woman politician doing politics in a way that upsets the establishment is a cause for national statements. No woman with an issue – from the alienation of inheritance land or rape of her daughter in a public high school, or even the death of her daughter allegedly by a governor – runs to MYWO. However, the state runs to MYWO when it has issues with women.

To deny women diverse political opinions is to deny us the fullness of citizenship; it serves to infantilise us as well as to deny us agency at a time when the political elite is most vulnerable. Our politics is bad but it isn’t simple.  Attempts by the political elite to gloss over differences or muzzle dissent should be met with suspicion.The only way citizens can influence the direction or agenda of politics is through critical political engagement not mere acquiescence.

MYWO’s resurgence, especially in the role of the disciplinarian of women doing politics, is a harbinger of a politics without basic freedoms: freedom of association and speech, not just for women, but all citizens. The nature of our popular, predominately male, political analysis is to render anything articulated by a woman as peripheral to the national discourse and only for the consumption of other women. Whereas men speak and do politics for the public, women speak and do politics only for other women.

This analytical framework fails to take cognisance of changes in society, as well as the expanded public and political role of women, especially post-2010. In addition, it is stubbornly ahistorical, ignoring this administration’s history of violating women’s rights as a prelude to more expansive and systematic repression. We see the same modus operandi with court orders. The Parliament and the president have consistently violated court orders on the two-thirds gender rule, including refusing to enact legislation on women’s representation and naming an unconstitutional cabinet. Now court orders are violated to deny some citizens the right to enter the country, as well as release them on bail.

We would do well to broaden our political analysis to take women’s role seriously as citizens with agency and with diverse political perspectives and, therefore, as proponents of both progressive and regressive politics. Part of what is most threatening in the current context is diversity of political opinion, complexity and nuance among all citizens, not just women.

MYWO and organisations like it are telling women what the proper political position is, thus pulling women back from complicating the public space by demanding to be heard. This is especially damaging for women because women as a class of citizens have legitimate litigated grievances that challenge the legality and legitimacy of any proposed referendum or constitutional amendment processes.

Why women are critically important is because none of the legal processes to amend the Constitution are available because these institutions are unconstitutional as they exclude women. We have an unconstitutional cabinet, an unconstitutional Parliament, an unconstitutional electoral body and a political elite that have all but admitted that elections are hijacked by those in power. The scope of the current illegalities would seem to exclude the current holders of those positions from initiating or overseeing any constitutional amendment process. Instead of an unconstitutional government overseeing amendments to the Constitution, what we should have is an independent transitional government. But the political elite know that this political moment works in their collective interest only if it is a binary choice, uncomplicated by facts and the law.

As citizens we would do well to be suspicious of those seeking to silence us or to mould us into well-packaged constituencies, whether they be organised around ethnicity, gender or age, for sale to the highest bidder. We are being encouraged to consider political choices that are both illegal and ahistorical and questioning the framing is considered heresy. We seem to have learned nothing from the silencing of critics and the faux “tyranny of numbers” scenario.

Shrinking the political space, especially the space to disagree and oppose the status quo, is bad for citizens and great for politicians. The politics of silence is the politics of oppression; it merely starts with women but will eventually silence and oppress all citizens equally.

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How Moi Manipulated Luo Politics to Entrench His Authoritarian Rule

11 min read. An assessment of South Nyanza’s politics suggests that President Moi owed his long rule partly to the Luo elite’s internal divisions and rivalries. The Moi era is also a study on how authoritarian leaders sustained their grip on power during the Cold War.

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How Moi Manipulated Luo Politics to Entrench His Authoritarian Rule
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Daniel arap Moi, Kenya’s second and longest-serving post-independence president, was buried at his Kabarak home on February 12th. His death, eulogy and press coverage by the big commercial media outlets have stoked divisive debates and ambivalent recollections of the past, which recall Fyodor Dostoevsky’s observations that “while nothing is easier to denounce than an evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”

How does one understand the evils of the Nyayo government if Moi was solely responsible for some of the evils of his government, but not all the evils were exclusively his? And what if some of the evils Moi is rightly condemned for, such as crony capitalism, sabotaging democracy, resisting political reforms, political murders and corruption, are also the evils that were perpetuated by his predecessors, Jomo Kenyatta and Mwai Kibaki, and even his successor, Uhuru Kenyatta?

Perhaps one way is not to see Moi as the African Big Man, which Moi’s death has brought back into circulation. Though convenient, the Big Man or strongman reference conceals rather than reveals the kind of state power an authoritarian ruler wields, and the internal and external political forces that also shape the politics of authoritarian regimes. It conceals the wellspring of crimes committed by an evil leader in charge of a highly centralised and unitary state, one where the executive’s power has been concentrated in the presidency in particular, without the mitigating effect of the counter-balancing powers of an independent Parliament and judiciary.

Moi’s evil rule dominated every aspect of Kenya’s political life because his rule, like Jomo Kenyatta’s, was absolute state power, which post-independent statecraft has often wrapped in the rhetoric of sovereignty, patriotism, discipline, order, and development.

