/ 13 August 2021

The rise and fall of Mike Sonko — Nairobi’s Matatu King

Topshot Kenya Mayday
TOPSHOT - People chant the name of Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko as they hold up a t-shirt with his name during the Labour Day Parade organized by the Central Organization of Trade Unions Kenya (COTU-K) at Uhuru Park in Nairobi on May 1, 2018. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP) (Photo credit should read YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images)

Kenya’s capital is now run by an unelected major general. He succeeds a taxi overlord, Mike Sonko, who used the power and profits from his blinged-out transports to buy and barter his way to the governorship. His dramatic rise to power challenged the vested interests of the country’s ruling elite. So they fought back. And won. Journalist and Debunk Media’s Editor-in-Chief Isaac Otidi Amuke pieced this together from original reporting, public records and the utterances of the various participants.

The story is extraordinary. And true.

Part I: The Matatu King

In the mid-2010s, before his 40th birthday, Mike Mbuvi Gidion Kioko Sonko straddled Nairobi’s Eastlands like a colossus; a king and his bulging fiefdom. Eastlands is many things, one among them being a constellation of colonial housing estates and their post-independence imitations. Once upon a time, Eastlands was the hallmark of arrival for the Black African elite. But on seizing state power, that gentry migrated en masse to hitherto Europeans-only neighbourhoods. Left to its own devices, swathes of urban ghettos burgeoned across Eastlands’s flanks. Later attempts at urbanisation yielded poorly designed high rise residential structures made up of mostly cramped and poorly lit flats. 

But Eastlands wasn’t sulking. 

Out of the dusty roads, unlit streets and dried-up taps came Sheng, a popular slang made from an intricate mix of English, Kiswahili and bits and pieces of other vernacular. The language paved the way for Kenya’s ’90s rap culture, a punchy mimicry of American gangster rap.

Art forms such as graffiti piggybacked on the music, with both the music and graffiti finding their way into matatus, the unruly public transport minibuses that are ubiquitous in Nairobi. 

This evolution saw matatus morph from plain-looking jalopies into manyangas — cosy rides with ostentatious bodyworks and exteriors embellished with avant-garde artwork, blasting deafening music.

Matatu crews — drivers, conductors and hangers-on who moonlight as drivers and conductors — lived up to their billing as some of the most fashionable Nairobians. Dressed to the nines and blinged-up as if teleported from a Snoop Dogg music video — they had tattoos, dyed their hair and wore gold and silver teeth, chains, bungles and rings — deres and kanges were a hip hop version of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s immaculately dressed sapeurs.

Earning a modest daily wage, which was spent as quickly as it was gained, these exuberant personas were demigods in Eastlands’s jobless corners. They regularly sponsored bottles of cheap liquor and bundles of khat, the narcotic shrub, to the delight of their less endowed peers and admirers. The matatu subculture became an integral part of Eastlands’s fabric.

In 2010, when the rest of Nairobi and Kenya got to know him, the 35-year-old Mbuvi was already the undisputed supremo of Nairobi’s matatu subculture. He owned a dozen of the swankiest nganyas, the Sheng word for souped-up matatus had evolved from manyanga in the ’90s to nganya in the 2000s and choda most recently.

These all plied route number 58, operating between downtown Nairobi and Buru Buru shopping centre, a busily congested hub populated with pubs, hypermarkets and discotheques. 

The rule for matatus is the more flagrant the better, so Mbuvi went all out, pioneering the installation of big-screen TVs at the front of the passenger cabins of his 32-seater matatus, and giving them names like Brown Sugar, Convict, Ferrari, Lakers and Ruff Cuts. Commuters could now watch the music video as the song played. Mbuvi even added a double-decker bus to his fleet, affording Buru Buru residents a lofty view as they traversed their city.

For Mbuvi, who just 12 years earlier was serving time in a maximum security prison, this was already a remarkable turnaround in fortunes. Few realised then that he was only just getting started.

Escape from prison

Born in Mombasa and bred in Kwale, Mbuvi had been a resident of the two coastal towns for most of his life. His father ran a property brokerage company, and the young Mbuvi dabbled in the family business. But Mbuvi’s wheeling and dealing occasionally crossed the line.

In 1995, aged 20 and already making petty cash, Mbuvi was arrested and charged with assault. The following year, Mbuvi was charged with impersonation in the course of cutting his land deals. He was released on bail on both occasions.  

