Battle for Nairobi: How the capital city has always made the wrong choices

Gwladys Lady Delamere, the Mayor of Nairobi in 1935.

What you need to know:

  • Gwladys Lady Delamere, the first woman mayor, who was so scandalous that nobody knew how she got elected as mayor.
  • The history of the City of Nairobi is a history of bad leadership and wrong choices.

Once upon a time, when Edward Northey was picked as the next governor of Kenya, a meeting was organised in Nairobi to welcome him – and listen to his vision. One man, though a maverick, stood up and spoke his mind: “Before we sit down to business with you, Sir,” he said, “before we tabulate to you all our innumerable woes of the last 14 years, we are entitled to know whether you have been sent here as another telephone exchange girl … This country is not willing to be governed by secretariat officers, men of little more brains than the creatures that crawl around at the bottom of the sea … we want people with vision that extends beyond the end of the noses  …”

As Colonel Ewart Grogan sat down, perhaps, amidst thunderous applause, the audience at the Cameo Cinema Hall – and Edward Northey – had got the gist.

Charles Rubia

Former Nairobi Mayor  Charles Rubia. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

This story is important because in a few days’ time, Nairobi will pick candidates to vie for the position of governor after our fiasco with Mike Sonko – who perhaps represents more than what Grogan had in mind. Have we learnt our lesson or will we end up with another bad deal?

How we ended up with Sonko-types, as candidates, is the ugly story of, not only the Jubilee administration, but of all the political parties that line-up ne’er-do-well candidates — “men of little more brains than the creatures that crawl around at the bottom of the sea.”

First woman mayor

Nairobi has had leadership problems – and that is an understatement. There was once a socialite colonial mayor, Gwladys Lady Delamere, the first woman mayor, who was so scandalous that nobody knew how she got elected as mayor. Her only claim to fame, besides being the cheating wife of Lord Delamere, was joining an entourage of Edward, Prince of Wales, on his first safari to Kenya and “behaving scandalously at supper” according to James Fox in the book White Mischief. She had married an old man, and due to her unhappiness in love, she became “exhibitionistic, touchy and unpredictable” and “at her birthday party at Muthaiga Club, she threw a plate of bacon and eggs at another woman (since) she found it difficult to tolerate younger and prettier women.”

This mayor was one of the star witnesses in court after the murder of Lord Erroll, the city Casanova and former Kiambu legislator, and in which Sir Delves Broughton had been charged with a murder that has always intrigued the aristocrats. The short of the story is that she lied to the court and she had always wanted to date Lord Erroll – whose speciality was other people’s wives. In Julian Barnes book, The Ghosts of Happy Valley: Searching for the Lost World of Africa’s Infamous Aristocrats Lady Delamere is aptly portrayed as "a bossy, bitchy and emotionally unbalanced woman,” who was “ endlessly carousing at Muthaiga Club with Happy Valleyites."

What am I saying? That Nairobi leadership was once given to a Happy Valley socialite – and that socialites should not be anywhere near political leadership, and that leads me to my other observation.

Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko before Senate in Nairobi in December 2020 during the hearing of his impeachment motion.

Then Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko when he appeared before the Senate in Nairobi in December 2020 during the hearing of his impeachment motion.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

The current battle for Nairobi appears to have attracted some interesting candidates: Bishop Margaret Wanjiru, Richard Ngatia, Johnson Sakaja, Agnes Kagure, Timothy Wanyonyi , Wachira Njuguna, Anne Kananu, and there could be many others from the political party mills which sell nomination certificates to the highest bidder. While each of these has their own positives, weaknesses, deceiving looks, vices, tails, and tales, they are what we have on the table – at the moment. As a result, Nairobi will have a mix of professionals, brokers, tenderpreneurs, and land sharks eyeing nomination for the top seat.

“Power is dangerous. It corrupts the best and attracts the worst,” remarked Ragnar Lothbrok, the legendary Viking warrior.

The history of the City of Nairobi is a history of bad leadership and wrong choices. The city has been so unlucky that even the best ends up in the murky world of sleaze and hubris. Again, not every city administrator will be like Charles Uddal who is considered in history as the father of Nairobi because he had a vision – or John Ainsworth who started from scratch by lining up streets.

Uddal, the father of Rotary clubs in Kenya, having become the first president of Rotary Club of Nairobi, was an engineer. He had arrived in Nairobi in 1908 to take up a job with Nairobi Electric Power Company and saw a huge potential. He looked at the growing township and knew that it would grow into a city and it required much more than the electricity they were producing. He then started scouting for waterfalls for power generation and in later years, the sites he identified were developed by East Africa Power and Lighting — which out grew his Nairobi Power.

And thus, by the time he was becoming mayor of Nairobi in 1924, and even with its racialised system, he wanted to make the city “the most beautiful and the healthiest in Africa” devoid of slums and with a “scheme of proper housing and sanitation.” This is the man who gave Nairobi its initial street lighting and was elected mayor a record four times.