Moi’s authoritarian rule wasn’t solely a product of a unique character trait in him as an individual; rather, it was a handmaiden of the statecraft of an unreformed highly centralised and unitary state. By using this form of state power to reward and punish, he adroitly exploited the national or regional political needs of Kenyans and the political schemes and rivalries among his political rivals, and astutely manipulated the greed and the cravings of the clergy, the intelligentsia, and bureaucrats.

Moi’s evil government also had the support of the West during the Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher eras, which kept his repressive, corrupt and incompetent government going. Britain and the United States were clear about who the enemies of the West were during the Cold War: communism and radical nationalisms in Africa. They wanted to reconfigure African economies through neoliberalism. So his was hardly a one-man show.

Perhaps the politics of the South Nyanza district in the 1980s, which resonated with the politics of the other marginalised regions of Kenya, offers some answers. At that time, Kenyan elites were jostling for positions in the new political order under Moi, and the Nyanza elite were no exception. Signaling a political truce and an intention to bring back the ostracised Kenya People’s Union politicians back into the fold, Moi appointed Jaramogi Oginga Odinga as the Chairman of the Cotton Lint and Seed Marketing in 1980.

Moi’s evil rule dominated every aspect of Kenya’s political life because his rule, like Jomo Kenyatta’s, was absolute state power, which post-independent statecraft has often wrapped in the rhetoric of sovereignty, patriotism, discipline, order, and development.

But, as Anyang’ Nyongo regretfully explained in the Star, despite their concerted efforts to keep Jaramogi Oginga Odinga out of the limelight, Jaramogi granted Hillary Ng’weno of the Weekly Review an ill-timed interview. Moreover, in Mombasa, Jaramogi “denounced Kenyatta as a land grabber”. These successive events, as Nyongo notes, torpedoed what would have been the Moi-Odinga rapport because Moi was beholden to the very Jomo Kenyatta era forces that had forced Jaramogi Oginga Odinga out of government and that had jailed him.

After the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga debacle, Moi looked to South Nyanza for new leaders who did not have autonomous political constituencies such as Odinga’s, and leaders who would owe him their allegiance. Moi found willing accomplices in some South Nyanza elite with whom he could fend off political enemies, run a brutal and repressive state security apparatus, and build an alternative political base to Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s. It was a move that stirred the undercurrents of the intra-Luo and inter-district elite competition, resentment, and envy.

Moi understood the Luo intra-ethnic political undercurrents, its elites’ vanities, greed, and opportunism and their region’s developmental challenges. He played one individual’s ambitions against another individual’s ambitions, or one district’s elite faction against another faction, thus keeping his would-be enemies busy and preoccupied with siasa ya kuchimbana.

Legacy of the Seventh Day Adventists

For years, the South Nyanza elite had felt that the district had lagged behind Kisumu and Siaya districts in terms of social and economic development. The area was beleaguered with a huge disease burden and high mortality rates. In Freedom and After, Tom Mboya, suggested that this had partly been the social cost of the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) mission’s anti-educated African attitude and miniscule investment in the education sector.

Referring to a time when the education of the Africans was mainly left to Christian missionaries, Mboya lamented:

There were also churches—for instance, the Seventh Day Adventists—which thought it immoral to give Africans any academic education, and believed all they should learn was the Bible from the first page to the end, and perhaps how to do some woodwork and manual labour. Until a few years ago the Seventh Day Adventists thought it un-Christian for an African to want to go to high school and university. I know of many cases of Africans who were openly condemned in church for trying to get further academic education. In some cases Africans who defied the church on these matters lost their teaching jobs or the employment. As a result, you have today very few highly educated Africans among the Seventh Day Adventists.”

Mboya’s beef with the SDA mission, the dominant Christian mission in South Nyanza and the islands of Lake Victoria (locally known as Lolwe), can’t be dismissed as the coloured view of a Roman Catholic; missionary education was racially-biased across denominations. But the SDA church of the colonial times, with its Kenyan headquarters at Gendia mission in Kendu-Bay, and its roots in the millennial religions of white North Americans, seemed to have exported America’s virulent racist attitudes towards “free” black people. The SDA church of colonial times seemed to have resolved that the type of education the “natives” needed was apolitical education – the teaching of “technical” or functional education, the kind that would not stir political agitation, but would be good enough for the immediate needs of the white-dominated colonial economy.

Mboya’s beef with the SDA mission, the dominant Christian mission in South Nyanza and the islands of Lake Victoria (locally known as Lolwe), can’t be dismissed as the coloured view of a Roman Catholic; missionary education was racially-biased across denominations.

In an era when the colonial government assigned various Christian missions particular geographical locations – ostensibly to forestall religious conflicts – only the Anglicans (the Queen’s church) could establish a mission anywhere they fancied. Thus a Christian mission’s formal or informal policy could have a great impact on a region’s socio-economic (mis)fortunes. The white missionaries’ preference for high altitudes and cooler climates meant that there were very few missions and missionary schools in South Nyanza’s mostly hot, mosquito- and tsetse fly-infested areas.

The rise and rise of Hezekiah Oyugi

Tom Mboya’s rise as the ultimate champion of post-independence modernity held great hopes for South Nyanza. But his assassination on July 5, 1969 robbed the region of a grand patron and an impatient moderniser who felt that the colonial government had dealt the region an unfair card. Orphaned by Tom Mboya’s murder, South Nyanza, more than any other district, was a region yearning for a patron and inclusion in government.