But he kept failing to appear in court, a practice that violated the terms of his bail and eventually, in 1997, got him arrested and sentenced to six months in prison.

Mbuvi was dispatched to the Shimo La Tewa Maximum Security Prison on 12 March 1998 as prisoner number P/No. SHO/477/1998. After a month behind bars, he feigned illness and was admitted at Coast General Hospital in Mombasa, from where he vanished on 16 April 1998, only to reappear in Buru Buru. Mbuvi’s justification for skipping jail was that he needed to pay his last respects to his late mother, Saumu Mukami, whose funeral he had missed while behind bars. 

But in reality he just needed a fresh start.

Speaking Kiswahili with a coastal accent, Mbuvi landed in Buru with a bang. Together with his wife Primrose, Mbuvi scrounged for capital and set up a hair salon, a barber shop, a video library, a cybercafé, an outlet for selling car parts and a clothes boutique. Being a fugitive, Mbuvi operated in the shadows. Primrose ran the show, and the businesses flourished. The couple opened a popular nightclub, then ventured into the matatus business.

Initially, Mbuvi couldn’t afford nganyas. And so he settled for a couple of worn-out matatus, which he deployed into the deep of Eastlands in Dandora, a sprawling settlement that hosts Nairobi’s largest dumpsite. It was while operating on these Eastlands back routes that Mbuvi gained a deeper understanding of the business and the place. It was also around this time, aged 25 in 2000, that Mbuvi got in trouble with the law again, over yet another property deal gone south.

While detained at Nairobi’s Industrial Area Remand Prison awaiting trial, wardens connected the dots backwards to Mbuvi’s escape from Shimo La Tewa prison in 1998. Before Mbuvi knew what had transpired, he was moved to the more secure Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. Soon, he was back at Shimo La Tewa to complete his pending 12-month sentence. 

But after just nine months he applied for a review of his sentence. In his dramatic affidavit, Mbuvi claimed he was epileptic and HIV-positive, as well as suffering from chronic tuberculosis and peptic ulcers. He was released on the strength of his supposedly dire medical condition and reported good behaviour.

Back in Buru, Primrose had grown their businesses. With satisfactory liquidity, it was now time to get into the top league of the matatu business. Making it their main hustle, Mbuvi and Primrose accumulated a fleet of Nairobi’s loudest and most dashing nganyas, thereby dominating the Buru route. Money started streaming in by the bucket.

The logic was simple

There is a hierarchy of nganyas, which works in the same fashion as music charts. The longer a song stays at number one, the more the artist earns. For nganyas, those at the top of the pecking order make more money a day: by charging higher fares or making the highest number of round trips, or both. The audacity to charge higher rates emanates from the fact that nganyas always have a steady stream of passengers — call them fans or groupies — who will stay put at the terminus until their favorite nganya shows up. This group of commuters never minds paying something extra for the comfort, music choice or prestige of riding their favourite nganya.

More importantly, reigning nganyas manage to make as many round trips as possible, because they are ordinarily exempted from certain protocols within the matatu ecosystem, including the first-come-first-boarded rule at the pick-up and drop-off points. This meant that whenever Mbuvi’s nganyas got to downtown Nairobi, they skipped the queue, filled up instantly and turned around. The same applied when they arrived at Buru shopping centre, never allowing the ignition to turn off. As long as the nganyas were on the move, Mbuvi’s bankers were elated.

However, the biggest advantage nganyas had was that they were a law unto themselves. In their pursuit of making as many round trips as possible, nganyas overlapped, took shortcuts, bullied motorists out of lanes and occasionally drove on the wrong side of the road. All of this, christened “matatu madness” by Nairobians, was made possible through the collusion of traffic police, who were on the payrolls of matatu barons. 

According to deres of some of Nairobi’s top nganyas (the routes they ply can’t be named for fear of victimisation) there has always existed a bribery food chain. The top cops are paid monthly and the amount drops as one cascades down the ranks, with the lowest earners being roadside cops who take as little as half a dollar per nganya per day. 

This rule-breaking by nganyas was deemed necessary, considering it cost an arm and a leg to transform a regular minibus into a nganya. 

Aside from making him incredible amounts of money — Mbuvi has previously estimated that on an average day, at the end of the morning shift at midday, he’d have a clean $200 per nganya, excluding whatever he’d make during the evening rush hour — matatus made Mbuvi an el jefe — a boss. 

