Joker in the pack: Inside Wajackoyah's village 'State House'

Inside Wajackoyah's village 'State House'

The road leading to Prof George Wajackoyah’s rural home in Indangalasia village of Matungu is dusty in the dry season and a muddy, slippery mess when it rains.

For decades it has ferried the agricultural produce of the peasant farmers to the market centres of Mumias. In recent days, however, this country road that cuts through subsistence farmland, crosses rivers and runs towards the Siaya-Kakamega border carries the dreams and aspirations of a village thrust into the limelight by the derring-do of its son.

Neglected by successive administrations since independence, there are plans to tarmac it and open the countryside between Mumias township and the Kisumu-Busia road.

For now, however, it remains a punishing, all-weather path leading to the home of a man whose bluster and swagger have caught the imagination of the nation.

Roots Party Presidential candidate George Wajackoyah

Roots Party Presidential candidate George Wajackoyah address the media. 

Photo credit: Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

Prof Wajackoyah’s rural home has been stirred by his race. On the day we visited, an army of casual labourers was busy putting up his new, modest house.

While in Nairobi the presidential candidate is referred to as ‘The Fifth’, here in Indangalasia, where his father is buried in a grave dotted with flowers and tiny solar lights that glow in the night, Prof Wajackoyah is referred to simply as ‘Rais’.

Two metal gates

To the men and women who watched him grow, and who now follow his exploits on small transistor radio sets every day, their son is not an aspiring president; he is President.

To get to the homestead, one has to go through two metal gates, set about 10 or 15 metres apart. A chain-link fence surrounds the small compound dominated in the middle by the unoccupied house of the professor’s departed father. His brother, Charles Luchiri, tells us that their father died before he could occupy the house, and so today the structure stands as a monument of a dream that could have been, a plan that dissolved into nothingness as quickly as it sprang from the bowels of this fertile Mulembe land.

Every morning two Administration Police sentries are sent here from Matungu to guard Wajackoyah’s homestead, and every evening they are replaced by two others. It’s a tradition established for all presidential candidates, who are also assigned bodyguards until after the General Election.

Their presence in the homestead, and indeed in the village, has bolstered the celebratory air around the Wajackoyah candidacy. Rarely is uniformed police presence felt here, unless on crime beats, and the spectacle of armed police officers guarding this neighbourhood day and night somehow communicates, even in its uniformed muteness, the significance—some would say solemnity—of the moment.

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“Please introduce yourself,” one of the sentries asks. There are four of us visitors, namely Justus Wanga, the Kisumu Regional Editor for Nation Media Group, Shaban Makokha, NMG’s Mumias correspondent, Agabus Odanga, a civil and structural engineer who has been giving us the anthropological and cultural histories of the region, and myself.

“What brings you here?” the police officer continues. We inform her that we’re tracing the roots of Prof Wajackoyah and would like to be allowed to tour his homestead and interview those who are close to him.

In a way, the fact that we’re visiting his home in his absence feels odd. Unconventional, even. But Prof Wajackoyah is now a public figure whose little privacies, in their truest and simplest forms, are no longer sequestered.

Colourful beginnings

And so, with the gentle nod of the police officer, who jots the details and purpose of the visit in a small book, we’re ushered into the home, and into a world that, we hope, will shed light into the colourful beginnings of the man who wants to be Kenya’s fifth president.

The small but neat compound is a beehive of activity as construction workers move, push, plaster, measure, remove, nail and generally cause the usual cacophony of a construction site.

Prof Wajackoyah’s new home is tucked at the farthest corner of the compound, its door facing the gate. Two small windows frame the iron door in the middle of the front-most wall what will become his living room.

A chimney, still under construction, rises from the floor through the brown corrugated iron roof into the blue skies. Luchiri tells us that his brother started building here recently, and that he usually spends more time in Kisumu when he travels upcountry.

Fees for the needy

Outside the house, framed by the construction chaos in the compound, Luchiri explains to us what his brother’s race means to him, the larger family, and the neighbourhood.

“We believe he will get all the votes in all the polling stations here,” he says. “He’s very popular in the neighbourhood because he’s helping the village grow by paying school fees for the needy and even [helps] build houses for the destitute.”

George Wajackoyah

Roots Party presidential candidate Prof George Wajackoyah speaks during the launch of his party's manifesto at the KICC in Nairobi on June 30, 2022.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

A lot has changed here since Wajackoyah announced his candidature, he adds.

