Sonko's political storm descends on Mombasa

There is no humour in Mike Mbuvi Sonko’s relocation from Nairobi. Wherever he goes, there can only be one outcome, calculated chaos, and the former Nairobi governor thrives in it.

Sonko has the uncanny ability to show up at the most opportune time, and if he holds true to his threat to run for the Mombasa Governor’s position, the residents may soon get to experience what it means to be under a Sonko administration.

And just like in 2010, he may have come into the race late, but he has proven from history that he has the legs to last the race.

Some may label his strategy as a “rope-a-dope” used by the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali to tire his opponents before he struck a knock-out blow.

“You cannot wish away the man. He appeals to a certain constituency that responds to his brand of politics,” political commentator Javas Bigambo told The Standard.

'Outsider' tag

The push-back from Mombasa is noticeable. Rival politicians believe that Sonko is an outsider. That he understands nothing of the needs of the people of the port city. 

That he is a spoiler out to muddy the waters for candidates such as ODM’s Abdulswamad Nassir who have been sitting patiently under the shadow of outgoing governor Hassan Joho waiting for their turn.

Sonko prefers to be seen as someone poor at strategy. A politician with little science to back his decision making.

History though has shown that there might be more to ‘Sonkoism’ than the bling and the profanity that sometimes characterizes his keynote addresses whenever he takes time to speak to his supporters or to go at his rivals.

“God has brought me to Mombasa to rescue you. Mombasa has suffered enough under one family,” Sonko said at a May 6 rally at Mombasa’s Changamwe roundabout.

Mombasa County Governor aspirant on Wiper ticket, Mike Mbuvi Sonko accompanied by Wiper Party leader Kalonzo Musyoka during a rally at Changamwe in Mombasa on May 6, 2022. [Omondi Onyango,Standard]

While Sonko might not be a welcome figure, political observers in the city say that his entry into the politics of Mombasa should not be taken lightly.

“For the thousands of Mombasa’s youthful and jobless voters, Sonko is a saviour,” Pwani University lecturer Halimu Shauri says. “You cannot wish him away.”

Sonko’s political career has always seen him present himself as a sort of superhero. A Robbin Hood character in politics for the young and the poor. Through the years he has been able to convince struggling city populations- a bedrock of his support- that only he has what it takes to address their needs.

That only he can fix the water problems, deal with broken urban transportation systems, provide employment and basically play benevolent leader to everyone under his watch.

In Makadara Constituency where he served as a Member of Parliament between 2010 and 2013 and within the greater Nairobi which he has represented as Senator and later Governor, he has done this through handouts as well as the Sonko Rescue Team (SRT) - an amorphous ‘self-help’ body of which he is the patron.

Already, some Mombasa residents have interacted with the SRT that has provided hearses to ferry their departed from Mombasa to their preferred burial locations often outside of Mombasa.

In Nairobi though, the SRT morphed into City Hall’s enforcement wing at the height of his powers as governor, taking over basic functions such as the garbage collection meant to be provided by the County Council.

Mombasa native

Although his entry into Mombasa has been resisted by some leaders, he is no stranger to the city. Sonko spent a considerable time of his childhood and youth in the city.

Mombasa is where he made his money and equally important cut his political teeth as a youth mobiliser and enforcer for the then political heavyweights including the inimitable Shariff Nassir, whose son Abdulswamad is also coveting the governor’s seat.

Abdulswamad, the ODM candidate, is Governor Joho’s preferred candidate and has always been looked at as the front runner in Joho’s succession race.

He has repeatedly refused to get into the debate about Sonko’s entry into Mombasa politics. His supporters though have not shied away from declaring their positions on the matter.

“Does this mean that Mombasa has no leaders qualified enough to become governors? We are not a dumping site for rejected leaders,” Likono Member of Parliament Mishi Mboko said recently. “We do not want projects who have failed.”

Her Jomvu counterpart Badi Twalib says Sonko is out to exploit ‘religious, tribal, and racial differences in the port city.

Mombasa is a highly cosmopolitan county with a big number of Mijikenda, Kamba, Luo, Luhya, Kisii, Kikuyu, Somali and Swahili voters.

