Johnson Sakaja’s charmed life outside rough and tumble of politics
By MWAURA SAMORA
Johnson Sakaja PHOTO: COURTESY
To most Kenyans, Johnson Arthur Sakaja is the besieged The National Alliance (TNA) chairman who burst into the national limelight through a powerful speech during the highly-publicised party launch in 2012 where he memorably proclaimed that “we are not looking for those with millions of shillings in the bank, but for those with millions of ideas in the mind.”
Before the birth of TNA, the name Johnson Sakaja would not have rung a bell among many Kenyans, save for those who were in the University of Nairobi in the mid 2000s when he was an executive member of Students Organisation of Nairobi University (Sonu).
Today he is a household name, with numerous television appearances and incisive contributions to parliamentary debates.
“The core drive in my leadership at the moment is to fight for the creation of avenues and structures that will enable the youth to harness their potential,” the 29- year-old nominated legislator told The Standard from his office on the 26th floor of the Kenyatta International Conference Centre.
“The current brand of politics is not inspiring to the youth since it’s being defined by ethnicity where your political fortunes are pegged on your surname.”
Pointing out that the only people who can change this uninspiring scenario are young people in leadership, Sakaja says what the current generation needs is a mental paradigm shift.
“Fifty years ago freedom fighters were struggling to attain physical and mental emancipation. In 1963 we only attained physical freedom,” explains the man who says he has already met a publisher about his memoirs. “The current generation is still fighting for mental emancipation where every young person will believe in their potential regardless of their current circumstances.”
The father of two says this will be greatly assisted by the creation of a national identity where every citizen will be proud of being identified as a Kenyan, unlike the current situation where people identify with their ethnicity.
In a bid to actualise this agenda, Sakaja has brought together all young parliamentarians under the umbrella of Kenya Young Parliamentarians Association (KYPA).
“Young people share a vision regardless of the political party they are affiliated to and that’s why we decided to come together as KYPA,” says the actuarial scientist-turned politician. “We intend to move around the country preaching peace and encouraging young people to take advantage of entities put in place by the government like Youth Enterprise Development Fund (YEDF) and Uwezo Fund to harness their economic potential.”
Sakaja says he is in the process of introducing three Bills he believes will boost youth empowerment, one of which has already gone through a second reading.
The Employment Bureau Authority Bill will establish job centres in all the 47 counties where the youth can be provided with several job skills. The Performing Arts Funds Bill will lead to the establishment of an Arts Fund to help upcoming artists, while the Public Procurement and Disposal Bill will push to legalise the implementation of the presidential declaration that 30 per cent of public procurement should go to the youth.
Born in Ngara Estate in Nairobi and schooled at Aga Khan Primary and Lenana High schools where he scored clean As, Sakaja claims he started his political career at the age of five.
“Just after finishing Class One at the age of five, my father had decided to make me spend another year in pre-school, an idea that I strongly opposed. I held a one-man demonstration in the house with a placard that I had written “No Class One, No School,” the TNA chairman recalls.
“The then Aga Khan headmaster, Joseph Karuga, now the chair of Kenya Primary Head Teachers’ Association, said he would allow me to do this only if I attained the top five positions in the entry exam, which I did.”
By his final year in Aga Khan, Sakaja’s leadership skills were evident for he had already ascended to the position of head boy. He also won the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) International Children’s Debate and the trophy handed to him by then Minister of Environment Francis Nyenze, now the National Assembly Minority Leader, besides being interviewed on national television for the first time.
“Before her death when I was nine, my mother, who always prophesied I would be a leader, often told me a good name was better than silver and gold,” says Sakaja who explains that he bought his dream car, a Mercedes, while in second year at the University of Nairobi.
“This inculcated in me a virtue of integrity that has stood me in good stead, especially in my position as TNA leader.”
While in primary school, Sakaja says he sustained his focus by sticking a photo of his dream car on his school locker.
“Whenever I lost focus in my studies, the sight of the Mercedes Benz that I had stuck on my locker would bring me back to my books,” he recalls. “I usually use this simple story to tell the youth to set goals that will keep them grounded instead of wasting time lamenting about their current circumstances”.