We’re just a few kilometres from the border of Kakamega and Siaya, and here ODM leader Raila Odinga has traditionally been the preferred candidate. The region voted overwhelmingly for him in the last two general elections, but now, Luchiri says, this hamlet is warming up to the Wajackoyah ideology. He’s their son, one of them, and they’ll stand with him.

“While another Luhya, Musalia Mudavadi, has vied for the presidency before, he comes from Vihiga,” Luchiri notes. “This is the first time in the history of the country that we have a presidential candidate in Kakamega County. He had a rough childhood and his story inspires us all to dream on.”  But Mr Luchiri is wrong since Mr Cyrus Jirongo, who also hails from Kakamega, vied for the top seat in 2017.

Prof Wajackoyah is a contradiction in terms. Well educated (various reports have indicated that he has 16 academic degrees, including a PhD from Walden University in the US), well-travelled and well spoken, he does not at first come across as an eccentric, but he has fashioned his campaign around bhang, hemp, snakes and other oddballs that many have started to question his motivations.

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Previous photos of him show a trim middle-aged man who loved his suits and neatly shaved greying beard. Now when he appears on TV or hits the campaign trail,  he dons rugged jeans, t-shirts, unbuttoned shirts and a durag that cuts the racketeer image.

On an NTV set in Nairobi this week, he cut the image of a popstar who has suddenly grown impatient. He refused to answer questions about his ideologies and castigated the journalists for not doing proper research before calling him for the interview.

A few minutes into the interview, the atmosphere degenerated into a near-confrontation and the interviewer abruptly ended the show.

Prof Wajackoyah then climbed down the set and was ushered into the elevators at Nation Centre that sent him down into the dissonant bedlam of Kimathi Street, and away to the bosoms of a city that is yet to wrap its collective head around his militancy and non-conformist postures.

There are still many unknowns about him. For instance, he has largely kept his family out of the campaign limelight and has only referred to them in passing during media interviews. He’s married to an American, with whom they have three children. The wife lives in the US while his grown up children live in the United Kingdom.

George Wajackoyah

Roots party presidential candidate George Wajackoyah joins his fans in dancing to reggae music at KICC during the launch of his manifesto on June 30, 2022.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

His education has also been the subject of much interest since he joined the race. Some sources have claimed that he is the most learned of those in the race, with about 16 academic degrees.

The Nation couldn’t independently verify this claim although it confirmed that his professorship is from an accredited online university in the US.

Prof Wajackoyah holds law degrees from the universities of Wolverhampton, London and Warwick, all in the UK, and from the University of Baltimore in the US. He also holds an Advanced Diploma in French from the University of Burundi.

Fled the country

The other unknown is the circumstances under which he fled the country to start a new life abroad. He has said in various forums that he was a spy in the Moi government who fled persecution after he unearthed damaging details about the assassination of Robert Ouko, the Moi-era Cabinet minister who was found dead at the foot of Got Alila [Dholuo for Alila Hill] near Muhoroni, in 1990.

Prof Wajackoyah has, however, never divulged those “damaging” details, and therefore the true details from that very important chapter of his life remain scanty.

Also unclear is his exact docket in the Kenya Police Service’s Special Branch, where he spent almost 10 years after attaining A-level qualifications at St Peter’s Mumias High School in 1980.

Information about his postings in the dreaded spy service in the Moi era is also scanty. The agency was linked to the running of torture chambers in Nyati House in the city, and is believed to have been behind a series of assassinations of dissidents.

However, it’s Prof Wajackoyah’s bhang crusade that has caught the attention of admirers and critics alike. His manifesto promises to legalise marijuana farming for medicinal purposes, which, he says, would fetch Kenya Sh9.2 trillion a year. Proceeds from the enterprise, he claims, can clear Kenya’s debt and afford each citizen Sh200,000 in annual dividends.

“Western countries have legalised bhang; why shouldn’t we?” he poses. “If we grew bhang in Nyeri alone, Kenya would have 10 per cent International Monetary Fund cash reserves. In short, we would never have to borrow a single coin in future.”

There is little in terms of economic arguments to back his claims, but in a country where few put politicians’ pledges under scrutiny, his claims are exciting a section of the public, which is now assimilating the man and his ideologies and philosophies into its variations of popular culture. T-shirts, for instance, now proclaim ‘Wajackoyah The Fifth’ or ‘Tingiza Mti’, the campaign slogan that has also been turned into memes and TikTok videos.

