DiA’s Nic Cheeseman reflects on the battle for the Governorship of Nairobi and asks whether the populist outside Mike Sonko can take the seat and go on to one day become president.
Coverage of the 2017 General Election race has focused mainly on the presidential election, but as we all know, some of the contests for governor are just as heated and just as interesting. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Nairobi, where the incumbent, Evans Kidero is facing a strong challenge from Senator Mike Sonko.
Although Kidero is the incumbent, Sonko is many people’s favourite to win. So how did Sonko rise to prominence and how far can he go?
Elected to the National Assembly in a by-election for the Makadara constituency in which he defeated established figures such as Reuben Ndolo, he has made a career out of defying the odds. He has done so by bucking the trend, refusing to play old-fashioned ethnic politics, and instead building a cross-ethnic support base in a manner reminiscent of J.M. Kariuki.
While other leaders have wasted time on giving grandiose speeches and wasted money by trying to buy votes from people who don’t like them, Sonko has developed a keen understanding of what Kenyan voters want. By being seen to deliver on the three Ss (sincerity, solidarity and service), Sonko has turned himself into one of the most popular leaders in the country.
It is therefore a great mistake to treat Sonko as a fool, a comedian or an aberration – one day, he might just be president.
KIDERO VERSUS SONKO
The position of Nairobi governor is both one of the most high profile jobs in the country and one of the most strategically important. When Kidero captured the seat in 2013, it demonstrated the potential for devolution to empower opposition parties at the county level.
Given the many advantages enjoyed by incumbents in Kenyan politics, one might expect that that Kidero would be the favourite to retain his position by a comfortable margin. Instead, a survey recently conducted by Ipsos Kenya found that Sonko enjoyed a healthy lead. A more recent poll by TIFA put Kidero slightly ahead, but even this survey essentially found that the race was neck and neck, with Sonko just 1 per cent behind.
If Sonko wins, his rise to prominence will be all the more impressive because it has had nothing to do with ethnicity. Indeed, Sonko is perhaps the only prominent Kenyan politician whose ethnic identity and geographical background are not immediately apparent. Instead, he has done a remarkably good job of cultivating a populist image that cuts across ethnic lines.
The breakdown of Sonko’s support base proves this point. According to the Ipsos Kenya poll, the senator enjoys the backing of a healthy proportion of the Luhya,Kamba, Kalenjin and Kikuyu communities – and quite a few Luo voters. Moreover, he actually wins a higher proportion of the vote among groups such as the Kikuyu, who have their own candidates in the race, than he does among his own Kamba community.
HOW TO MOBILISE ACROSS ETHNIC LINES
Kenyan politicians often lament the difficulty of mobilising support across ethnic lines, something that few national figures can achieve, so how has Sonko managed this feat? One easy answer is that Kidero has made it easy for him by doing a poor job as governor. But while this is true, it does not explain why Sonko enjoys broad popularity not only in Nairobi but also within Kenya more broadly. To explain this, it is important to look beyond Sonko’s populist rhetoric, playboy reputation, and hip hop styling to focus on what he actually does on a daily basis.
Sonko’s genius is that while everyone has been focusing on his reputation, he has been busy trying to understand what Kenyan voters really want, and giving it to them. What this means in practice is that Sonko understands the value of the three Ss.
Sincerity is an underrated quality in Kenyan political life, but it is absolutely central to building a support base because a candidate’s credibility is key. Spending vast amounts of money, or playing the ethnic card, will not get you anywhere if you are seen to have abandoned your community and if the electorate has come to disbelieve your promises.
Sonko understands this point better than any other politician. Ever since he emerged on the political scene, he has been careful to always back up his claims with action. Most notably, during a dispute with Governor Kidero over the poor state of health care in Nairobi, Sonko established the Sonko Rescue Team to provide for citizens who had been failed by state services.
Of course, the SRT cannot hope to deal with even a tiny fraction of the capital’s challenges, but it was nonetheless a public relations victory because it backed up Sonko’s claim to be a man of action. As a Kenyan journalist recently commented to me, “he may not be able to fix all of our problems, but at least he will try”.
Kenyans in other parts of the country may not know about the SRT, but the chances are they do know about Sonko’s generosity. Whether it is paying for women’s maternal health care, footing the cost of burials, or funding youth projects, Sonko has helped people – some of whom do not share his ethnicity or political persuasion – across the country.
This demonstration of personal generosity and willingness to act may prove to be a cynical ploy to win hearts and minds, but it has nonetheless contributed to a popular sense that Sonko is sincere and that, if elected, he really will try to make Nairobi work.
Despite the absence of class politics, solidarity is an important feature of Kenyan elections. Politicians willing to rely on ethnicity invoke a form of identity-based solidarity. Those who don’t need to craft alternative bonds with voters.
With his populist styling, Sonko has deliberately sought to cultivate a deep sense of solidarity with those who vote for him. Despite always presenting himself as the solution to people’s problems, he rejects the notion that he is part of the elite. Instead, his whole persona has been designed to stress what he has in common with ordinary people. This includes his name change, effectively dropping the name with which he became Makadara MP, Gideon Kioko, in favour of the more inclusive Mike Sonko.
It also includes the way he presents himself publicly. Even when handing out financial support, Sonko has often been careful to play down his own wealth, claiming “I am not a rich man as alleged”. Indeed, the official title of his Facebook page is “Mike Sonko – Man of the People”. Partly as a result, he is generally seen as being less “out of touch” and “aloof” than many of his rival political leaders.
Vote buying may help to get a few more people to the polls, but to win elections candidates need to prove that they can deliver development. Once again, Sonkounderstands this point remarkably well. While he has often been accused of handing out money, his most effective gestures have been related to the provision of services, such as the SRT. As Sonko himself has said “I have given people projects instead of money”.
This is important, because there is a moral ambiguity and sense of financial inequality when rich candidates hand out money to anyone who will vote for them. Both can be overcome by emphasising solidarity and services rather than cold hard cash, something that comes naturally to the Nairobi senator.
Those who dislike or fear Sonko will no do doubt reject this analysis. They will point to the accusations of criminality, Sonko’s limited effectiveness as senator, and the fact that he doesn’t sound like a statesman. They will question whether he has the education needed to lead the country and argue, as some of my friends have, that “a thug like that can never be president”.
But the vast majority of Kenyan voters are not part of the Nairobi middle class, and do not share all of its concerns.Operating within a political system that very rarely delivers for them, they respond more readily to actions than words. Moreover, Sonko’s ability to draw on repertoires of solidarity and service mean that voters are likely to be less critical of him when it comes to the more problematic side of his character. What to some looks like a criminal opportunist to others appears as a loveable rogue.
Significantly, there will be a lot of opportunities for a leader like Sonko in the next decade. A popular vote mobiliser with cross-ethnic appeal would be a very valuable Deputy President, especially for a less popular presidential candidate with mainly ethnic support. It is no doubt for this reason that William Ruto has recently been courting Sonko, with one eye on his own presidential ambitions.
As Deputy President, we would see a very different Sonko. Already in his campaign for governor, he has ditched the hip hop regalia in favour of a smart suit. As he moves higher up the political food chain, he will continue to evolve – and one day, he might just start to look and sound a lot more “respectable”. At that point, it would be unwise to bet against “President Sonko”.
Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is professor of democracy at Birmingham University in the United Kingdom.
This article first appeared as a column in the Sunday Nation