Sakaja's city plan is a fanciful flight some 25 floors above us all

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

I want to be the devil’s advocate and rally behind Nairobi Governor Johnson Sakaja’s strange proclamations about the future of our city. I’m not implying he’s a devil of sorts, though his recent utterances are what we call daredevil stunts.

First off, I have lots of admiration for Sakaja. I mean, taking charge of our accidental city, a suppliers’ depot that rose to become the finest metropole in East and Central Africa, to use that clichéd expression, isn’t for the “faint-hearted.”

And it’s even more compelling that Sakaja rose to the podium with nothing than more his height and dimples, which deepened when he smiled, which was often. He doesn’t smile much these days. I’m certain Sakaja has many other attributes going for him, some of which, like his academic qualifications, were vigorously contested, so I’ll stick to verifiable elements of his life.

Speaking of verifiable things, I think Sakaja is right to order the arrest of anyone caught filming his army of workers, Kanjo, as Nairobians call them, as they go about their business which, more often than not, entails skiving work.

The few instances I am in town and in need of service, like securing a parking ticket, Kanjo will disappear at the first sighting, only to reappear as you prepare to depart. Then they will initiate small talk about their magnanimity for waiting for your return, when your vehicle should have been clamped and towed away for non-payment of parking fees.

Alternatively, they start by interrogating motorists how long they intend to park to determine what level of fees, official and unofficial, that they will extort. It’s understandable few would want to have such interactions recorded.

But the statement that Sakaja made about Nairobi’s “vertical” future, which will allow buildings to go up to 25 floors requires sober reflections and interrogation. First off, as we all know, Nairobi sits on a swamp, which explains why the lightest downpour floods the entire place. So, it makes a lot of sense to build as high as we can to avoid flooding.

Lest you forget, we saw even the Nairobi Expressway, the flagship project whose loans will be paid for the next 100 years, was also swamped although the rains haven’t set in. Within that context, Sakaja’s decree is visionary.

I understand the commonsense approach to urban development is to expand parameters of mass transport, so that city workers feel confident to commute to and from any direction, over long distances, but that takes away the energy that the city needs to thrive. Nairobi does best when its dwellers are crammed, as they are in Kibra, Mathare and other slums. They find relief by engaging in those athletic inventions, like the flying toilets.

But then, Sakaja’s vision of a Nairobi with 25-floor buildings doesn’t involve a populace that engages in regular things that ordinary folks do. I mean, if one has to go down 25 floors to find a toilet, those on upper floors could reroute their trash to join the Unidentified Flying Objects in the space.

And with the advances in the digital economy, there is a possibility that city dwellers of the future will work, live, and invest in the ether, so the question of traffic jams, schools, and other amenities that ordinary folks sorely need will not be necessary.

All that Sakaja needs from us is an affirmation that we approve of what he’s doing, even when he doesn’t always know what he’s doing. After all, that’s the nature of Nairobi. Nobody ever knew what would become of it when our forebears set forth, and we should have the courage to keep going, even if the only way to go is 25 floors up, the Sakaja way.