Kenya 2022: Sakaja versus Igathe in the battle for Nairobi

By Son Gatitu
Posted on Friday, 10 June 2022 15:37

General view of the central business district in Nairobi
A general view shows the central business district in downtown Nairobi, Kenya 18 February 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Who will win the crucial Nairobi governorship election in August? Raila Odinga’s Azimio la Umoja coalition has settled on business leader Polycarp Igathe as its candidate, while William Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza Alliance has chosen Senator Johnson Sakaja.

Igathe is a business leader who has managed companies in the oil, banking and financial services sectors. Some say his entry into the race in April was a plot by President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Jubilee Party to maintain grip on the city. Kenyatta has dropped his alliance with Ruto and is now backing Raila for the presidency.

Igathe is also a former deputy governor of Nairobi. He resigned in January 2018, barely four months after he was elected alongside populist governor Mike Sonko, who was impeached in December 2020. Igathe said he found it difficult to work with Sonko, who was known for his erratic style of management, and that the post of deputy governor was not well defined.

Senator Sakaja

Sakaja is a senator representing Nairobi and held a seat in the house that voted to remove Sonko. He however abstained from the vote in what was seen as a bid to preserve his own support base that enthusiastically backed Sonko in the 2017 elections.

There is a people’s project and [then] there is a project of the deep state and statehouse

Until 2017, Sakaja was the chairman of The National Alliance (TNA) party on whose ticket President Kenyatta was elected in 2013. TNA merged with a dozen other parties to form the Jubilee Party, on whose ticket Sakaja was elected to the senate.

Popularity and the polls

Nairobi County has 2.5 million registered voters – out of Kenya’s more than 22 million – according to the latest figures from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).

According to a TIFA poll released mid-May, Raila’s Azimio was nationally more popular than Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza, with 38% support versus 28%, respectively.

In Nairobi, the pattern was consistent with national trends. Azimio had 45% support while Kenya Kwanza polled 20%. Of those surveyed, 35% of Nairobi residents preferred neither of the two or were undecided.

However, a Nation Media Group poll in May put Sakaja of Kenya Kwanza at 37% and Igathe of Azimio at 21%.

The TIFA poll also found that the Azimio ticket of Raila and his running mate, Martha Karua, also has more support than Ruto and his nominee, Rigathi Gachagua, in Nairobi at 49% versus 19%.

Nationally, according to the TIFA poll, the Raila-Karua ticket polled 39% versus Ruto-Rigathi at 35%. It was the first time Raila was leading Ruto in the national opinion polls this year.

In April, Ruto’s popularity in Nairobi declined from 25%, according to the pollster. Back in 2017, Raila garnered 828,826 (50.8%) votes against Kenyatta’s 791,291 (48%) in the city.

On the campaign trail

The Azimio la Umoja alliance has been seeking consensus amongst the constituent parties to ensure that they only field one candidate in the Nairobi constituencies. It hopes that this will help it to counter Ruto and Kenya Kwanza’s messaging, which has been resonating with the urban poor, especially younger voters.

Both candidates have been meeting voters on residential areas, businesses and open-air markets. “We are walking around asking for votes and familiarising ourselves with the work we will embark on [if elected],” Igathe said while on a tour of Kangemi Market in mid-May as he mingled with commuters.

“Our work is to […] convince them [the electorate] why they need to choose us for [the] position of governor,” Sakaja said on 22 April. “There is a people’s project and [then] there is a project of the deep state and statehouse; Nairobians know the difference and will make their choice.”

On a recent campaign tour, Sakaja promised to address the water challenges in the city. “We need to put at least KSh3bn ($25.7m) for water piping and sewage system expansion in Eastlands.” Eastlands is the popular name for the eastern residential district of Nairobi. Sakaja’s platform focuses on the idea of creating a “city of order and dignity”.

Igathe has also been attending town hall meetings with residents associations and business communities. He recently told a forum of residents of Kileleshwa, one of the posh estates in the city: “Water is a governance problem [more than] a technical and planning problem. We will take care of Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company.” He also told the media: “Nairobi is the front porch of Kenya and it needs our best.”

