Joho and Sonko lead rise of defiant politics

Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho and Nairobi Senator Mike Sonko clash in public during the commissioning of “Mwangaza Mtaani street lighting project” by President Uhuru Kenyatta at the Makadara grounds, on January 17, 2016. The two leaders have gone against the grain to win support from across-section of Kenyans. [File, Standard]

In Kenya, a technocratic vision of leadership has hovered over the public imaginary for years. In this vision, educated, middle-class bureaucrats, those trained in a globalised language of economics, science and development, should rule and implement policies that will reduce poverty and inaugurate good governance. This will also cure all tribalism and corruption. With this in mind, one wonders how leaders like Mike Mbuvi Sonko and Ali Hassan Joho have arrived with impeccable agility and sheer force at the national political scene.

Despite the fact that the two, Joho and Sonko, are in separate political camps, one in the ruling party and the other in the opposition, what steered them to prominence has a lot more in common.

Firstly, both of them come from a long-line of beneficiary networks built in the 1990s and early 2000s, an infamously anti-elitist and pro-devolution era. Detractors point out that these were the heydays of corruption and patronage politics, while they have countered that they are entrepreneurial spirits who adapted to what were times of unprecedented uncertainty.


Their success in business has been the centre of much attention. In 2010, then Internal Security Minister George Saitoti named Joho and Sonko, among others, as one of Kenya’s major drug traffickers, allegations which both of them have refuted. As a jab to their pretentions at leadership, both men have had their educational qualifications questioned by their usually more educated adversaries. In public, their unpolished nature, performing in Swahili and broken English, has endeared them to a larger cross-ethnic Kenyan constituency. They are also known to have acted in ways unbounded by the codes of public decorum, or by the middle-class sensibilities of those who dominate Kenya’s political scene. Both men are street-smart, and are grounded in experience rather than formal education.

Secondly, Joho and Sonko do not command any significant ethnic capital, and instead, draw their political support from the large cross-ethnic urban underclass of Mombasa and Nairobi respectively. The growth of this underclass, and its increasing permanence in the residential landscape of Nairobi and Mombasa, draws origin from the austerity measures of the 1990s.


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Local patronage


These policies, called Structural Adjustment Polices (SAPs) negatively affected agricultural production and led to a decline in rural incomes, causing an increase of rural-urban migration. For instance, the decade, between 1989 and 1999 witnessed the largest rural-urban migration in Kenya’s modern history. To complement the wide lack of social services in the poor neighbourhoods of Nairobi and Mombasa, informal, kinship and neighbourhood-based networks were established. These localised sites of resilience and creativity were either ignored by the government, or, after failing to control them, government officials moved with speed to criminalise them.

It is the existence of these urban networks, and the possession of knowledge regarding how they operate, that has given rise to the political careers of both Joho and Sonko. Nowhere was this important than during the 2013 campaigns for the new and local positions of County Governor in Mombasa, and that of Senator in Nairobi. Joho and Sonko appealed and tapped into a growing urban-based sense of frustration against a government that is seen as politically and culturally remote. In Mombasa, Joho activated and aligned the local patronage network needed to oil a political machinery that was used to mobilise the urban underclass to vote for Raila Odinga. As a result, Uhuru performed very poorly in Mombasa and elsewhere on the coast. In Nairobi, Sonko got more votes, 814,184, than Uhuru’s 659,490. This means that most people who voted for Raila for president, also voted for Sonko, a Jubilee candidate, for the Senate.

So what are these facts telling us?

In my view, they suggest an unacknowledged emergence of an urban-based cross-ethnic politics of defiance. This defiance is distinctively anti-elitist, opposed to the elitist nature of power and authority in Kenya, and has roots in the recent past. In 1963, departing colonialists left instruments of power to a small middle-class of educated Africans, most of whom were the sons of colonial chiefs that had opposed the Mau Mau in Central Kenya. Since, reports abounded of high-level corruption by senior government officials, and of the stark realities of increasing inequality, especially in urban areas. As a result, many have come to distrust the formalised, calculated and jargonised world of politics represented by these educated bureaucrats.

The growing prominence of people like Joho and Sonko in the Kenyan political scene is as a result of popular disenchantment with the technocratic vision bestowed at independence, in fact, it is its anti-thesis. In other words, at the heart of this nascent politics of defiance lies a deep-seated disavowal of the Kenyan state’s elitism, incessant high-handedness, paternalism, hostility towards political devolution, blatant tribal discrimination, and corruption with impunity – a governmental culture imbued with what John Githongo has referred to as a “powerful sense of madharau for its citizens.”


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Misplaced belief

What motivates this rejection of the tyranny of experts, as is evident across the world, isn’t ignorance, or a misplaced belief in charismatic and raunchy ‘political saviours’. It is instead, an awareness of the insincerity and insensitivity of those formalised elitist ethos to popular needs and demands. This is what has made people from other backgrounds, such as Donald Trump’s in America, and Nigel Farage’s in England, relevant in their specific local contexts.

With the increased regularity of elections, and of the possibility of stronger devolution in future, Kenya’s wealthy, elitist and dynastic political class based in Nairobi will have to give way to more men and women of Sonko and Joho’s stature. Questions about Sonko’s university certificate, or the fact that Joho got a mean grade of D- will matter less to a majority of Kenyans where poverty and lack of opportunity are a fact of life. In addition, politicians such as Sonko, Joho, (and others such as Ferdinand Waititu), bring with them the wealth and extensive mobilisation capacities needed by any political party.

This is not a new class-based politics, as that which, in the 1960s and 1970s, was reminiscent of bearded university-based Marxists, but it nonetheless constitutes a radical shift. It is defiant and it is built on cross-ethnic alliances. Many would need to be prepared to contend with this eventuality. The arrival of these politics in Kenya, as the country heads to a general-election in August, presents an interesting watershed.

Ngala Chome is a PhD candidate at Durham University, UK

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