But South Nyanza elites’ ambitions and popular needs, a laggard elite formation, poor social and economic welfare, especially when compared with the other Luo-dominated districts of Kisumu and Siaya, played into Daniel Moi’s Machiavellian hands. The failed Oginga Odinga and Moi rapport paved the way for Moi to shift the centre of gravity of Nyanza’s Luo community politics.

No one personified Daniel arap Moi’s attempt to shift the centre of gravity of Nyanza politics and to control it more than the late Hezekiah Nelson Oyugi Ogango, aka “Kalam Maduong” or the Big Pen. Oyugi’s nickname attested to the might of Oyugi’s powers, which he derived from his lofty position in the Provincial Administration, and later as Permanent Secretary in charge of internal security, an office he held at the pleasure of President Moi.

Hezekiah Oyugi’s meteoric rise in Moi’s government came as a big surprise, especially after another Hezekiah, and a Luo to boot, Hezekiah Ochuka Rabala, a senior private in the Kenya Air Force, was named as being at the centre of the 1982 abortive coup that was said to have had the blessing of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. No one expected another Luo to come close to state power, and certainly not close to a national security organ.

A Homa Bay legend has it that in the 1980s, a goat had spoken to Hezekiah Oyugi when he was serving as a Provincial Administrator in the Rift Valley. The goat had told him to warn the Kenyan government or the president of an impending drought or famine and request them to build a buffer against such an eventuality. Oyugi promptly relayed the message. President Moi heeded the prophetic warning by building a grain reserve, thus averting a famine. The legend’s Old Testament undertones cast Oyugi as Joseph, the interpreter of dreams in the Pharaoh’s court.

Hezekiah Oyugi’s meteoric rise in Moi’s government came as a big surprise, especially after another Hezekiah, and a Luo to boot, Hezekiah Ochuka Rabala, a senior private in the Kenya Air Force, was named as being at the centre of the 1982 abortive coup that was said to have had the blessing of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.

Oyugi, like Simeon Nyachae, was an ambitious workaholic and a stickler for rules who zealously served the Moi government while pursuing his own regional political ambitions and development agenda, especially in South Nyanza. Tired of the streetwise, honey-tongued and rib-tickling political orators with dismal “development” records, such Olouch Kanindo, Oyugi attempted to remake South Nyanza’s politics in the 1980s.

The Moi-Oyugi line-up of the favoured Members of Parliament included politicians such as Peter Nyakiamo, Dalmas Otieno and one maverick – if ever there was one – Professor Ouma Muga, and other loud and loutish Nyayo loyalist types. The new crop of leaders had expansive worldviews, were educated and experienced as administrators of big corporate or academic institutions, and were above all Nyayo loyalists.

In the mid-1980s, Moi came calling at Homa Bay. The KANU’s brass band was bigger and better than St John Seminary Rakwaro’s, which often graced Homa Bay town’s national day celebrations. South Nyanza, it was said, had topped the list of the districts with the highest number of registered KANU supporters for the two consecutive years preceding the presidential visit. This wasn’t entirely voluntary. During those years, KANU youth wingers forcibly recruited party members. They had laid siege at the entrances and exits of the town’s markets and the main bus park, letting in only those who had a KANU membership card and the annual KANU membership stamp (worth five or ten shillings) affixed to it. In addition, the KANU Maendeleo Ya Wanawake women, the party stalwarts who could secure more than five kilos of pishori rice or unga ngano, went door to door, making sure that every adult was a registered and duly paid card-carrying member of the ruling party.

With the rise and rise of Hezekiah Oyugi as the PS in charge of internal security, the fortunes of other Luo leaders, such as David Okiki Amayo (KANU’s national chairman), ministers Dalmas Otieno, James Okwanyo, and Peter Nyakiamo, and several assistant ministers, such as Professor Ouma Muga and Ochola Mak’Anyengo, appeared to be on the rise too. But were they?

When the tide of Nyayoism receded from the shores of South Nyanza in the early 1990s, a mixed bag of harvest was revealed. Some educational institutions, notably Kanga High School and the Migori Institute of Science and Technology, were established. There was employment in the Provincial Administration and the Administration Police. There were other goodies, such as a school bus and a few church buildings.

However, the region faced deepening economic decline: bad roads, collapsed marine transport, beleaguered cotton, sugarcane and fisheries sectors, declining public sector employment or retrenchment (popularly known as “the golden handshake”), and an increasing disease and healthcare burden. Moi’s government was also balkanising the old South Nyanza district, dividing it along its dominant language and clan cleavages, namely, Rachuonyo, Migori, Suba, and Kuria districts.

Around that time, Hezekiah Oyugi had also died mysteriously, which was quite common during the Nyayo era. And Moi was openly and widely resented.

Representation without development

In 1993, the MP for Kasipul Kabondo, Otieno K’Opiyo, asked the Minister of Health why there were no Nyayo wards built in the former South Nyanza district. Yet, in his words, “if you consider the proximity of the previous leaders of South Nyanza, all of them were in cabinet and were very, very close to and were co-operating with the KANU government, but in spite of all this cooperation by nine ministers, nothing was done…why did they not consider South Nyanza where they had the heartbeat of KANU throbbing day in day out?”

