Kenya: Will ‘Sultan’ Hassan Joho make a comeback after the 2022 elections?

By Jeff Otieno
Posted on Thursday, 24 March 2022 14:47

Mombasa's Governor-elect Ali Hassan Joho arrive at a campaign rally at Uhuru park in Nairobi, Kenya August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
Mombasa's Governor-elect Ali Hassan Joho arrives at a campaign rally at Uhuru Park in Nairobi, Kenya on August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

After completing two terms as governor of Mombasa, Hassan Joho, popularly known as ‘Sultan’, says he is ready to play in the big league. Will he pull it off the way he did at the local level?

A casual conversation about Mombasa politics is never complete without mentioning Joho. The governor of the coastal town stands out when reference is made to politicians who have mastered the art of staying ahead of the pack in every general election.

With his gift of garb and stylish look, coupled with the power and influence associated with the governor’s office, the bearded politician has managed to carve out his own niche in Kenya’s crowded political field, winning over supporters for himself as well as the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party, where he serves as one of the deputy party leaders.

Following the messy 2007 general election, Joho became the point man for ODM in Mombasa, enabling the party to retain its dominance in the coastal region and party leader Raila Odinga to be among the most popular politicians on the national stage.

Among Raila’s ardent supporters, Joho’s political star shone brighter when he attended his party leader’s illegal swearing-in as the ‘people’s president’ on 30 January 2018, in protest of the alleged rigging of the 2017 presidential election that saw Uhuru Kenyatta declared the winner.

After the ‘swearing-in ceremony’, many began viewing Joho as a national politician and not one whose politics is only confined to Mombasa.

Unlike Joho, Raila’s co-principals in the then National Super Alliance (NASA) – Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetangula – gave the event a wide berth, perhaps fearing the consequences of participating in an illegal ceremony.

Joho, one of the main speakers at the event, was given the responsibility of inviting Raila to take the oath in front of thousands of supporters at the historic Uhuru Park grounds in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

Political analyst John Charo says Joho’s steady rise is partly due to his strong links with Raila, which is what has made him one of the most influential politicians in the ODM leader’s inner circle.

“After the ‘swearing-in ceremony’ many began viewing Joho as a national politician and not one whose politics is only confined to Mombasa,” says Charo.

‘Joho has never betrayed me’

Last year, while addressing a political gathering in Mombasa, Raila heaped praise on Joho, terming him a courageous and steadfast leader.

“I have come a long way with Joho. I took his hand when he was still young and made him vie in the Kisauni constituency by-election (in 2004). He did not win, but I told him not to worry [as] the future is bright,” said the ODM leader.

As Raila predicted, Joho bounced back in 2007, winning the Kisauni seat with 35,720 votes against the incumbent MP Anania Mwaboza’s 19,078 votes.

“Since joining politics, there is no day that Joho has betrayed me. I now want you to allow me to go with him up there [State House],” said the 77-year-old who is vying for the presidency in the upcoming general election.

Joho has never hidden his presidential ambitions and many believe that his closeness with Raila will be a major boost once the latter exits the political stage.

“I am waiting for [Raila] Odinga to be president to pave the way. Once he is done, I will be there waiting. I can also be president in this country,” says Joho.

His political rise did not come on a silver platter: “When I was in primary school, I had to sell mahamri [a form of popular pastry at the coast] and vitumbua [coconut rice pancake] in estates so that I could raise my school fees and had to wait for a while [after completing eighth grade] to go to Serani Secondary School.”

“I used to work at the old port loading ships that were carrying goods from Somalia. Here I would be paid KSh80 ($0.7) after a hard day’s work. That was not easy work for me at the time when I was that young,” the governor says.

KCSE examination results

Joho admits that he performed poorly in his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination, scoring a D-, but says he is proud of the grade considering the tribulations he encountered in his childhood. “I am an inspiration to the youth going by what I have been able to achieve despite the challenges I had in […] school […].”

Choosing to support Raila however came with a heavy price. Before President Kenyatta and Raila buried the hatchet, Joho had numerous run-ins with the government due to his fierce criticism of the Jubilee administration.

For example, the government tried to bar him from contesting in the 2017 general election, accusing him of forging his KCSE certificate to show that he scored a  C+ (the minimum for entry into university). However, he fought back through the courts and successfully defended his Mombasa governor seat.

A year later, after attending Raila’s swearing-in ceremony, Joho’s security detail was withdrawn, forcing him to hire private security. He was also barred from attending presidential functions in Mombasa.

A small paradise on earth

Even as he prepares to move into national politics, after serving his second and final term as governor, Joho has vowed to remain true to his roots, describing Mombasa as a small paradise on earth.

Indeed, Kenya’s second-largest city has more to offer than vibrant politics. The coastal town is famous for its white, sandy beaches surrounded by palm groves and other lush tropical plants. Beach resorts that dot the sandy beaches are some of the best in the world.

“Wherever you go in Mombasa you are never far away from the beach and that’s the beauty of it all. For example, Diani beach is breathtaking,” says Gideon Chanzu, a 40-year-old curio seller.

Chanzu, who has been selling curios for the past 10 years, says the sunny weather that the coastal strip enjoys throughout the year, makes Mombasa a popular holiday destination.

Gourmet food and rich history

For lovers of gourmet food, Mombasa offers a wide range of foreign and local dishes: from spicy Afro-Arab haute cuisine to an assortment of seafood from the nearby Indian Ocean.

The coastal region is also known for its ecotourism where visitors can see locals farming, fishing and even venturing into aquaculture in an environmentally sustainable manner, unlike in Nairobi where life is predominantly Westernised.

Tourism aside, Mombasa also boasts a rich history that dates back to pre-colonial times. It was the East Africa region’s gateway to the rest of the world, coming to the limelight in 1498 when Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama became the first European to set foot on its sandy beaches.

Under the Portuguese empire, the city became a trading hub where raw materials, such as ivory, gold, timber, spices and slaves, were received for shipment overseas, while products of Asian origin, such as cloth, ironware and beads, found their way into the hinterland.

One of the structures that bears testimony to the successful attempt by the European nation to control the Indian Ocean trade routes is the imposing Fort Jesus – one of the major historical tourist attractions in the country.

Fort Jesus was built by the Portuguese in 1593 to protect Mombasa from outside forces and – by extension – guard their trade interests in the region. The structure became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2011. “Fort Jesus provides an insight of the wars fought between Arabs and Europeans and also the ugly side of slave trade,” says Hassan Konde, a tourist guide in Mombasa.

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