In terms of religion, reports indicate that 65 per cent of the residents are Christians. But Sonko will not be the first to exploit these diversities.

Part of the Sonko buses that have been introduced in Mombasa to offer services in rescuing the needy families whose bodies of their deceased are lying in various mortuaries due to huge funeral expenses. [Twitter, Mike Sonko]

In 2013 and 2017, Joho courted these groups by offering them plum jobs in his administration.

For instance, in 2013 Joho settled on Ms Hazel Katana and in 2017 Dr William Kingi as his running mate in what was seen as a political strategy to endear himself to the populous Mijikenda vote that accounts for over 30 per cent in Mombasa.

Ms Katana and Mr Kingi are also Christians that are estimated to be 65 per cent of Mombasa’s population. 

Unorthodox politics

The pushback is not unexpected and if history is anything to go by, an attack on Sonko’s personality and character will only buoy him further.

As an unknown politician in 2010, he did away with veterans Dick Wathika and Reuben Ndolo both of whom had the might of their respective political parties behind them and believed that they had the ear of the voters as well.

Unfortunately for them, Sonko had what mattered most, the hearts of the voters.

In his unorthodox politics, confrontational approach to policy matters and calculated lawlessness and disruption, many of the young voters then saw a politician cut from different cloth who represented their aspirations entangled within the chaos and disenfranchisement of the day.

Mombasa may turn out to be the same. Riddled by an alarmingly high crime rate in parts of the city, unemployment and a young population struggling to make a living, voters may just see a sort of saviour in Sonko as Makadara residents did more than a decade ago.

“Sonko can win because so many traders are frustrated by Joho’s administration. Single business permits have doubled in price and businesses are struggling to survive,” Peter Otieno, former chairman of the Kenya International Freight and Warehousing Association said.

There is also the possibility that a Sonko candidacy might just be a dipstick for gauging his popularity in preparation for the next election, and as another bargaining chip for his party leader Kalonzo Musyoka in his jostling to be Raila Odinga’s running mate in the upcoming August 9 polls.

At the local political level though, Sonko’s influence and appeal among the electorate cannot be written off. Previous elections have shown terming him an underdog or ‘outsider’ cannot guarantee victory against him- and he has three election victories to show for it.

“Sonko’s candidacy is a bubble that will burst once other candidates tell the people of Mombasa who he really is. His rule in Nairobi was a disaster,” Mombasa lawyer Abubakar Yusuf says.

Legal roadblocks

Plus, there is also the small matter of him being cleared to run for the seat by relevant bodies, with justifiable legal roadblocks being put in front of not just him, but other governorship aspirants with a dubious past as well.

On May 10, a court stopped the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission from clearing Sonko and Ferdinand Waititu to participate in the August 9 polls pending a May 13 ruling.

The polls body had indicated that impeached governors are eligible to run for office if they still have pending cases in court.

Former Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko before Chief Magistrate Diana Mochache at Kahawa West Law Courts. [David Njaaga,Standard]

“The law states that if you have been impeached for certain irregularities in the performance of your duties, then if there are existing appeal mechanisms you are still eligible to vie,” IEBC Commissioner Prof. Abdi Guliye said during a recent interview on Citizen TV.

Sonko was impeached on December 3 by the Nairobi County Assembly, a decision that was ratified by the Senate effectively ending his stint as Nairobi Governor.

The case to challenge his impeachment is currently at the Supreme Court but in Mombasa, Mr George Odhiambo has filed a case at the High Court to block Sonko from contesting the Mombasa governor seat.

As things stand though, Sonko is full steam ahead in the campaigns. He has already introduced himself to the Mombasa voters and has, true to his style, rubbed existing powers of the day the wrong way.

In his leadership journey, Sonko had undoubtedly got many things wrong, but he seems to always get the timing of jumping into elections right.

Regional political kingpin Joho looks destructed by national matters as he tries to secure a role in national government as he expends his energies on campaigning for Raila Odinga’s - Azimio la Umoja One Kenya leader- presidential bid.

With Joho’s absence, Sonko believes he cannot just dare, but take on the politicians on the second tier of influence within the region and get away with a successful smash and grab.