Although many Nyayo wards were never completed in several parts of the country, and the Moi government later said that the wards were supposedly mainly a self-help and a partially government-sponsored project, South Nyanza did not get a Nyayo ward despite the fact that Peter Nyakiamo, the MP for Mbita, was the Minister of Health when the Nyayo ward project was initiated.

How could this happen? Can this paradox of good cabinet representation without local development explain the kinds of tweets posted on the debate on Moi’s legacy, but informed by the former North Eastern Province’s harsher experiences? Rashid Abdi stated on Twitter:

He [Moi] kept North under emergency law, deepened hatred of the ethnic Somalis, forced discriminatory pink card on them, looked on as his troops massacred civilians in Wagalla, ran a prosperous country aground, disappeared & killed ForMin [foreign minister]. Whose legacy history will look to kindly it is Raila Odinga. Raila made his mark in the struggle for democracy, new constitution and devolution (notwithstanding qualms about BBI), on the one hand.”

And then there was Ahmednasir Abdullahi SC’s ambivalent reaction:

Despite the history of NFD, the Independence Referendum of 1963, the war of independence (the shifta wars) and Section 124? Of the constitution that imposed state of emergency on NFD from 1963 to 1992, BABA Moi made Somalis, Borana, Gabra, Rendille et al to part of Kenya.”

Dr Sally Kosgei, Nyayo’s last Head of Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet, in her eulogy at Kabakak during Moi’s funeral, put her finger on this paradox of cabinet representation without development when she noted without any sense of irony that Moi “managed the affairs of the state with his civil servants”. (Note: Moi’s civil servants, not Kenya’s civil service.)

It was clear to all that in Moi’s government, cabinet positions were largely symbolic and ministers were dispensable. The KBC 1 o’clock news bulletin announcing the sacking of ministers hung over the cabinet ministers’ heads like a guillotine.

In nearly all-key institutions of Kenya’s highly centralised state power, the locus of power was not the elected public face of any particular institution. Rather, Kenya’s state power was deliberately designed to subvert its citizens’ democratic will and aspiration. In some instances, the bureaucrats and henchmen who wielded the most power were invisible or largely unknown beyond their private spheres of influence.

It was clear to all that in Moi’s government, cabinet positions were largely symbolic and ministers were dispensable. The KBC 1 o’clock news bulletin announcing the sacking of ministers hung over the cabinet ministers’ heads like a guillotine.

The locus of power lay in the office of a bureaucrat appointed directly or indirectly by the president, often without security of tenure or with superficial security of tenure. (“His civil servants.”) So it was the Treasury, not the National Assembly, that allocated national resources. Within the National Assembly, the clerk had more authority than the speaker. In the justice sector, it was the Attorney General, not the Chief Justice, who was the ultimate legal authority. In any given ministry, it was the Permanent Secretary, not the minister, who made the important decisions. In local governments, it was the various clerks who wielded power. In the districts, the District Commissioners called the shots as chairmen of the District Development Committees and the District Security Committees. In the villages, it was the chiefs, not the elected councillors, who were the kingpins. Nearly all the elected leaders were subservient to the president’s appointed bureaucrats who had the “Authority to Incur Expenditure” behind the scenes.

An assessment of South Nyanza’s politics in the first decade of Moi’s presidency suggests that the former Kenyan president owed his long rule partly to the Luo elite’s internal divisions and rivalries – often ignited by none other than Moi himself. Moi adroitly and carefully co-opted the regional elite from marginalised ethnic groups, cynically exploiting their yearning for “development”, and keeping them happy and slavish. However, their appointment to key positions did little to bring “development” to their regions.

South Nyanza’s experience also suggests that Moi stayed in power for long because of his brutal repression of the opposition, because of the atomising fear and despondency that his regime of terror induced in the population, as well as because of the international financial support his government received from or through the West, especially Britain and the United States. Kenya under Moi’s authoritarian rule was the proverbial crocodile’s lair where no freedom fighter or radical nationalist sought refuge.

Daniel arap Moi may have fancied himself as an African statesman – and was even eulogised as one by many – but his reign is a study on how authoritarian leaders sustained their grip on power during the Cold War. The evils of the Nyayo era recall Lord Acton’s maxim: absolute power corrupts absolutely.

To think of Moi as either a “Big Man” or a “strongman” is to ignore the institutional distortions that enabled him to rule over Kenya with an iron fist, and the domestic and international support that sustained his presidency.

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Revisiting the Goldenberg Ghosts

14 min read. The Goldenberg scandal did not just negatively impact the Kenyan economy, it also left in its wake damaged and destroyed lives. Central Bank of Kenya employees who raised queries about the massive fraud were quickly sacrificed. These individuals and their families have hauntingly traumatic memories of Moi and his government.