To run his ever-growing matatu empire, Mbuvi recruited some of the shrewdest youngsters across Eastlands to be his drivers, conductors and hangers-on, making him the leader of an influential network across Eastlands.

It was in this era of Mbuvi’s life that he earned the nickname “Sonko”, which is Sheng for boss or the monied one. Mbuvi’s other moniker, which was never said out loud, was Kabumba — a Sheng term insinuating black magic. Mbuvi’s rise had been so meteoric that some onlookers suspected sorcery. These whispered rumours were partly fueled by the fact that he was born and bred at the coast, and tapped into the popular myth that there is a powerful form of wizardry that draws its powers from the Indian Ocean. Mbuvi did little to discourage this impression; he donned gold rings emblazoned with weird-looking animal statues on all his fingers, bling bling believed to be the repository of voodoo powers.

Stepping into politics

And so by the time a parliamentary by-election arose in Nairobi’s Makadara constituency in April 2010, Mbuvi was already a powerhouse across Eastlands. More than being the flamboyant owner of the flashiest nganyas, Mbuvi had risen to become defender-in-chief of all Eastlands matatus, which had elected him as chairperson. When the government attempted to relocate the pickup and drop-off points for Eastlands matatus from central Nairobi to the edge of the city in 2007, Mbuvi went to court and successfully stopped the move.

Outside Eastlands, Mbuvi was still an enigma; the mysterious owner of the infamously rowdy Buru matatus. But soon Nairobi would come to learn plenty more about him.

Mbuvi’s interest in the Makadara by-election was stirred by the fact that, in his estimation, no one had the kind of network, manpower and infrastructure he had across the cosmopolitan constituency that had Buru shopping centre as its nerve centre. If he activated his extensive web of drivers, conductors and hangers-on on his nganyas and decided to use his matatus as a campaign tool, he would be miles ahead of the other candidates.

Moreover, Mbuvi had stacks of ready-to-spend cash courtesy of his nganyas, which he splashed around with abandon.

Part II: The dishonourable member

Mbuvi immediately caused a splash in Nairobi’s usually staid political scene. Who was the skinny lad on the billboard, with the outrageous fashion sense? And who was he to call himself Sonko?

But word quickly got out that Mbuvi owned the infamous Buru nganyas, and then it all made sense. The nganyas made Mbuvi tons of money — hence Sonko — and being their proprietor accorded him immunity.

From that point onwards, and throughout his theatrical decade in politics, Mbuvi’s multiple faux pas stood forgiven on account that he was the embodiment of umatatu: an anarchist phenomenon characterised by brashness, vulgarity and braggadocio, and personified by carefree matatu crews.

However, much as umatatu brought Mbuvi fame and fortune, it also attracted judgmental frowns. Kenya’s established political parties wouldn’t touch him, despite Mbuvi’s repeated overtures. He did not play by the rules of the political elite, and was not welcomed there.

Despite going up against locals, Mbuvi won and Makadara had a new MP.

Mbuvi began his parliamentary term with a bang, keen on leaving a quick mark considering he had just more than two years before the 2013 general election. Personifying the name Sonko, Mbuvi dished out bundles of crisp currency notes indiscriminately to destitute Nairobians whenever they caught his eye or ear, conveniently broadcasting his generosity on social media. To keep the streets talking, he rode around town in gold-plated SUVs, wore kilos of gold jewellery and dyed his hair golden.  

This attracted plenty of attention — not all of it welcome.

Allegations of corruption 

Three months after his election, police raided Mbuvi’s office and Buru residence on suspicion that he was involved in drug trafficking, after a tip-off from the US embassy (the minister for internal security owned up to parliament about this leak from the Americans). Playing hide and seek with the cops, Mbuvi complained bitterly to parliament about police harassment. 

In a subsequent police report, detectives said that Mbuvi had been afraid to meet investigators. When he did, they said, he denied being a drug dealer, but did confess to taking part in a multimillion-dollar land fraud syndicate, an admission which the police didn’t pursue further by charging Mbuvi with fraud. The scams involved working with government officials to grab parcels of land whose leases are about to expire and secretly transferring these title deeds from original owners to fraudsters who use them to con buyers.