He says although nasty things have been said against him and TNA Secretary General Onyango Oloo by the group that has been agitating for their removal, they have chosen silence since most of the accusations are pure lies.
“As much as they are lies we believe it will be very immature of us to get embroiled in mudslinging.
The eloquent legislator’s political career took a flight in 2007 when he joined the Kibaki campaign team, albeit as a driver. Just 23 then, he was involved in various political strategies that earned him respect among the president’s men.
“After dropping off the big men, I would always drive to college with the four-wheel vehicle, which gave me a lot of perceptional mileage among my fellow students,” Sakaja explains.
“But while in the campaigns I also played other key roles, including setting up the PNU tallying centre, by which time I was only aged 23 years.”
While working for PNU he met Uhuru Kenyatta with whom they worked together on various projects when the latter was the Minister of Finance. Among the things Sakaja says will remain a hallmark of his political career during his work for the last regime is drafting the formula for demarcating constituency boundaries.
“As an actuarial scientist senior government officials knew I was good in mathematical computations so I was called upon to design a mathematical formulae to be used in allocating constituencies to the various regions of the country,” Sakaja recalls. “The formula was so water-tight that and well thought out that it was wholly adopted in the Constitution as Article 89.”
During that time he wrote a book on devolution, The Operational Framework for Fiscal Decentralisation published by International Commission of Jurists (ICJ-Kenya).
When President Uhuru Kenyatta was preparing for his presidential bid before the last General Election, the former SONU leader was one of his key strategists, being among those
who came up with the idea of the president dumping KANU for TNA. This was after plans to rebrand KANU, designs of which he showed to The Standard, failed.
“We came up with the slogan “iBelieve” with the specific intentions of creating a sense of self-belief, especially among the youth and those who were not where they wanted to be in life,” Sakaja recounts. “The dove was meant to signify a take off since we have been crawling on the ground with the KANU cockerel for too long. This we correctly predicted would create a national mass movement.”
After the composition of TNA he assembled a communication team that was responsible for planning the historic launch of the party at KICC last year. The team comprised Dennis Itumbi, Machel Waikenda and Jasper Mbiuki among many young people.
“Leadership is about a dream and as long as you dream, the plan will eventually fall into place,” says the man who claims he once helped PriceWaterHouse Coopers, his former employer, resolve a riddle of a Sh100 million company deficit as an intern. “Martin Luther King Junior had a dream although he never had a plan. It was finally actualised with the election of Barack Obama.”
On his relationship with the president, Sakaja is very economical with words.
“To me he is both an elder brother and a father figure, which means we can talk about many issues outside politics since he is a good conversationalist,” the bulky politician says.
“He is also my boss and he is a no-nonsense man when it comes to matters of national importance. I am glad he believes in the youth potential, which is reflected on his appointments”.
Besides politics Sakaja is also a businessman, having opened Arthur Johnson Consulting while still in university and has over time diversified his interests to farming, transport and steel.
The Lenana School alumni is also a guitarist and a former member of Mission Driven, a gospel band.
“While in campus I ran several businesses, one of them being the biggest laundry at the main campus where I charged students a token amount to clean their clothes,” Sakaja, who says he joined politics in college to enable him do business and provide leadership, adds. “I had a salon, barber shop, laundry and an ice vending machine. I spent the money I earned to buy a Mercedes Benz, the car of my childhood dreams, while in second year.”
He says some of the laundry machines that he bought are still at the Main Campus, which is “a testimony to my business acumen”.
To remain grounded as a leader, TNA leader says he occasionally visits youth hangouts where he can mingle with the young people and understand their needs.
“Disconnecting a leader from the people is like cutting off his oxygen since serving the people is the sole purpose of leadership,” the youthful politician concludes.
“As a leader sometimes you will be misunderstood, which should not worry you provided your conscience is clear and you are doing the right thing. People will understand later after the success of your enterprise.”
Sakaja’s influence on the political front is likely to be felt more deeply after he was elected chairman of a new joint committee on national cohesion and equal opportunity that comprises both senators and MPs. His star, it would seem, is still rising.
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