Kenya: Can former Nairobi governor Mike Sonko make a comeback?

By Morris Kiruga
Posted on Tuesday, 22 December 2020 13:57

The central business district of Kenya's capital, Nairobi. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Nairobi is set to elect a new governor in the next two months, after the senate voted to impeach governor Mike Sonko on Thursday 17 December.

In a 27-16 vote at nearly midnight, senators affirmed the county assembly’s 3 December decision to impeach the capital’s governor.

The vote followed two days of senate hearings, where the assembly’s prosecuted its case against the governor.

READ MORE Kenya: Will Nairobi Governor Sonko find a way out of his impeachment?

The decision makes Sonko only the second of his peers to be impeached successfully at both the senate and the county assembly, but the case is unique in that he has had no deputy since January 2018.

  • Sonko’s decision not to appoint a deputy after the resignation of his running mate, Polycarp Igathe, now means that the capital will hold elections to elect a new governor in the next two months.
  • In the meantime, county assembly speaker Benson Mutura, who was elected to the post just four months ago, will take over as the capital’s acting governor.
  • Coincidentally, Sonko and Mutura previously served as members of parliament for the same constituency in Nairobi. Sonko served as Makadara MP from 2010 to 2013, and Mutura succeeded Sonko in 2013 when he ran for a senate seat.

For Sonko, a popular and eccentric politician whose spectacular rise is unparalleled in Kenya, the impeachment votes mark his first major fall in Nairobi politics. His three years as Nairobi’s second governor were tumultuous, with the resignation of his deputy shortly after their election in 2017 and open political wars with both the government of President Uhuru Kenyatta and the county assembly, and the lasting challenges of running Kenya’s most important local government body.

In early 2020, Sonko manoeuvred out of a planned impeachment vote by signing over critical functions to the Kenyatta administration. Although at the time a move to survive, it created an alternative city administration that he then waged war against. In the end, it was his refusal to sign over more than two thirds of the city’s budget to the Nairobi Metropolitan Service (NMS), the body Kenyatta created to run the capital, that cost him any political goodwill he still had within the major political parties.

READ MORE Kenya: Referendum new sticking point in BBI constitutional amendment bill

But Sonko is unlikely to go as quietly as the country’s political leaders would hope. He is immensely popular and has shown a penchant for shifting his own political goals quickly and successfully. His removal is also likely to draw opposition in the city as the national executive’s growing hand in devolution politics, with the rapid removal of its speaker and governor in 2020.

But Sonko took to Facebook in December to suggest that he may take a bit of a break: “As I said before, there is life after politics, and I am excited to go back to my life and to be with the ordinary people who have been supporting me all my political life.”

Although a proposal to create a special administrative unit for the capital was removed from a proposed constitutional referendum bill, Sonko’s successors will have a hard time playing more than a ceremonial role in city administration.

  • Perhaps anticipating the likely event that Sonko’s popularity among the Nairobi electorate will still play a role in the elections in early 2021 and the Kenyatta succession in 2022, Nairobi senator Johnson Sakaja was one of two senators who abstained from the impeachment vote on Thursday.
  • Legally, nothing stops Sonko from running again, but with Kenyatta and his political partner Raila Odinga set on the NMS running the capital, he is set to face multiple challenges if he seeks reelection.

The next two months are likely to raise major legal and political questions about the future of the city as a devolved unit.

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