The report listed three companies — Casuarina Club, Primix Enterprises and Tungwa Brand Design — as businesses registered under Mbuvi’s name, none of which was duly paying taxes. Possibly trying to protect her and their businesses, Mbuvi told investigators that his wife Primrose was actually his sister.

The report barely mentioned Mbuvi’s matatu empire, except to observe that “he operates several matatus christened ARTUR within Nairobi”.

Mbuvi did indeed operate two nganyas named Artur, but the police were hinting at something.  

It was one of those if-you-know-you-know scenarios.

On 10 November 2005, two brash gold-chain-wearing Armenians named Artur Margaryan and Artur Sargasyan landed in Nairobi. Posturing first as businessmen, then as playboys and then as security experts, over time the pair cultivated connections at the highest levels of Kenyan society. Ultimately, they proved so useful to their collaborators in whatever shadowy shenanigans they were involved in that they were both appointed as deputy commissioners of police.

The Arturs were repeatedly linked to drug dealing by Kenyan journalists. And so, although the police could not prove that Mbuvi was himself implicated in drug dealing, by pointedly mentioning his nganyas named Artur — even writing ARTUR in capital letters — they seemed to be implying that even if he weren’t guilty, Mbuvi’s fondness for suspected dealers was a tell-tale sign.

Deserved or not, the drug dealer label stuck to Mbuvi  (perhaps that’s why he decided to formally change his name in 2012, from Mbuvi Gidion Kioko to Mbuvi Gidion Kioko Mike Sonko). Not that it seemed to do him any harm: his popularity was skyrocketing.

Mbuvi saw the drug-trafficking allegation as a warning shot, and knew he needed to find political protection — fast. Similarly, his by-election win didn’t guarantee future political success, particularly as he had now set his sights on becoming the first-ever senator for Nairobi (the position was created in Kenya’s 2010 constitution).

He needed to align himself with one of the two political parties. This time, his timing was exactly right.

Respect our president, you pieces of shit!

Uhuru Kenyatta, then one of two deputy prime ministers, was about to run for president on The National Alliance party ticket. Kenyatta, as son of Kenya’s founding father Jomo Kenyatta, is political royalty, but he had a major problem and needed all the friends he could find.

Kenyatta was one of four Kenyans facing crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. These stemmed from the 2007 to 2008 post-election violence in  which more than a thousand people are thought to have been killed.

Mbuvi cast himself as Kenyatta’s defender-in-chief. Mourning more than the bereaved, Mbuvi went as far as asking his barber to curve Kenyatta’s name on his head. He flew to The Hague to lead demonstrations in support of Kenyatta whenever he appeared in court, always wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Respect our Prezzo, Takataka nyinyi ghasia.” Respect our president, you pieces of shit!

Mbuvi’s support for Kenyatta paid off.

During the 2013 general election, Kenyatta and running mate William Ruto — who was also facing crimes against humanity charges at The Hague — won the presidency by a super-slim margin. Cases against both leaders were subsequently dropped.

Riding this wave, Mbuvi became Nairobi’s inaugural senator with a staggering 808 705 votes: the highest number of votes ever cast in Kenya for a single politician who wasn’t running for president. Mbuvi was unstoppable.

Like most of the new senators-elect, Mbuvi realised he might have made a miscalculation. Much as the title is grandiose, the job itself is limited to oversight. The real power lay with governors, who controlled huge budgets and could, therefore, affect lives and livelihoods.

So Mbuvi hatched a plan. He established a privately funded pro bono service-delivery entity known as the Sonko Rescue Team, which comprised ambulances, fire engines and water bowsers. He enlisted the services of hundreds of youth to operationalise the entity, and asked them to pick up litter at the same time. He got the new organisation to pay the medical bills of those needing specialised treatment in Kenya and abroad; and, in the unfortunate event of a passing-on, Mbuvi used his famous Buru nganyas as free hearses.

No one, including the incumbent Nairobi governor Dr Evans Kidero, could compete with Mbuvi’s apparent generosity.

Critics questioned how Mbuvi could afford all this, given that he earned less than $10 000 a month as a senator. Mbuvi brushed off the haters: he told the city that he would be Nairobi’s next governor, and at a public rally declared himself to be Kenya’s third-most powerful man, behind only the president and his deputy. He was not afraid to use this power: whenever a government official got in his way, Mbuvi would get Kenyatta on the phone, putting the call on loudspeaker as the ever-present media cameras rolled.