In between, we had scandals, corruption and the first major corruption scandal was in the 1950s during the building of the Ofafa estates in Nairobi. A commission of inquiry was formed – which shows that corruption in City Hall dates to colonial times.

Fastforward to 1962, and we have Charles Rubia, who became the first African mayor at a time when people had a lot of hope in a new nation. Kenyans of the 1960s still recall the saga surrounding the purchase of a Rolls-Royce for the mayor worth £10,850 — and that is how we ended up with the old black Vanden Plas Princess limousine usually used as a symbol of status by Nairobi governors even with its scandalous past.

Evans Kidero

Former Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

That Rolls-Royce, a symbol of opulence, would anger so many taxpayers since at that time the City Council had a debt of Sh161 million.

 “As a taxpayer of this country, I am thoroughly fed up and disgusted. With this money you can feed 50 people for 32 years. You can send six students to Oxford or Cambridge for three years…,” said Ronald Ngala when he raised the matter in Parliament. “What will the overseas investor who lends us money say when he sees all this stupidity?”

After President Jomo Kenyatta issued a decree banning the importation of the car, Rubia turned his wrath on the media, accusing journalists of being “irresponsible” — perhaps for unearthing the scandal — and claimed that “all this noise about the car has been generated from outside Kenya.” But Rubia was not the king of Wabenzi culture. It was Jomo himself who had a fleet that included a white Lincoln Continental, a fleet of Mercedes Benz and two Rolls Royce.

Margaret Wambui Kenyatta

Former Nairobi Mayor Margaret Wambui Kenyatta. 

Photo credit: Pool

The other story is that Rubia was not in good books with Gema cartels that wanted to run City Hall. He soon left the seat and decided to become a member of Parliament for Starehe. Nairobians did not look at his City Hall record.

But Rubia was not the worst of all. How cartels run City Hall is the story of Mayor Margaret Wambui Kenyatta and her deputy, Andrew Kimani Ngumba.

To understand the politics, Ngumba had allied himself with Rubia to take on Wambui Kenyatta — who was being supported by the Gema group, which had previously engineered the removal of Isaac Lugonzo as Rubia’s successor and put in place one of their own. By the time of the 1976 election, and with Nairobi water system decaying and non-collection of revenue, Margaret had become unpopular. On the eve of the 1976 election, all Ngumba supported retreated to an unknown hideout to plot Margaret’s removal. When the minister for Local Government, Robert Matano, realised that Margaret, President Kenyatta’s daughter, was to face defeat, he called off the elections — and to save his daughter humiliation, President Kenyatta appointed her an ambassador. There was an attempt by Matano to investigate City Hall, but when it was realised that it would soil everybody’s name, the investigation was called off.

And that is how Ngumba, who would survive City Hall since the scandals he engineered touched the big fish, became mayor. He later set up a bank, Rural Urban Credit, which was as scandalous as they come. But as usual, he ended up as an MP for Mathare. Why? Again, Nairobi hardly looks at people’s history.

Then we had Nathan Kahara – the man who currently runs a brief-case outfit that dishes out doctorate degrees in Nairobi. His outfit, is accredited neither in Kenya, nor in any country. The less said about 'Prof' Nathan Kahara, the better.

Moi dissolved City Hall

When Moi dissolved City Hall, under Kahara, and appointed a commission, an era of sleaze and land grabbing started and we had commissioners such as Fred Gumo running the city like their own. The City Commission, and officers such as Kuria wa Gathoni and the likes of Zipporah Wandera allowed the politicos to destroy the fabric of the city.

But even with the return of multi-party democracy, our choice of mayor was still wanting. Remember Steve “Magic” Mwangi, the well-known gunrunner and shady tenderpreneur, whom we allowed into City Hall? Flamboyant and a smooth talker, he only left City Hall after the Ford-Asili councillors, led by John King’ori decided to form Club 41 to remove him.

To his credit, he organised the 'Nairobi we Want' meeting but his attempts to implement the document was sabotaged by William ole Ntimama and some councillors. He had reportedly called the councillors “illiterates” since Kenneth Matiba’s Ford-Asili was then full of many councillors with little formal education. And that is how we ended up with King’ori as mayor, and a succession of dubious leaders that included Mayor John Ndirangu in whose tenure the mayoral gold chain was sold – or got lost.

In all, we have had colourless characters, and scandalous men and women with little vision for Nairobi.

And with enough hindsight, we elected Evans Kidero . And then Mike Sonko.

And now we have a galaxy of candidates who want to lead Nairobi. Some of them, it is said, have fake academic papers. Others have been involved in shady deals. It is as if Nairobi is caught up between the devil and the deep blue sea. Can’t somebody save Nairobi for once?

Finally, I go back to the words of Ewart Grogan: “This country (read county) is not willing to be governed by secretariat officers, men of little more brains than the creatures that crawl around at the bottom of the sea  … we want people with vision that extends beyond the end of the noses  …”

Don’t say you never heard it.


Next Sunday, we continue with the last instalment of the Mt Kenya Safari Club story. Thank you, dear readers, for demanding more of that piece.

[email protected] @Johnkamau1


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