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Former Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko’s fall from grace to grass

Former Nairobi Governor Mike Mbuvi Sonko at a Milimani court in October last year, when together with his co-accused Antony Otieno Ombok, alias Jamal appeared to take dates for the mention and hearing of their corruption cases from Chief Magistrate Kennedy Ogoti. [Collins Kweyu, Standard]

Controversy may as well be Mike Mbuvi Sonko’s middle name. Few politicians can match his penchant for courting it, whether he is being restrained by his security team as he punches a wall during a demonstration or he is showing up at the scene of a terrorist attack while toting a gun.  

But who is the real Mike Sonko? Is he the darling of the poor in Nairobi, who, every election year, come out in droves to elect him irrespective of the seat he guns for? Why, for instance, did they grant him an overwhelming mandate–giving him a sweeping victory with over 832,000 votes when he sought the governor’s seat in 2017?

Why do other political players believe he is not competent enough to execute the responsibilities bestowed on him by voters? When he first expressed interest in a parliamentary seat during a by-election in 2010, there was a concerted effort to stop his name from being printed on the ballot on grounds that his past was tainted. Still and all, not only was he on the ballot, he ended up winning the Makadara parliamentary seat, a scenario that was repeated when he vied for the Nairobi Senate seat in 2013. That year, he garnered more than 808,000 votes although he had worthier competitors.

Interestingly, in 2017, the Jubilee Party– the party on whose ticket he was seeking the governorship – had done everything in its power to stop him from winning the nomination. He bagged it ‘irregardless’; and then went on to be elected, only to hand over his powers to the national government in February 2020.

Shortly after the brief hand-over ceremony held at State House Nairobi, Sonko claimed he had been enticed into quaffing large amounts of alcohol before he signed on the dotted line. If his claims were true, that would have made him temporarily insane, as the law says, meaning that he was not responsible for his actions.

And for months after, Sonko would operate without a deputy governor after his running mate, Polycarp Igathe, feeling like a fish out of water, turned his back on politics and ran back to the corporate world, where he belonged.

No sooner had Sonko hinted at a potential deputy governor than a motion to impeach him was mooted, just as he had predicted. He was first thrown out by members of the Nairobi county assembly. His case was forwarded to the Senate. And in December 2020, he lost his seat, remaining as a civilian despite attempts to seek redress in court. To date, he remains impeached.

Sonko started life as Mbuvi Gideon Kioko, the son of Gideon Kioko Kivanguli. Records indicate he was born in Mombasa in February 1975, which would make him 47 years old today. His father died in 2015 aged 67.

Kivanguli, it is believed, made his money in real estate, selling beach plots and other property at the Coast. He was also a developer. According to sources, Sonko made his first Sh5 million from selling one of the properties offered by his father’s company.

Had he kept to that lane, he would probably not have ended up serving six months at Shimo la Tewa Prison in Mombasa, where he was held after being found guilty of assault. His fortunes would have fared better in later years but, while serving the sentence, he staged a dramatic escape in 1998, leaving behind his handcuffs on a hospital bed. The manner in which he secured his freedom hinted at the possibility of collusion.

Haunt Sonko

The matter would come back to haunt Sonko when prison authorities started demanding that he go back to complete his term. In the process of handling the case in court, Sonko once said, he failed to honour an appearance and was found guilty of contempt. As a result, he was held at Kamiti Prison in 2001. In one interview, he said that was where he honed his leadership skills. And when he was released, he decided it was time to try out those skills...in politics.

They worked.

In his own words, he moved to Nairobi where he ventured into the matatu business. His matatus plied various routes such as Kibera, Dandora and Umoja, areas where the urban poor and lower middle class live. It was here that the bling bling-wearing and re-invented Sonko ingratiated himself with the hoi polloi, helping them out with hand-outs and with funeral arrangements and rescuing them from trouble using his ‘Sonko Rescue team’. In return, when the Makadara seat fell vacant, Sonko threw his hat in the ring in the subsequent by-election. The poor mobilised in large numbers to reciprocate. They were all he needed to enter Parliament under controversial circumstances.

To prove that his election was not a fluke, he trained his eyes on the Nairobi Senate seat, gunning for it in the 2013 election. Again, he was elected.

But the elixir of power had gotten into his head. He decided, in 2017, to gun for the governorship of the capital, sparking debate over whether Nairobi ought to be a county or should be managed by the national government. The end game of the debate was to stop him from getting the seat. He still got it, becoming the second governor of Nairobi after defeating the incumbent, Dr Evans Kidero, who is himself facing court cases over corruption allegations.

When his legal tribulations started in 2019–at one point, police had to use a helicopter to stop him as he drove to Mombasa–he told a court that he suffered from various ailments, including HIV, epilepsy and tuberculosis. At the time, he was facing money laundering charges. His claims of illness led the court to order that he be moved from remand to hospital. His downfall was as swift. In February 2020, he handed over his governor’s powers to the national government at an event held at State House Nairobi. From there, it was downhill all the way, with a double impeachment following hot on his heels.

Now he is in the crosshairs of the US government.