Taking their cue from their incorrigible boss, Mbuvi’s bodyguards started showing up in public spaces wielding AK-47s, as if operating in a war zone. At a senate meeting, Mbuvi attempted to get into a fist-fight with Kidero, the man he wanted to unseat. 

None of this hurt him. Mbuvi was untouchable. For now.

Part III: Operation Stop Sonko

As much as the ordinarily nonchalant Kenyatta didn’t seem bothered by Mbuvi’s umatatu, allowing his anarchist tendencies to slide on repeated occasions, a coterie of senior civil servants felt differently. They were worried what would happen if he became Nairobi’s next governor. 

Working with Kenya’s wealthiest business people, they hatched what would become known as “Operation Stop Mbuvi”, an intervention that Mbuvi himself lamented about publicly time and again whenever he experienced state harassment. 

Stopping Mbuvi involved a series of legal and technical roadblocks that would make him ineligible to run for office. First prize would be ensuring that Mbuvi didn’t obtain a certificate of good conduct from the police. Given his criminal record, this ought to have been an easy win. 

However, the conspirators backed this up with their own candidate, Peter Kenneth, a man who Mbuvi kept referring to as “The System’s candidate”. 

Kenneth was as different from Mbuvi as day is from night, well connected in all the right circles of business, politics and high society. Two funerals that took place after the 2017 general election showed the Kenyan public Kenneth’s possibilities. 

A funeral, they say, reveals more about a society than any other occasion. 

The first was the non-state state funeral of Bob Collymore, the Kenyanised Guyanese chief executive of Safaricom, the Vodacom-founded telecommunications behemoth that is Kenya’s most profitable company. As much as he was a private corporate citizen, Collymore’s passing commanded national mourning, considering that being Safaricom chief executive — at least if one understands the role, its trappings and leverage and acts accordingly — is akin to being a deity.

Kenneth stood up as a replacement for Collymore as captain of The Boys Club, a not-so-loose formation of powerful business figures, covering business, banking, journalism and telecommunications. The invitation-only club had the power to decide some Kenyan fates, and deployed properly could have blocked Mbuvi’s ascendance.

The other funeral was that of Ezra Bunyenyezi, the debonair Ugandan businessman who had provided seed money for the founding of what became Radio Africa Group. 

In his past life, Bunyenyezi  had supplied Janet Museveni with a car to take her kids to school in Nairobi as her husband was waging the liberation war back in Uganda; he was one of two businessmen who financed the building of a bridge to assist Paul Kagame’s ragtag Rwandan Patriotic Front to make their way to Kigali; and he bought an air ticket for Raila Odinga, Kenya’s future prime minister, who was on the run in the late ’80s, on his way to Oslo.

In short, Bunyenyezi was entwined in Africa’s liberation story. 

By being at  Bunyenyezi’s funeral in a leading role — as if a captain of a different boys club, Kenneth was showing the public that his 2017 bid for the Nairobi governorship against Mbuvi came with serious support.

Make it all go away 

Mbuvi and Kenneth both ran under the colours of the Jubilee Party, a product of a merger between Kenyatta’s 2013 party and that of his deputy.

As their competition intensified, Mbuvi’s criminal past surfaced in the press. A disqualification looked likely. But then Mbuvi sought a late night audience with Kenyatta. He reportedly broke down, asking Kenyatta why he was betraying him when Mbuvi had stood with the president during his trial at The Hague. 

The police issued a certificate of good conduct by 8am the next morning, and Mbuvi went ahead to win the party primaries. Kenneth cried foul. But the horse had bolted. 

With the president’s actions showing that Mbuvi had his ear, if not his backing, the senior civil servants and their patrons  had to back down, slightly. And so they inserted a condition: Mbuvi would have a running mate of their choice — governors and their deputies ran on a joint electoral ticket. This was meant to keep Mbuvi’s umatatu in check by pairing him with a sober mind but, more importantly, this was also meant to secure certain commercial interests.

Politics mattered, but money mattered more.

Polycarp Igathe fit the bill, a loyal protege who had cut his teeth in corporate Kenya. 