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As a curious child growing up in the early 1990s, I had a general idea from reading the newspapers that my father brought home that Daniel arap Moi’s Kenya was not a place to play around. Then, in August 1992, these abstract ideas became realities. One evening, my visibly distressed mother brought home a newspaper bearing the photo of her elder brother appearing unconscious and lying on a bed at Nairobi Hospital. The caption had my uncle’s name, Francis Lukorito (whom we called Uncle L), followed by an explanation that the hospitalised Central Bank of Kenya employee had been arrested days earlier in relation to the mysterious death of the multiparty stalwart Masinde Muliro.

Pius Masinde Muliro, the founding member of the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), had been declared dead on a Nairobi-bound flight from London, where he had gone to fund-raise for the party. FORD was a serious contender in the 1992 general election following the repeal of Section 2(a) of the constitution, abolishing Moi’s one-party state. That newspaper, with the usually charming Uncle L appearing bruised, swollen and defeated, became part of family memorabilia, in remembrance of the day my uncle became an enemy of the state.

Uncle L was a tall, heavily built and worldly individual who people aspired to become. He finished his high school education at Lenana School and proceeded to undergraduate Bachelor of Commerce studies at the University of Nairobi. He was an impressionable 23-year-old when the Central Bank of Kenya came calling in 1976. He was first sent to Milan, then to Washington, D.C. for further training. Within a short period of time, he became the bank’s superintendent, then the senior Superintendent. The future was supposed to be bright – until August 1992 happened.

As narrated to the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the Goldenberg Affair, where Uncle L took the witness stand on 14 January 2004, the truth was that Muliro and Uncle L came a long way. When Muliro was attending school in Tororo, Uganda, before proceeding to the University of Cape Town in South Africa, he made a habit of passing by my grandfather’s home at the Kenya-Uganda border, not too far from Tororo, where he spent time with my grandfather, who was his age-mate. Since then, Muliro remained a regular visitor to my late grandfather’s home, in the process becoming my uncle’s guardian.

On 14 August 1992, while minding his business at work, Uncle L received a call from a friend who informed him that Muliro was dead. Shocked and in disbelief, he left for Muliro’s Nairobi residence in Upper Hill, where he confirmed the news. As Muliro’s children contemplated their next move in dealing with their patriarch’s death, it was decided that Uncle L would become the treasurer for the funeral organising committee. Uncle L drove back to work, unaware that his association with Muliro was about to be conveniently used as a scapegoat to kick him out of the Central Bank – in a bigger game of chess that was being played at Moi’s State House.

Five days later, on 19 August 1992, three plainclothes policemen showed up at the Central Bank. With them was Mr. H. H. Njoroge, Uncle L’s head of division, and a Mr. Karanja, the bank’s chief security officer. The men requested Uncle L to accompany them. No explanations were given. Since the bank officials were aware of what was transpiring, Uncle L obliged. Outside the bank building, on Haile Selassie Avenue, Uncle L saw a Special Branch Peugeot 504 station wagon with two more men inside. There and then, in Moi’s Kenya of detention without trial, he knew his goose was cooked. Multiparty politics had been begrudgingly restored, and although it appeared the democratic space was expanding, in Uncle L’s world, there lurked a monster which was about to cripple the Kenyan economy, an ogre which he and a few others had tried to slay, but which had now come back to haunt them.

As senior superintendent, Uncle L had to scrutinise all export compensation scheme-related CD3 forms submitted to the Central Bank by commercial banks on behalf of their exporting customers. Uncle L worked with Mr. David Meader, an Australian national seconded to the bank from the International Monetary Fund. The duo flagged a whopping 17 billion shillings, which they considered an irregular payout to a company called Goldenberg International, which was purporting to be exporting massive amounts of gold and diamonds on a daily basis to Europe, the Middle East and Asia (even though Kenya had no known commercial deposits of either). For every US dollar earned in the purported sales abroad, Goldenberg was under a statutory export compensation claim where it was paid thirty US cents by the Central Bank in Kenya shillings as a reward for boosting Kenya’s exports.

However, proof of sales and exports of gold and diamonds later turned out to be forgeries.

By mid-1992, six months prior to the first multiparty presidential election in three decades, the flow of CD3 forms intensified. At that time, Uncle L and Mr. Meader raised red flags about what they believed was fraud by writing to the Central Bank’s chief banking manager, the director of research, the deputy governor and the national debt office. As they kept scrutinising more CD3 forms, more anomalies surfaced. Unknown to Uncle L and Mr. Meader, the scheme involved some of the most powerful individuals in Kenya, including the Head of the Special Branch (Kenya’s intelligence service), who was a partner in Goldenberg International, a company owned by Kamlesh Pattni.

Two decades later, while answering a question posed by the Goldenberg Commission’s lead counsel, Dr. John Khaminwa, Uncle L admitted that he and Mr. Meader suspected that they were in the middle of a multi-billion financial scandal, which was being executed right in front of their eyes. As it would later emerge, some of the individuals whom they wrote to complain about the 17 billion shillings and other irregularities were in fact part of the action.

Khaminwa: Why do you believe Mr. Riungu, Mr. Waiguru and Mr. Karanja were responsible for your arrest? 

Lukorito: Because when I was working on pre-shipment finance papers, Mr. Pattni was very close to Mr. Riungu. On a daily basis, Mr. Pattni would come and see Mr. Riungu. While working on the papers with Mr. Meader, I would see Mr. Pattni going into Mr. Riungu’s office next door.