The stakes

The Kenyan capital is the country’s largest economic hub and is home to an estimated 4.5 million people – and most of them are younger than 35 – so it is an important political and economic battleground. Nairobi is the headquarters of international institutions such as the United Nations Environment Programme and UN Habitat, but the city does not have all of the housing, sanitation and other infrastructure needed for its growing population.

Nairobi accounts for a third of the country’s gross domestic product, based on the 2022 Kenya Economic Survey. Kiambu County comes in a distant second contributing, 5.9% of GDP.

History has it that Nairobi got its name from the Maa community who knew it as the “place of cool waters”, a name reflecting from the cold stream that flowed through it. However, the Nairobi River of 2022 is now overflowing with dirt, ferrying sewers and industrial waste. Several efforts have been made to clean it up since 2008, following the days of the ruthless environment minister, the late John Michuki. Although a memorial park was put up in his honour, it also serves as a bedroom for hundreds of jobless young men. One third of homeless people living in Kenya’s urban areas are found in Nairobi.

A large number of Nairobians live on the eastern side of the city in the districts of Embakasi, Kamukunji and Makadara. Embakasi, for instance, has a population of close to one million. There, the majority of residents live in rented houses, from makeshift shanties to modest apartments. A quarter of houses occupied by Nairobians have walls made of iron sheets. Access to water and sanitation remains a major challenge. Only two in every 10 households have piped water into their houses. The rest depend on shared piped water or have to buy the commodity from private water vendors.

Promises, promises

The Nairobi governorship has tended to attract high-flyers making big promises to improve the city. Nairobi County’s first governor, Evans Kidero (2013-2017) from Raila’s Orange Democratic Movement party, was arrested on money laundering and other charges in 2018. The swashbuckling Sonko, of the Jubilee Party, served as governor from 2017 until he was impeached in 2020.

Anne Kananu Mwenda, who was deputy governor and a little known public administrator, has taken over from Sonko. Before he was impeached, Sonko signed an agreement to let the central government take control of key county services through Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS), so Mwenda has not achieved a lot while in office.

The Metropolitan Service

The NMS was created in February 2020 and manages important country services like healthcare, transport and utilities. A former military general, Mohamed Badi, leads the NMS as its director general.

Sakaja is opposed to the NMS. “On […] 10 August, NMS’s life will end. They have been demolishing churches and chasing our people,” Sakaja told a church gathering in early May in the presence of Ruto.

The gubernatorial candidates have not engaged in a critical battle of wits, but a battle of gimmicks with PR contours

The NMS term expires on 24 August with the possibility of extension should the new county government choose to do so. Igathe says he contributed to the ideas behind establishment of the NMS, but has not said if he would like to see it continue running the capital.

Politics is local

The August elections will deliver a new Nairobi governor and Kenya’s new president, offering a chance to reset the relationship between the two governments after the Sonko shake-up.

As the two major national political formations approach the Nairobi electorate, their biggest concern is how to convert the crowds into votes for both county and national seats. By the end of May, neither Ruto nor Raila had pronounced any policy proposals for the city, despite hosting several campaign meetings and tours. Due to the capital city’s importance, they both facilitated the political negotiations that saw Sakaja and Igathe at the top of gubernatorial tickets, respectively.

Javas Bigambo, a lawyer and governance analyst in Nairobi, says: “The gubernatorial candidates have not engaged in a critical battle of wits, but a battle of gimmicks with PR contours. None has sunk their teeth in the flesh of substantive issues for transformation of the metropolis.”

He says the candidates have failed to capture the current and future needs of the city. “None has wrapped their minds around the fundamentals of future cities, urbanisation and organic security issues and the place of technology in positioning Nairobi as a capital ready for the future.”

As for their respective political affiliations and the historical electoral performance in favour of Raila, Bigambo argues it as not a fundamental issue in addressing the concerns and needs of the people of Nairobi. “Factually, service delivery will not be about Azimio or Kenya Kwanza. Those are just platforms for accessing office. Sakaja and Igathe are yet to start standing up to be seriously counted.”

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