The plan was simple. Mbuvi would win the votes. Igathe would govern, with the end goal being to push Mbuvi out of office and allow the chosen few men to overrun Nairobi, with Igathe as the potential governor (Igathe had a slip of the tongue and made this confession in public during the June 2021 funeral of Chris Kirubi, his benefactor, one of Kenya’s wealthiest businessmen and a Kenyatta insider). 

Rather than fight right then, Mbuvi played realpolitik. He obliged to the demands of those arrayed against him, feigning a fragile bonhomie with Igathe throughout the campaign period. They would pull up for publicity photoshoots at Emmanuel Jambo’s artelier — Jambo is Kenyatta’s official photographer — in an attempt to sell their newfound comradeship. 

In their circus of campaign videos, Igathe was the tall caricature, Mbuvi the short one.

A video emerged of Igathe standing in a circle with a handful of middle-aged men.

With each of them wearing a matching Cheers Baba — a cynical alias given to sleeveless jackets worn by wannabes and midlife-crisis-approaching Nairobi males — an exuberant Igathe proposed a toast to his mates, most of whom were holding their black and yellow cans of Tusker, Kenya’s most popular beer. 

Igathe called it an Australian Toast, and it went something like this: “Here’s to you, here’s to me; the best of friends, we’ill always be; and if by chance, we disagree; well, fuck you! Here’s to you!” Generous, perhaps: the toast usually ends with, “Here’s to me!”

First victory, then control 

The unlikely combination worked. Mbuvi won with 871 974 votes — breaking his 2013 record for an individual politician not running for president. The bulk of those votes were from the Eastlands proletariat.

Igathe waltzed into City Hall, scolding workers when he encountered filth in the basement parking lot. City Hall’s Igathe-led corporate takeover was officially in high gear.

But Mbuvi was a step ahead. 

He packed City Hall with loyal roughnecks from Eastlands. Most didn’t necessarily have job descriptions beyond being his eyes and ears. They meant that Mbuvi became omnipresent. No single piece of paper moved without his authorisation. He then surrounded himself with a barrage of bodyguards, PAs and hangers-on from his matatu kingpin days.  

People started looking over their shoulders. Nairobi was now being governed by paranoia.  To enhance the chaos, Mbuvi maintained a handful of cellphones and only he knew which one was used for what purpose. 

He chose when to be accessible and when to go missing.

Afraid that an administrative maelstrom was looming, Igathe frantically attempted to unclog the City Hall bureaucracy. It was too late. Six months later, the man meant to keep Mbuvi in check and then replace him tweeted his resignation. 

Another challenger 

Mbuvi ought to have appointed a deputy. He didn’t. When the pressure to do so ratcheted up, he’d forward wildcard candidates to the county parliament for approval. They were automatically rejected. But each step bought time. 

He then ensured that every phone conversation was recorded; cruise missiles that he released online depending on the amount of damage he wished to cause to who, where and when. 

When Igathe resigned, Mbuvi leaked their conversations, painting Igathe in an unsavoury light. When he got into an altercation with the Nairobi women MP Esther Passaris, Mbuvi leaked screenshots of Passaris asking him to finance her campaigns.

The same Machiavellianism was practised in Mbuvi’s management of Nairobi. His cabinet walked on eggshells because he shuffled its membership every other week. In the same spirit of keeping everyone at City Hall on their toes, Mbuvi ensured the majority of senior officials served in acting capacity, so that their firing, transfers and demotions wouldn’t be complicated. 

It was governance by fear and blackmail on one hand; chaos and confusion on the other.

Everything seemed to be going his way. 

But the civil servants and businessmen had a new plan; a second apparatchik in Peter Kariuki, a lawyer and former civil society operative-turned-presidential adviser. After a five-year stint at the president’s office, Kariuki was considered both an asset and an arsenal in curtailing Mbuvi, and was seconded to City Hall as county secretary, the equivalent of a company secretary. Knowing Kariuki and his masters were up to no good, Mbuvi resisted the appointment. When he was forced to give way, Mbuvi employed the same antics he had used against Igathe to frustrate Kariuki. 

Knowing he was the last man standing in the fight to curtail Mbuvi, Kariuki brawled on until he couldn’t. 

Mbuvi seemed to have won again. 

Part IV: Infamy, they’ve all got it in for me

With control seemingly total, Mbuvi and his umatatu did whatever they wanted. 

On a Saturday morning in April 2018 they went too far. 