Religious leaders have hit out at the government for allowing Prof Wajakoyah “to openly promote evil and immoral vices” in his campaigns, saying, such “reckless” public pronouncements are likely to destroy Kenya’s moral fabric. Among them is Bishop Munge of the Jesus Winner Ministry Church, who lamented on July 4, 2022 that “some leaders are openly supporting some things that are clearly anti-God” by “encouraging the cultivation, consumption and trafficking of drugs”.

No political pedigree

“They are even advocating for homosexuality and prostitution,” the cleric said. “In the very unlikely event that such leaders ascend to power, that would be the end of God-fearing Kenya as we know it.”

But how did this man, who has no political pedigree, and who is running on what is perhaps the most controversial platform in Kenya’s history, bluff and bluster his way into the Kenyan psyche? Is the acceptance of his controversial candidature an indication of the coming of age of Kenya’s democracy, or the biggest evidence yet of the decay of the country’s social and governance ethic?

In the absence of robust voter education since the Jubilee administration took power in 2017, can one argue that Prof Wajackoyah is pushing the levers of governance and social acceptance and appealing to a section of a populist electorate that has been captured by those who give them an alternative gospel and keep them entertained?

‘Hopeless jokers’

Writing about the subject, Mr Macharia Gaitho, a celebrated Daily Nation columnist, argues that “every election brings us a great deal of amusement in the antics of hopeless jokers with bizarre campaign platforms”, and that even though most of them cannot be assured of even the votes of their own families, “the comic relief is a welcome distraction from the nonsense that spews forth from the ‘serious’ candidates”.

There, however, are many examples of ‘serious’ candidates who were felled by the comics. Mike Kioko Mbuvi Sonko, the gaudy politician who rose from the trenches of the chaotic matatu culture in Nairobi to become governor of the city, comes to mind. Hounded out of office in 2020 on accusations of misuse of public funds and mismanagement of the city, Mr Sonko has since moved his political base to Mombasa, where his populist antics—sponsoring funerals, paying school fees for the needy, and, recently, paying the medical bills of boxing legend Conjestina Achieng—have earned his praise and gained him a following.

Around the world, many examples abound of this political phenomenon, including the election as president of Madagascar of the colourful Andry Rajoelina, the former disc jockey who became the youngest ever African president when he assumed power in 2009 at the age of 34.

Further afield, the success of the populist 5-Star Movement, which emerged as Italy’s largest single party in 2018 indicated a radical shift in the minds of the electorate. And in the US in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s use of the word “deplorables” to describe “half” of Donald Trump’s supporters is said to have cost her more votes than Russian fake news, and eventually cost her the election.

In Latin America there was Venezuela’s President Chávez, in Spain the Podemos party still ruffles feathers and shakes the status quo, and in Greece the label has also been applied to Syriza.

Political and governance experts point to societal changes like multiculturalism and globalism as behind the rise of populist parties in the world, and Dr Benjamin Moffitt, an Australian professor of politics, writes in The Global Rise of Populism that other traits associated with the typical populist leader include “bad manners”, or behaving in a way that’s not typical of politicians, “perpetuating a state of crisis” and always seeming to be on the offensive. In many instances, just as in Prof Wajackoyah’s rule book, populist content is made of negatives such anti-politics, anti-intellectualism, or anti-elite.

But, pointing at the disaffection of the youth, who are quickly warming up to Wajackoyah, Mr Gaitho notes: “Wajackoyah is running on an outrageous platform that would ordinarily be laughed out of town, but there is no doubt that he has captured the imagination of angry, disaffected youth in both urban and rural Kenya, cutting across all the regular ethnic, regional and party lines. It’s not that he has any chance of causing an upset but, in a race that is still neck-and-neck, a third-place finish with just about five per cent of the vote might be enough to ‘steal’ a first round victory from either of the two front-runners.”

In Matungu, he has not only captured the imagination of his restive village, but also planted a seed that could transform the lives of not just his immediate family members, but also the community around him. Here, whether or not he wins, he is ‘Rais’, the one who dared to dream, and the one who pushed the levers of democracy in ways never seen or heard of before.

[email protected], @BernardMwinzi