Upon entering the Peugeot 504, Uncle L was driven to the Nairobi Area Police Headquarters, where he was taken to a basement office. There, he met three policemen – Mr. Kimurgor, Mr. Murage and Mr. Slim – who wanted to know how he knew Muliro, how he came to know about Muliro’s death, how close he was to the opposition leader, and whether he knew where Muliro stayed. Uncle L gave them the history by writing a 16-page statement.

Later that evening, he was thrown into the back seat of the Peugeot, where he was made to lie down on the vehicle’s floor. The policemen sat and stepped on him as they drove along. After a not-so-smooth drive, the vehicle slowed down at what seemed like the entrance of a building. As they pulled Uncle L out, he saw Hotel InterContinental’s beige façade. If he hadn’t expected the worst, then being in the precincts of Nyayo House gave him reason to be afraid.

Two decades later, while answering a question posed by the Goldenberg Commission’s lead counsel, Dr. John Khaminwa, Uncle L admitted that he and Mr. Meader suspected that they were in the middle of a multi-billion financial scandal…As it would later emerge, some of the individuals whom they wrote to complain about the 17 billion shillings and other irregularities were in fact part of the action.

He was taken to an upper floor within Nyayo House where he met a new set of hostile Special Branch interrogators. This time, the story was that he was an opposition mole within the bank. He told them he wasn’t. The beating started. Uncle L collapsed. When he came to, he was in a dark room filled with water that made his skin itchy. His body was swollen and aching all over. Lucky for him, he was picked up later that night and delivered to Parklands Police Station.

The following morning, Uncle L was driven to Nairobi Area Police Headquarters. This time there was not much to talk about other than kicks and blows. He collapsed. When he came to, he found himself at Nairobi Hospital, where the photo in the newspaper my mother brought home was taken. How the media knew who he was, why he had been arrested and where he was hospitalised is anyone’s guess. Uncle L had not been charged with any crime, but he had been badly tarred with a broad brush – he was now a government official caught in the middle of the country’s “dangerous” opposition politics. He stayed bedridden for six days.

The impact of the beatings meted on Uncle L are captured in the 14 January 2004 proceedings of the Goldenberg Commission, which read: (The witness was then referred to a medical report signed by Dr. D. K Gikonyo, a physician and cardiologist, which showed that on admission, among other things, his blood pressure was extremely high – 230/130. (He has since become hypertensive.) After a mandatory two week sick leave, Uncle L was quickly interdicted.

“Following your arrest by the police on 19 August 1992, we write to advise you that it has been decided to interdict you with immediate effect in accordance with Rule 6.35 (b) of the Staff Rules and Regulations,’’ read the letter from the Central Bank of Kenya’s Administration Division, signed by Mr. C.K. Ndubai. ‘‘While on interdiction, you will be paid half your salary and you will be required to report on every working day to the Head, Security Division, where you will sign a register of attendance. You will not leave your place of work except with the permission of the Head of Security Division. The interdiction will remain in force until further notice.” 

This is how a lame game of ping pong at the highest level of Moi’s government started. On 21 September 1992, Uncle L received another letter, ostensibly reversing his earlier interdiction and requesting him to report to the Principal, Development Division, for assignment of duties.

“This is to advise you that it has been decided that your interdiction be lifted with immediate effect and that you report in your former Division. Accordingly, please arrange to report to the Principal, Development Division immediately for assignment of duties.”

On 8 July 1993, Mr. J. K. Waiguru, the Central Bank’s Secretary had some news.

“Following the lifting of your interdiction and posting back to your division, there has been further development in this matter. Would you please report to the Deputy Governor for further instructions.”

When Uncle L went to see the deputy governor, he was advised to go and see the head of the civil service, Prof. Philip Mbithi, who was stationed at Harambee House. Prof. Mbithi told Uncle L to go home and wait. Someone would be sent to him. Uncle L waited for over six months without pay. Then in February 1994, Prof. Mbithi sent someone to Uncle L’s Nairobi home to bring him over. On reaching Harambee House, Prof. Mbithi referred Uncle L to his personal assistant, Mr. S. Z. Ambuka. Mr. Ambuka showed Uncle L a letter dated 10 February 1993 – signed by Mr. Ambuka – addressed to Dr. Wilfred Koinange, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance.

You will recall that early this week, I talked to you about the redeployment of the above-named officer who previously worked with the Central Bank and whom we were asked to assist in re-deploying to any of the other banking institutions.

You asked me to check with the Central Bank and confirm [Uncle L’s] status with them before you could take over the case. I had discussions with the bank secretary who confirmed that:

(a) When [Uncle L] had a discipline case with them, he was struck off their payroll.

(b) However, when it was later decided that [he] be forgiven and rehabilitated, he was reinstated in the payroll.

(c) Later on, a decision was made that [Uncle L] be referred to the Office of the President for re-allocation of duties elsewhere. When he was referred to the Office of the President (and subsequently to Treasury), he ceased being in the CBK payroll.

(d) The Bank Secretary advises that [Uncle L] could apply for early retirement from the bank. This early retirement, if approved, would be frozen as [Uncle L] would not be entitled to any retirement benefits until he attains the mandatory age of 50 years.