A gang of heavily built enforcers stormed into Hotel Boulevard in downtown Nairobi and violently disrupted a presser being addressed by the demure Timothy Muriuki, a former boss of the Nairobi Central Business District Association. Considered an inconsequential Mbuvi critic who needed to be taught a lesson, the men roughed up Muriuki as journalists scarpered.

Grabbing Muriuki by the waistline, one attacker in a grey hoodie attempted to throw the suited-up Muriuki into the hotel’s swimming pool. Desperately kicking and pushing, Muriuki eventually freed himself from the man’s grip as journalists begged the attackers to not drown him.

‘‘Please read my statement,’’ Muriuki pleaded. ‘‘I wasn’t attacking the governor.’’

Focused on the sole mission of gagging Muriuki and dispersing the press, the goons frogmarched Muriuki out of the compound. They shoved him into a puddle of mud and he fell. Muriuki managed to get back on his feet and attempt a sprint, only for the assaulters to snatch his blazer and resume their kicks and blows. 

Muriuki escaped when the journalists convinced guards at a nearby building to grant him refuge.

The Boulevard episode was one of the most embarrassing forms of public humiliation Kenyans had ever witnessed. And it was done in Mbuvi’s name. One of the attackers had invoked his name; more of them were subsequently seen in Mbuvi’s entourage.  

The establishment strikes back 

In that moment of shame, anger and hopelessness as they watched Muriuki’s assault live streamed on social media, many Nairobians would have agreed that electing Mbuvi with his umatatu was a blunder.

The civil servants and businessmen who had failed to dislodge him decided to try again.  

Their next attempt used Mbuvi’s paranoia. Fearing that City Hall was bugged, Mbuvi oscillated the running of Nairobi’s affairs between a nondescript pied-à-terre in the city’s Upper Hill area — which he converted into a personal office — and his gigantic hilltop Mua Hills mansion filled with in-your-face gold furnishings, located in the outskirts of Nairobi. 

Mbuvi summoned his cabinet for meetings in these private dwellings.

Using the press as pawns, Mbuvi’s detractors sponsored one unflattering headline after another, to a point at which Mbuvi declared he was a target of Kenya’s deep state domiciled at the office of the president, once again naming Permanent Secretary Karanja Kibicho as the puppet master. 

Before the ink could dry on these damaging stories — that he drank at work, ran City Hall like a mafia boss, never listened to his cabinet, and was going broke — the country’s anti-corruption agency struck.

Various transactions in Mbuvi’s bank accounts were flagged as suspicious, particularly in instances in which Mbuvi had previously received payments from companies that later on traded with City Hall. To curtail his operations, Mbuvi’s Upper Hill base was placed under investigation, on account that it had been acquired irregularly. 

Determined to fight back, in May 2019 a fired-up Mbuvi pulled up at a TV station carrying more than 1 000 title deeds and 150 logbooks, intent on proving he was already a wealthy man before going into politics. A teary-eyed Mbuvi attributed his troubles to the Kenyan aristocracy, which he said was displeased that a poor man’s son had risen to become Nairobi governor and was willing to share his meagre earnings with people of Eastlands. 

That being said, Mbuvi made it crystal clear that much as he came from poverty, he was no pauper. He gloated: ‘‘If I liquidate my title deeds, I am worth more than Nairobi’s annual budget.’’

Nairobi’s budget for the financial year 2019-2020 was $320-million.

The arrest

Playing to the gallery did little to divert the attention of the authorities. An arrest was planned at the end of 2019. Hearing that he would be facing charges ranging from money-laundering to corruption, Mbuvi went on the run, intent on laying low at one of his coastal hideaways. 

His convoy was intercepted at Voi, between Nairobi and Mombasa, and Mbuvi was bundled into a helicopter and flown back to the capital. 

The show of power made it clear to everyone that the former matatu king was up against Kenyatta himself.    

That escalation might have had something to do with Mbuvi committing the cardinal sin of forging an alliance with Ruto, who had since fallen out with Kenyatta. Like Mbuvi, Ruto fashioned himself like a Robin Hood of sorts, traversing the country dishing out millions of shillings as he preached the pro-poor gospel.

Calling himself a hustler, Ruto, who is campaigning to become president in 2022, peddled a catchy us-versus-them narrative through which he and others like Mbuvi presented themselves as case studies of the ashes-to-riches trajectory, while castigating Kenyatta and his allies for being the offspring and beneficiaries of dynasties. 

