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Kenya: Nairobi’s Governor Sonko under pressure from legal past

By Morris Kiruga
Posted on Tuesday, 26 November 2019 13:47

Nairobi Senator Mike Sonko dons sunglasses bearing the likeness of the Kenyan flag while welcoming Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta back from the Hague, in the capital Nairobi October 9, 2014. REUTERS/Noor Khamis

An old prison sentence, and a possible escape, have come back to haunt Nairobi’s capricious governor, as he faces the biggest fight of his life.

Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko, who is facing a mounting number of corruption-related investigations and suits, was forced to defend his criminal record after the prisons service said he never completed his term.

Sonko was jailed in March 1998 for failing to appear in court twice.

The two sentences for contempt, each with an option of a fine or six months in prison, meant that his term was to run for a year.

But the then businessman left prison the next month in unclear circumstances. Reports from the time indicate he escaped during a hospital visit.

  • The prison said recently that “the prisoner Mbuvi Gidion Kioko should serve the pending sentence as well as be charged for the offence of escaping from prison,” in a reply to an inquiry by the country’s anti-corruption body.

Two years after the original sentences, Sonko was arrested again for other offences, but he was released three months later. By a judge this time.

“I stayed in prison for one month and I was released after my mother’s death,” Governor Sonko in a radio interview, suggesting that he did not escape from prison but was released with the full knowledge of the prison’s officials.

An archival front page that covered the prison escape surfaced on Twitter on Sunday.

While Governor Sonko has never hidden his criminal past, even using it as campaign tool to show he had reformed, the new interest is tied to questions about his leadership. Kenya’s anti-corruption agency has been investigating him for multiple infractions, particularly corruption and ethical violations.

In court filings, the agency outlined a complex corruption web through which the governor earned kickbacks from the city government’s contractors.
The contractors under focus are also Sonko’s friends and allies, the agency said, through whom he diverted more than Shs. 30million from the county to his personal accounts.

“Is Sonko the most dangerous man in Kenya?” Kenya’s oldest newspaper, The Standard, asked in a headline last week.

  • The article pointed out that since 2017, the value of new buildings approved in the capital city has fallen from Shs. 314 billion in December 2016 to Shs. 210 billion by the end of last year.
  • Governor Sonko has also kept his executives on their toes, operating a revolving door that has left him with less than half of the executives the county government requires.

At the same time, some of Nairobi’s legislators have also turned on the governor, demanding an audit on his administration. In a joint statement on November 22nd, the legislators pointed out Governor Sonko’s erratic leadership, which has seen him serve without a deputy, and with a revolving door of executives.

  • “It is a tragedy of untold proportions. As we speak, the Nairobi City County is mortally ill. It has one foot in the grave; suffering the triple calamity of a governor with no substantive deputy, a non-functional executive and an assembly in shambles,” Nairobi Senator Johnson Sakaja said.
  • In a move meant to bring the city’s county assembly to the fold, the legislators said that they understood “the difficult and hostile environment that they are operating in.”

Several members of the city’s county assembly questioned the legislator’s motives, suggesting a conflict of interest on Senator Sakaja’s part in particular.

In a widely-reported letter, Governor Sonko asked ruling party leader President Kenyatta to change the party’s leadership in the county assembly. “With the new team, I will be able to swim even in the deep end where vested interests run even deeper. With the old confrontational leadership, I was being forced to swim with my hands and legs tied,” he wrote.

Governor Sonko has tried to reframe the questions on his leadership, and even sued the anti-corruption agency and its lead investigator. In the suit, Sonko said his government was investigating the agency’s head of investigations, Abdi Mohamoud, over land-grabbing. He also said he was investigating how the anti-corruption agency acquired its headquarters, Integrity Center, which is in the capital.

While shoring up its corruption case against the governor, the anti-corruption agency also pointed out that Governor Sonko had lied in his self-declaration forms to the electoral body. Specifically, on the question “Have you ever been convicted of any offence and sentenced to serve imprisonment for a period of at least six months?” to which he answered that he hadn’t.

Governor Sonko’s rapidly increasing problems are mainly of his own doing. Since his election in August 2017 as the second governor of Kenya’s capital, he has opened multiple fronts, even once moving his office to his rural home.

Reframing the criminal record and corruption cases is an existential matter for Sonko, as they provide alternative routes to remove him from office.

He will mainly be working to avoid the experience of neighboring Governor Ferdinand Waititu, who has been effectively locked out from the Kiambu County Government as he fights a Kshs 588 million corruption case since July.

Waititu, who is charged alongside his wife, is also facing another challenge as Kiambu residents collect signatures to petition his removal.

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