(e) [Uncle L] would then be available for you to assist him get a fresh placement in any other financial institutions.

[Uncle L] has accordingly been informed and is herewith sent to you for the necessary assistance.”

There it was. Having tried to kick Uncle L out of the Central Bank and failed, his case had now been referred to the country’s top civil servant at Harambee House to enact the final chess move. It was being fashioned as a case of an ill-disciplined employee, but no one at the Central Bank wanted to take administrative responsibility for Uncle L’s predicament. It was all so confusing until Jacinta Mwatela, a witness at the Goldenberg Commission, solved the puzzle.

Khaminwa: Were you forgiven and rehabilitated? 

Lukorito: I do not know that I was supposed to be forgiven because I had committed no offence.

Khaminwa: Something I don’t seem to understand. You were employed by the Central Bank, then how does the Head of the Public Service come into a corporate organisation like CBK?

Lukorito: I do not understand either.

Khaminwa: In Mrs. Mwatela’s statement in Exhibit 111, could you read what she says about you.

Lukorito: [Reads statement.] “I remember Mr. Pattni visiting me in my new office. He arrogantly and proudly reprimanded me for my alleged stupidity in questioning his affairs. He claimed that my stupidity would get me nowhere. I did not reply to him. He specifically referred to one Mr. Lukorito who had been sacked and informed me that no one played about with him and got away with it. I knew he had powerful connections and no purpose would be served in answering him.”

There it was, confirmed in black and white: Goldenberg. Uncle L’s mistake was that he had stood in the way of Kamlesh Pattni, who could leverage state power, including the Office of the Head of the Civil Service, to deal with him firmly.

Having tried to kick Uncle L out of the Central Bank and failed, his case had now been referred to the country’s top civil servant at Harambee House…It was being fashioned as a case of an ill-disciplined employee, but no one at the Central Bank wanted to take administrative responsibility for Uncle L’s predicament. It was all so confusing until Jacinta Mwatela, a witness at the Goldenberg Commission, solved the puzzle.

Unless one lived through it or studied Moi’s state in the 1980s and 1990s, one may be prone to ask: How could Pattni wield so much power within the state, including at the Office of the President, knowing that power was centralised around Moi? More importantly, one may then want to ask: How did Uncle L try to interfere with the Goldenberg pay-outs, and did he have powers to stop Kenya’s biggest economic crime to date? The answer lies in an exchange between Uncle L and lawyer Cecil Miller, appearing for the Deposit Protection Fund at the Goldenberg Commission.

Miller: Mr. Lukorito, did you question the duplication of CD3s in writing?

Lukorito: Yes. They should be with CBK.

Miller: Who did you write to?

Lukorito: The chief banking manager, the director of research, the deputy governor and the national debt office.

Miller: Did you get a response?

Lukorito: They did not come directly but they came in the form of whether we had agreed on the level of Treasury Bills that we were to advertise for the weekly tenders. If we all agreed on the amount, we would advertise. 

Miller: Am I right in saying that technically you were the final port of call in relation to CD3s and pre-shipment?

Lukorito: Yes my lords.

Miller: If you look at page 17 of your statement, you mention Exchange and Pan African banks. 

Lukorito: Yes my lords. 

Miller: You then proceed to say on page 18; “The funds would be withdrawn from CBK under a currency withdrawal scheme by the two banks and then the amount withdrawn by the beneficiaries at the bank.” Would you know who the beneficiaries were?

Lukorito: I would not know my lords. We would detect the money movement using the open market operations ledger. 

Miller: You raised a concern on page 39 – your memo – on the potential snowball effect on the banking sector. And you got a response which you say you were not satisfied with?

Lukorito: I was not my lords.

Miller: If you look at page 14 of your statement, you list the beneficiaries of the pre-export finance scheme. You left the bank in November 1994. 

Lukorito: I was arrested on August 19, 1992 and from that day I just used to report but I was not working within the bank.

Miller: So you would not know that three of these banks went into liquidation thereafter?

Lukorito: I wouldn’t know. 

Miller: And you would not know whether they had paid their pre-shipment funds by the time? 

Lukorito: I would not know. 

Dr. Wilfred Koinange seemed like a man of few words. ‘‘I have nothing to do with you,’’ he told Uncle L. With that, my uncle was forcibly retired from the Central Bank of Kenya aged 40, an age where he wasn’t entitled to a pension. This is how Kenya is known to treat its best.

‘‘That is all I wish to say in deciding to risk my life by becoming an actor instead of a privileged spectator in the fraudulent deals through CBK during my last years with them.’’ Uncle L told the Commission when wrapping up his testimony. ‘‘And while I can claim a background in central banking, I can only claim a very great interest in the fields of money, banking and finance which would have enabled me to contribute to the economic transformation taking place in our sub-region. It is my hope that someday I will have the opportunity to bring to consummation that interest.’’                                                            

*** 

Sometime in 2014, Uncle L pulled me aside during a family gathering, sat me under a tree and started reading to me a letter of solidarity sent to him during his travails at the hands of the Moi state by a mutual friend he shared with Muliro, who had since moved abroad. The letter was aged, worn thin by the elements and now turning brownish. As he read it, it was as if he was being transported into a different realm. Tears started rolling down his cheeks, but his voice didn’t falter. He was crying, but he wasn’t. I felt both sorry and proud of him, for his endurance, defiance and stoicism. It was an awkward yet special moment. As always, the conversation veered back to Goldenberg. He quickly dispatched his son to bring more documents. He wanted to show me the architects of the 1990-1994 Goldenberg fraud.