By becoming Ruto’s ally, Mbuvi chose to become Kenyatta’s foe.

On being arraigned in court after his Voi arrest, Mbuvi was slapped with a staggering $150 000 bail, and  barred by the court from accessing City Hall until the matter ran its full course. In that moment of Mbuvi’s weakness, Kenyatta decided to go for the jugular.

The fall 

On the night of 24 February 2020, Mbuvi received communication summoning him to State House, the president’s official residence. He arrived two hours late for their 6am meeting. Kenyatta had left. 

When Kenyatta returned that afternoon, the president instructed Mbuvi to surrender a number of Nairobi County functions to the national government, including but not limited to planning, health, transport, public works, ancillary services and revenue collection.

As consolation, Mbuvi would remain the governor, albeit a lameduck one.

At 4pm, a visibly subdued Mbuvi appeared at a press conference with the president, eating humble pie as he sheepishly signed away his electoral mandate. The aspirant had been put in his place by people used to wielding power on a national scale.   

In less than a month, Kenyatta created the opaque Nairobi Metropolitan Services, declared an extra-constitutional entity by the courts, which now effectively runs Nairobi. Sending a signal that he meant business, Kenyatta appointed Major General Mohamed Badi to lead the new entity. Tellingly, Peter Kariuki, the man who had been previously appointed to City Hall to reign in Mbuvi, was seconded to the entity.  

And, just like that, Kenya’s largest city and capital had lost its elected governor and was now being run by a tough talking military general.

Despite his earlier acquiescence, Mbuvi rebelled. As governor, Mbuvi was the official signatory for the Nairobi County bank accounts, so he refused to sign funds to the Nairobi Metropolitan Services. 

Kenyatta struck back, engineering Mbuvi’s impeachment by the Nairobi County parliament. Resorting to umatatu, Mbuvi airlifted a sizable group of members of the County Assembly to the coast, to make it impossible for the city’s legislature to obtain the requisite votes to impeach him. Videos surfaced of tens of assembly men and women showing off bundles of dollar notes as they frolicked with Mbuvi on one of his many beachfront properties.

The parliament, though, decided that because of Covid-19 protocols not all the assembly women and men could vote physically. So those at the coast could vote electronically. 

Mbuvi was impeached just before Christmas last year.   

Out of work and disgraced, a bitter and disbelieving Mbuvi went on the offensive. He leaked a phone recording in which the president’s younger sister, Christina Pratt, is alleged to be lobbying Mbuvi to appoint her friend as deputy governor. Mbuvi then joined Ruto on his rallies across the country, standing on podiums and attributing major corruption scandals to the president’s family.

The attack pushed Kenyatta and his mask slipped. 

At a meeting with leaders near Mount Kenya, he owned up to having orchestrated Mbuvi’s ouster. ‘‘I tried to help my friend the other day … he eventually declined my offer for assistance because he wanted to keep wearing goggles and boasting, and keep stealing … so I told him if that’s the case then goodbye. Nowadays he is busy insulting me. I have no problem with him, but I know Naiorbi is in better hands.’’

Agitated, Mbuvi countered the president’s remarks within an hour, disregarding the Kiswahili idiom usishandane na ndovu kunya, utapasuka msamba — a warning that you shouldn’t get into a shitting contest with an elephant because you’ll split your bowels. 

Mbuvi mistook Kenyatta for an equal.

Speaking at a roadside rally in Machakos in February, he played Kenyatta’s speech on loudspeaker, before calling the president a drunkard with whom he used to smoke marijuana.

‘‘I won’t mention his name because if I do he will either get me arrested or killed, that is his problem,’’ Mbuvi said, ‘‘but what my friend is not saying is that he is the one who introduced me to goggles back when we used to smoke marijuana together. He taught me to put on goggles to hide my bloodshot eyes after smoking … he taught me about goggles, drinking and marijuana.’’

Mbuvi’s umatatu had finally crossed the president’s red line.

Mbuvi was arrested 48 hours later and held in custody for over a month, charged with terrorism. The state alleges that Mbuvi runs a private militia that poses a threat to national security. 

Unatatu had worked for Mbuvi until it didn’t. And those that he sought to defeat — the businessmen and hereditary politicians — had outmanoeuvred him. 

The matatu king has fallen.