Hassan Joho’s high-octane power politics

Like him or hate him, but Mombasa Governor Ali Hassan Joho is the darling of his supporters. In Mombasa, they now call him the Sultan, an Arabic word meaning power and authority, perhaps because he now lords it over what was 15th century Sultanate of Kilwa Kisiwani.

Joho is charming too. In one of his recent classic photos, he appeared in public spotting the Swahili attire complete with the Oriental thick bronze-blade jambiya dagger in a curved scabbard.

The dagger, resembling letter “J”, is still a national symbol of the Sultanate of Oman – where most of the Arab descendants in Mombasa came from. He has also adopted the classic cultural Arabic beard style and become more vociferous and noisy.

On Joho, who has been in the news this week for right or wrong reasons, it all depends on whom you ask: Supporters say he is the face of change in Mombasa while critics – who include Mombasa senator Hassan Omar – think he is the face of failure. Omar, who is gunning for Joho’s seat, once lamented that the governor’s security detail is almost similar to that of the President and that “every time he moves around, there are people with 35 guns loaded with a total of 500 rounds of ammunition.” But Joho, through his spokesman, dismissed that statement as “rubbish and politics.”


That Joho is brazen is now common knowledge. During the recent visit by President Uhuru Kenyatta to Mombasa, the governor was blocked from attending the commissioning of the Mtongwe ferry and he made political capital out of it.

In a previous presidential function, he had taken on the President to the chagrin of Jubilee supporters, who thought he had flown close to the sun, like the craftsman in the Greek mythology, Icarus.

The rise of Joho to become the titan of Mombasa politics has been phenomenal – but also with its share of drama and controversy. For a man who does not shy away from confronting his critics, Joho is in a class of his own.

Though he comes from a wealthy background – the family runs a multi-million-shilling container depot in Mombasa – Joho displays no hint of a high-flying mogul and would easily jump onto a bicycle and ride away. And that is his known side. His unknown side, the discrete persona if he has one, remains unknown.

Joho’s political story starts in 2004 when Tourism minister Emmanuel Karisa Maitha collapsed and died during a press interview in Germany. Joho was among the 11 aspirants who emerged to inherit Maitha’s seat.

In that race, there were two favourites: Anania Mwasambu Mwaboza, a lawyer, and Ali Hassan Joho, then a junior manager in the family’s multi-million-shilling garbage collection firm, Prima Pest and Bins, where he worked with his elder brother, Abubakar Joho.

The story of Joho is also the story of the high-octane power politics between President Kibaki and Raila Odinga.

During the nominations for the Narc ticket, Joho – who was affiliated to Raila Odinga’s wing of Liberal Democratic Party – beat Mwaboza who defected to the little-known National Labour Party (NLP) where he received support from Narc’s Morris Dzoro (Kaloleni), Joseph Kingi (Ganze), Prof Kivutha Kibwana (Makueni), and Safina’s Paul Muite (Kabete) among others.


The December 16, 2004 Kisauni by-election was seen as a political test between Mwai Kibaki’s wing of Narc and the other led by Odinga who had parted ways with the former as a result of an unimplemented Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that had brought acrimony between those who had bolted out of Kanu to protest Uhuru’s nomination as presidential candidate, and those who were in Kibaki-Ngilu-Wamalwa’s National Alliance of Kenya (NAK).

In the by-election, Joho polled 7,293 votes against Mwaboza’s 8,374. He cried foul, went to court and lost the petition and waited for his turn.

A man who was hitherto unknown in Coast politics had been initiated into the bare-knuckle power politics pitting Mr Odinga and President Kibaki. Joho, then only 28, was the right candidate. He loved the drama and again, he was full of hubris and had the backing of powerful Arab families and politicos who had dominated Kisauni politics since its days as Mombasa North constituency.

Since independence, politics in his Kisauni backyard revolved around an African-Arab rivalry between the Mijikenda’s Abdallah Mwaruwa and Said Hemed until Karisa Maitha, previously a councillor in Bamburi Ward, won the seat in 1997 through Kibaki’s Democratic Party. It was this year that Joho, then 21, registered Prima Pest and Bins with an office on the 5th Floor of Ambalal House on Mombasa’s Nkrumah Road tossing himself into the world of business.

Piggy-riding on the success of Abubakar, his elder and immensely wealthy brother, Joho’s fortunes within Prima Pest ballooned winning tenders at Kenya Ports Authority and Kenya Power and Lighting Company.

He also tendered for the multi-million-shilling garbage collection tender and when he lost to Italian firm Jacorossi Impresse, he appealed and the tender was overturned. While the Italian, Mr Ovidio Jacorossi, later won the tender his company, a subsidiary of Italy’s Fintermica, was embroiled in court cases and when they were about to set up a recycling plant, the plans were scuttled when the French government, through the French Development Agency, promised a Sh1.1 billion grant for a similar project.


