Sakaja can still avoid the Nairobi curse


Nairobi Governot Johnson Sakaja makes a speech during the Opening of JW Marriott Hotel Nairobi along waiyaki way on March 26, 2024. [David Gichuru,Standard]

One chilly morning in June last year, Nairobi Governor Johnson Sakaja wept piteously in front of President William Ruto at Roysambu Primary School.

The object of his sadness was the thousands of children out of school due to poverty. He launched a mega feeding programme dubbed ‘Dishi na County’ to remedy the situation.

In his own words, Kenyan children deserve equal treatment. He was on point. Many observers likened him to Barack Obama who once shed tears over gun violence in the US.

That same time, Mr Sakaja was a marked man within the Kenya Kwanza rank and file. His appeal to President Ruto to shake hands with Opposition chief Raila Odinga to end demos angered some people.   

You will agree that a young and urbane Sakaja was a darling of most city residents in his early days in the plum job. The man, who floored Azimio’s Polycarp Igathe in the governorship debate and at the ballot, enjoyed backing across coalitions. He knew he could make the city ‘work’.

But uninvited surprises lay ahead! When he made a decree to lock out matatus from the CBD, hell broke loose. The governor had met Sacco leaders to discuss a decongestion plan that required long distance matatus to relocate to the Green Park Terminus. Some State honchos flatly opposed it.

And in another doomed bid to redeem a metropolis struggling under the weight of governance failures, Mr Sakaja ordered hawkers out of town. There were too many emotions to process for the thousands of traders affected by this impromptu decision.

On hawkers, he started on the wrong footing when, during the 2022 campaign, he got carried away by the ‘hustler’ mantra and promised them a through pass to all corners of Nairobi. When he tried to kick them out, he was outfoxed. Status quo remained.

The hawking matter has been with us for eons. The Nairobi City County Pop-up Markets and Street Vendors blueprint fronted in 2020 was defeated by vested interests. It had wanted vending zones designated. Another bid to move hawkers to Muthurwa, Kirindini and Mwariro also flopped.

Now, it appears every quivering ideas or interventions by Mr Sakaja and his administration to fix the city as promised have only but put him between a rock and hard place. It isn’t about the university degree saga but forces and interests jolting his agenda.

From street and online banters, voters are nervous. Mr Mbogo Kimani, a trader, yearns for the return of Gen Mohamed Badi’s Nairobi Metropolitan Services. To him and others, garbage piles, soaring crime, hawking, boda boda and matatu chaos are symptomatic of a city in a decline.

The Controller of Budget reports that Nairobi is among the worst counties to do business with. As if not enough, resurgence of robbers on motorbikes, lost allure of once plum city suburbs, dark downtown alleys and potholes give the impression a derelict capital. Haile Selassie Avenue is a sea of carts, hawkers and goods on the tarmac. Who will salvage East Africa’s capital?

The contrast between promises and the reality ‘kwa ground’ highlights the disillusionment in many a city resident. A year later, no better roads, no dignified housing, no clean water, no security, no de-congestion, no efficient transport and then little improved healthcare.

Mr Sakaja’s directive this week to have anyone recording excesses of city askaris on video arrested is pointless authoritarianism. Great leaders don’t gag the public. Even if the governor is hanging by the skin of his teeth, he must avoid the ‘curse’ of Mr Mike Sonko and Dr Evans Kidero’s tumultuous days.  

Only ingenuity can fix Nairobi. As a top fan, my plea to Mr Sakaja is never to underestimate obstacles and vested interests. My newsroom mentor once told me that you don’t fight wars you know you can’t win. Let Mr Sakaja avoid being written off as just another big talker.

The writer is a communications practitioner. Twitter(X): markoloo