For half a century, they were the city fathers, the untouchable demigods with the power to shape the destiny of men and women in municipalities and towns. A word from a mayor could transform one into a land baron or a squatter.
Mayors were feared and revered in equal measure between 1963 and 2013 while serving under the Ministry of Local Government alongside councilors.
“Mayors were the most respected people. We were called citizens number one. At least 65 Heads of State visited my office. At one time 40 came for a courtesy call before heading for a State banquet,” recalled former Nairobi Mayor Nathan Kahara.
Their word was law as they ruled cities, municipalities, county and town councils, some setting the foundation for today’s counties as others amassed wealth through grabbing of public assets, especially land and government houses.
However, after the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution that saw the abolition of local authorities and creation of county governments, the once-powerful mayors faded away with some wallowing in poverty, leaving a few surviving.
Kahara who is the current president of Former Mayors International said he served as Nairobi Mayor between 1980 and 1983 while in his early 30s.
The former mayor who is also the patron for Kenya Former Councillors Association (Kefoca) had all the good words to describe the mayor’s office.
He said mayors were powerful persons under whose leadership municipalities grew, undertook development projects especially on housing, and decided who was to be allocated and on what terms.
“We were civic leaders not politicians. We fought to improve the lives of Kenyans selflessly. In Nairobi, we developed estates such as Buruburu, Umoja, Dandora and Kariobangi under tenant purchase terms,” said Kahara.
When devolution was implemented in 2013, former Nakuru Mayor David Gikaria revealed that most of his former colleagues lost their ill-gotten wealth that was reverted back to the government.
“Some only appeared to be rich. What they appeared to own were public assets they had grabbed and were reverted back to the public through the Transition Authority,” said Mr Gikaria.
The former mayor who is now Nakuru Town East MP says that in 2002, councillors used to earn Sh9,000 allowance while the mayors Sh15,000 a month, until former President Kibaki doubled their earnings after a meeting at State House.
“We had no salaries but allowances. Kibaki announced that he had doubled our earnings. We heartily clapped only for him to introduce taxes that took away most of the increment,” said Gikaria.
Kahara said former mayors who are well off today and genuinely acquired their wealth did not take advantage of their powerful officers.
“I used to work for an insurance company even as a mayor to make ends meet. Those who are well to do today had such engagements or had businesses that complemented their meagre earnings as civic leaders,” he said.
Gikaria added that unlike today where politicians earn six figure salaries and get a send off package, councilors and mayors are not entitled to retirement benefits.
“We had no sendoff package and pension. This is in contrast to retired MPs who get a Sh10 million package for one term served and Sh180,000 monthly pension if one served for at least two terms,” he said.
The MP blamed lack of proper financial planning for the woes of former civic leaders.
“Some of them generously give handouts for political survival and ended up financially drained. They left office with nothing for themselves,” he said.
He added that most mayors were reluctant to save through the Local Authorities Provident Trust Fund (Laptrust) now CPF Financial Services, which set conditions that the savings would only be released after elections to safeguard those who would not be re-elected.
“In 2008, we saw the suffering of our predecessors. Some were still reluctant to make savings through Laptrust. As the term ended, the lowest had saved Sh2.4 million while the highest had Sh3.2 million,” he said.
“Some were very stubborn and even opposed statutory deductions such as NHIF and NSSF. They always complained only that it was a mandatory requirement. They lost their seats with nothing to show,” Gikaria added.
A former Nakuru Mayor admitted that the mistakes he made during his heydays haunt him to date.
“I once took all councilors to Nyahururu for a week to ‘hide them’ from people who wanted to influence them to oust me. I spent so much on them and now, they are nowhere in my life today as I wallow in poverty,” said the former mayor.
Kefoca was registered in 2013 after the former councillors realised that they left office with no benefits. The 12,000 former councillors and mayors approached the Senate with a proposal to grant them pension.
It was not until 2018 when the Senate passed a motion recommending that each former councillor and mayor be given Sh1.5 million one-off package and Sh30,000 monthly pension.
Former Meru mayor Stephen Kaberia who is the Kefoca Secretary General said that they have been tirelessly fighting for the implementation of the recommendations to date.
“A taskforce was formed to look into the financial implication and the exact number of intended beneficiaries. In December at least 7,000 members registered for the pay-off. Many have already died,” said Kaberia.
Among those who died waiting for the perks include former Meru Town Council chairman Samuel Magambo who passed on in March having served from 2003 to 2013.
“Magambo and his family could not raise Sh40,000 Intensive Care Unit ICU deposit. He was hypertensive and diabetic. They had to take him to another hospital where he was admitted with no specialized care only to die days later,” said Kaberia.
Kahara said Magambo was among President Uhuru Kenyatta’s chief campaigners.
“During the funeral of former Mayor Charles Rubia in December last year, I and Magambo spoke to the President about the challenges of former civic leaders. It is a pity that he had to die this way,” he said.
Kaberia regretted that majority of their members are aged over 70 and are leaving in abject poverty.
“It is only those who worked in the big cities like Mombasa and Nairobi who are well up. Allowances varied across municipalities based on how much revenue they collected. Those in rural areas are the most affected,” he said.
While some of them had planned well for the future, illnesses related to old age have eaten into their wealth, among them former Nakuru Mayor Kimunya Kamana who, at 92, had auctioneers on his neck.
“I fell ill in 2014 and spent to my last coin and took a loan for my medical bill. I was unable to pay back the loan. I sold my home in the posh Section 58 Estate and moved to a municipal rental house in Kaloleni C,” said Kamana.
Gikaria explained that the government has been reluctant to release the sendoff package for the former councilors and mayors citing the financial implication this will have especially with the increased number of wards now under Members of County Assembly.
“We have more than 2,000 MCAs and many lost in the last General Election. With this number increasing by thousands every five years it will weigh heavily on the taxpayers. However they deserve sendoff perks,” he said.