By battling the Italians out of the Mombasa garbage contract, the Johos had outwitted the three Jacorossi brothers – Ovidio, Giancarlo, Angelo Jacorossi – who had turned around their father’s charcoal business into a multi-million-dollar energy enterprise – by simply selling oil burners from 1950s and developing turnkey heating and cooling systems for homes, offices and factories. In 1974, Jacorossi formed Fintermica with many companies formed to undertake different businesses that included garbage management.

That almost came to a close in 1979 when the Mafia grabbed Angelo, then christened the Roman King of Diesel Fuel or Roman energy czar, and demanded a $620,000 ransom. He was released after three months in captivity and went on to expand his empire.

Besides Mombasa, Jacorossi had tried luck in Nairobi in 2003 when they used a study done by JICA to table a proposal on solid waste management in May 2003.

On May 19, 2004, some three months before he collapsed and died while in Germany, Local Government minister Karisa Maitha had overseen the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Nairobi City Council and Jacorossi who were given the go-ahead to table a proposal on how they intended to invest Sh3.2 billion in garbage management. That also became political and Jacorossi left the city.

Back to Joho, the exit of the Italians left him with bragging rights as “the founder of the first garbage collection company in Mombasa”. He says as much in his official website.

It was his entry into politics that defined him more than his business.

Born in Kisauni, Joho is lauded by his supporters as a philanthropist and he regards himself as a “serial entrepreneur in … environmental management, shipping and logistics to manufacturing and retail.”

But his critics say his brother, Abu, is the family’s power-horse, and that Joho’s entry into politics was to safeguard the family’s interests in business.

When Joho sought to run as the first governor of Mombasa, the battle was deemed to be between him and Suleiman Shahbal, the US-trained founder of Gulf Africa Bank and Gulf Energy. Shahbal had two undergraduate degrees, one in Finance and another in International Banking from Colorado University, while Joho had a controversial degree from Kampala International University.

So controversial was Joho’s degree that he spent much of his early years as governor fighting court battles to safeguard his reputation and position since the law requires a governor and his deputy to be university graduates.

The matter became complex after the Uganda National Council of Higher Education (NCHE) dismissed the awarding of the degree as fraudulent. “There was no clear evidence that academic due process was followed from admission to graduation regarding a Bachelor of Business Administration degree (Human Resource Management option) awarded to Mr Hassan Ali Joho by Kampala University,” the council said in a resolution. It further said in its April 30, 2013 report that it did not recognise Mr Joho’s degree.

A committee chaired by Mr S.H. Nsubuga had claimed that Mr Joho “fraudulently obtained the said qualifications from Kampala University” and that he “neither qualified for admission to the degree programme nor was he subjected to the due process”.

But the Kampala University stood by him. The Vice-Chancellor, Prof Badru Kateregga, said Mr Joho attended the university from 2009 to 2012 and “as far as Kampala University is concerned, the degree awarded to Mr Hassan Ali Joho is bonafide, lawful and authentic. (It) was genuinely awarded and Kampala University Senate cannot and will not recall, revoke or cancel an award that it deems to be valid, authentic and genuinely awarded.”

He would later register for yet another bachelor’s degree from Thika’s little-known Gretsa University owned by the family of the late hotelier, Samuel Mbugua Kibathi – the owner of Sagret Hotels.

This February, a pained Joho called a press conference to defend the family against accusations that it was peddling drugs at the Coast and he accused Jubilee leaders of being behind the smear campaign. It was actually not the first time that his name had been mentioned.


In 2010, Joho’s name was among six MPs mentioned in a US Embassy dossier which ambassador Michael Ranneberger had given to the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission and tabled in Parliament by the late Internal Security minister, George Saitoti.

In 2013, Joho told a Mombasa court that these claims – that he is a drug trafficker – had adversely affected his siblings and the well-being of his children. He was testifying in a case where a man had been charged with linking him, his two brothers Abubakar Joho and Farouq Joho and Mombasa tycoon Ali Punjani to cocaine trafficking in Kenya and Tanzania and illegal guns trade in South Sudan, Congo and Chad. He said his children had had to change school seven times and his brothers have been stigmatised.

It is a battle of reputation that Joho fights on behalf of his family and last month, he accused Jubilee leaders of perpetuating the drugs myth about him for political reasons, adding that he was rehabilitating some 600 youths through his Joho Foundation.

“What have they done?” he posed about President Kenyatta’s recent drive to curb drug trafficking at the Kenyan coast which led to the extradition of the drug baron Ibrahim Akasha’s sons to the US to face prosecution.

Joho’s fight for space with Mombasa County Commissioner Nelson Marwa has been perennial – and none has agreed to give way. Once, Joho dismissed Marwa in a public rally as “infinitesimally small man” – “mtu mdogo sana.”

But in opposition politics, where he is the Orange Democratic Party’s Deputy Party leader, Joho is the man to watch as he eyes the presidency in 2022.

[email protected] @johnkamau1

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