Unless one lived through it or studied Moi’s state in the 1980s and 1990s, one may be prone to ask: How could Pattni wield so much power within the state, including at the Office of the President, knowing that power was centralised around Moi?

According to Uncle L, much as it had siphoned billions of shillings, Goldenberg International was not the only guilty party; the Goldenberg Inquiry listed over 500 individuals and companies as recipients of portions of the loot. In the end, the Kenyan public was defrauded to the tune of 158 billion shillings (2.8 billion US dollars at the 1994 exchange rate), the scam transferring the equivalent of over 10% of Kenya’s GDP for the 5 years concerned into private hands. In the process, the Kenya shilling collapsed – dropping from 21 shillings in 1990 to 56 shillings in 1994 against the US dollar. Some of the names Uncle L mentioned, known to those who know within the banking system, left me dumbfounded. But then no one could talk. Those like him who dared speak were unceremoniously pushed to the gutter, their lives turned upside down.

The same fate befell Joseph Mumelo, the Central Bank’s Head of Foreign Exchange, who was married to my mother’s first cousin. As mentioned in the 8 February 2020 Saturday Nation article “Legitimate and dubious means Moi used to build empire”, Uncle Joe was asked not to interfere whenever money was siphoned through the Moi-affiliated Transnational Bank. In 1993, a terrified and non-cooperative Uncle Joe was arrested and detained before being kicked out of the bank.

When I joined Nairobi School in 1999, my family had already moved out of Nairobi, and so I spent my mid-term breaks either at Uncle Joe’s or Uncle L’s. They both had children my age. By then, Uncle L had long moved to his rural home. Uncle Joe retreated to his new home on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Whenever I visited, Uncle Joe and I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning playing Scrabble. He would open up to me about all sorts of things. Through him and Uncle L, I learnt the proper meaning of lying low. Just like Uncle L, Uncle Joe never drove any of his cars. He enlisted the services of a taxi driver who drove a Volkswagen beetle, and unless the guy showed up, Uncle Joe rarely left the house. On some nights, when he was brought home by his friends, Uncle Joe refused to get out of the vehicle until the song playing on the car stereo played to the end. His were little pleasures. Just like Uncle L, with his roaring voice, he cursed loudly at Moi and his men on the rare occasions he watched the news. Everyone knew to stay quiet.

According to Uncle L, much as it had siphoned billions of shillings, Goldenberg International was not the only guilty party; the Goldenberg Inquiry listed over 500 individuals and companies as recipients of portions of the loot. In the end, the Kenyan public was defrauded to the tune of 158 billion shillings (2.8 billion US dollars at the 1994 exchange rate)…

Seeing that Uncle Joe died before he could appear as a witness at the Goldenberg Commission, Uncle L decided to do family duty by adding Uncle Joe’s police statement at the time of his arrest as an annexure to his own, so that Uncle Joe could be heard posthumously. Below, the Commission’s Dr. Khaminwa questions Uncle L about Uncle Joe’s statement on the pay-outs.

Khaminwa: Would you look at your additional statement and read it. 

Lukorito: [Reads statement.]Further to my January 12, 2004 statement, I wish to state that sometime in July 1993, I learnt from the Central Bank of Kenya that one of my former seniors there, Mr. Joseph Mumelo had been arrested by police and was at Kileleshwa Police Station. I visited him and he told me that the previous governor Mr. Kotut had asked him to pass some cheques relating to some banks and when he later on put it in writing, the governor disowned him. I told him that I also had a similar problem with pre–export finance in relation to Goldenberg International. He told me he believed that it was the source of my problem with the bank. I later learnt that he was released and retired from bank service. I have been shown a statement recorded from the late Mumelo on July 23, 1993. The deceased shared the same views as those noted in my memo to Mr. Riungu on January 21, 1992. 

Khaminwa: You state that you had problems with Mr. Kotut regarding pre–export finance, could you remind us what the problem was? 

Lukorito: We got some applications from Goldenberg International but Mr. Riungu was absent. The papers were pushed to Mr. Kotut’s office but we never got any reply. We were not able to proceed because the papers were, to me, very suspect. They had the same CD3 serial numbers from different banks and the amounts were substantial. Mr. Mumelo appeared scared and told me that he was not staying at home because he had been threatened by powerful people. He was moving from hotel to hotel. He cautioned me and from July 1993, I never drove any of my vehicles.

Uncle Joe’s and Uncle L’s well-being – careers, livelihoods, health, family life and their wives’ and children’s welfares and futures – all became collateral damage because they raised queries which had the capacity to unravel Goldenberg. These are the hauntingly traumatic memories some families have of Moi and his government. Sadly, the Goldenberg culprits remain unpunished to date.

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