The Star (Nairobi)

Opinion – John Githongo

Just before the 1992 election, I remember meeting an old friend standing outside a supermarket in city centre. An academic high flier in school he’d attended one of the top government schools in Kenya and then gone on to obtain a top degree in the sciences from University of Nairobi.


The sun was hot, and from his dusty shoes, it seemed as if he’d done quite a bit of walking. We exchanged warm pleasantries and quickly recapped on what had happened in our lives since we’d last met.

When I asked what he was waiting for standing in the sun he explained that he’d gone into ‘real estate’. As part of this he’d brokered a deal to sell a plot of land to the National Social Security Fund (NSSF).

The NSSF was the biggest repository of long-term capital in Kenya. It was widely accepted that selling anything to them meant you could charge the earth: many grew rich from this.

So my friend was standing there, and had been for hours, waiting for a ‘guy’ who was due to show up so they could seal the deal. He’d put his life on hold waiting for one dodgy transaction. It was “jua kali” for the middle class.

Prior to the 1992 well-connected businessmen and politicians made a killing selling land to the NSSF at hugely inflated prices. It was Kenya’s most lucrative hustle at the time.

The president or commissioner of lands would allocate you a plot of land and you didn’t even need to process a title deed. All you needed to do was take the documentation of allocation to the buyer and millionaires were made overnight.

The fall of the Berlin Wall had caused the Cold War’s primary protagonists to abandon many of their client states and leaders, Kenya included.

All of a sudden, much to his chagrin, in 1991 President Moi found himself under pressure to liberalise politically. A number of brave leaders from the political, religious and legal fraternities, following the initial lead of probably one of the biggest brains in the church at the time, Reverend Timothy Njoya, started calling for the reintroduction of multiparty politics in Kenya.

Politicians like Ken Matiba and Charles Rubia stuck their necks out too and at great personal cost. Political pluralism was understood by some to be some sort of silver bullet that would end what had turned into 18 years of repression under Moi.


Moi, ever the pragmatist, eventually announced that the constitution would be repealed to allow for other political parties. But this wasn’t until he had put in place the machinery to ensure that he emerged victorious from the polls that were held in 1992.

A group of hard driving and ruthless young Kanu supporters formed a group called Youth for Kanu’92 – YK92 – to campaign for the president and his party.

The resources that were made available to them from the State were mind-boggling. Our current Deputy President, William Ruto, and politicians like Sam Nyamweya and Cyrus Jirongo were so flush with cash that, when combined with the infamous Goldenberg scandal that saw roughly 10 percent of GDP extracted from the economy to help finance Kanu’s election bid, they had the effect of literally changing Kenya’s political moral landscape. No one had ever really heard of these individuals before, but their cash and ruthless political tactics, accompanied by the ethnic cleansing of opposition supporters in various parts of the country considered ‘Kanu zones’, dislocated entire institutions like the judiciary and police. YK’92 became the ultimate hustlers.

The hardest working of them had come up from not only obscurity but also the humblest of beginnings to make good in a very short time.

This gave them a resilience that has seen them not only survive until today but also prosper fantastically while doing so, both in political and financial terms.

For the last two decades, their faces have filled our screens and taken up newspaper column inches as they have fought all manner of fraud and corruption charges.

Since Jubilee came into office we have witnessed behaviour not dissimilar in spirit to that which prevailed in the early 1990s during YK92’s heyday. From scandals involving land, the refurbishment of official homes, the renting of jets etc; the figures involved are big, attitudes unapologetic.

Though the media reports these scandals, little overt outrage accompanies them. The most organised opposition thus far was Boniface Mwangi’s captivating attempt to stop the newly elected MPs making the raising of their own salaries the first order of substantive business by the House.

Despite being baptised “MPigs” by this creative campaign that captured the imagination – and news headlines – the world over, the politicians still managed a major hustle that saw them receive, at the end of the day, more or less the bloated salaries they had been seeking in the first place.


Though we are loath to admit it to ourselves too loudly, even shallow bouts of introspection force us to come to terms with the fact that Gideon Mbuvi aka Mike Sonko was elected senator in Nairobi with over 800,000 votes!

This senator’s blatant exhibitionism and other antics had previously caused the educated middle class to recoil. They recoil in part because he has emerged a more compelling role model to the youth than the so-called Captains of Industry.

At one time, when he found himself arrested his supporters were televised outside the police station where he was being held shouting: “Mwizi wetu! Tunataka mwizi wetu!” (Our thief! Give us our thief!) To the poor of Nairobi, Sonko is a Robin Hood character accused of corruption by the traditional ruling elite who don’t appreciate a young man who has made good on the street and shares his largesse generously with his constituents.

The 2013 election saw more of such individuals elected to public office than ever before. It introduced a retail politics of systematically dishing out the goodies on a scale unprecedented since 1992.

A cultural shift would seem to have taken place, especially among the generation below the age of 34 which, good students of its parents, measures success using wealth no matter how it is acquired.

No other group typified this sociopathic attitude towards corruption more than YK92 and the changes it wrought on our national culture with regard to what holding public office means. A generation later, youth are eager to embrace the kind of politics that will lead them down the path these role-models have pioneered.

And thus, anecdotal evidence, especially from the vitriol on social media, would suggest that Kenya’s most committed tribalists, thieves, liars and anti-Kenyans, swirl in the toxic broth of self justifying, iPad carrying, enterprising, mortgage paying, night clubbing, articulate, English speaking, facebooking, twitter using, café latte sipping, flat screen owning, MNET viewing, English football league following well educated, internationalised, twittering class of Kenyans between 30 and 40.

The veneer of civility isn’t even skin deep, a simple casually dropped comment or question will cause a response pregnant with bigotry and a sense of entitlement. Ask them what the British government’s planned payout to the victims of imperial Britain’s worst excesses means and their eyes glaze over which a profound and implicit ‘so what?’

That this has happened has caused an existential crisis among Kenyans who’ve been involved in activism for constitutionalism, the rule of law, human rights etc.

One asked me last week (and I paraphrase): “John, I’ve been in this good governance industry for over 20 years. Humiliating myself every year begging foreigners for cash so we can do civic education, preach human rights and peace and worth of citizenship and in the end so what?! Ive nurtured a generation that cares only about money and tribe.”

In Sonkoism then, a retail politics kicked in and reached its nadir in the just completed election: where money was shown to buy people and our votes and we don’t decry this condition.

Indeed, we have seen it blessed by segments of the church, creating over the last five years the most noxious mixture of religion, money and politics in Kenyan history.

Indeed we revel in the gospel of money. The deadly lessons of the post-election violence apparently unlearnt and in a cynically brilliant strategy a narrative was cultivated that God was backing one side in the past election and the result was therefore divine. All this turns many of us into what we often like to decry – hustlers through and through.  star