The rise and fall of Mike Sonko

Mike Sonko

Former Nairobi governor Mike Sonko speaks on March 8, 2022 after the US issued a travel ban against him and his immediate family over graft allegations.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

Born Mbuvi Gideon Kioko on February 27, 1975 in Mombasa to the family of the late Mzee Gideon Kioko Kivanguli, Mike Sonko’s political rise from a jailbird to a governor was meteoric in every sense of the term.

The rise, akin to the life of the proverbial Simon Makonde, saw the 47-year-old transition from being a member of the National Assembly, to a senator and then a governor in seven short years.

But just as quick was the fall from grace to grass of the man who rose from a little-known businessman to a national figure in record time.

Within 10 years, Sonko had conquered the capital city, having won every enviable political seat that was on offer in rapid succession, before everything came tumbling in his third year at the helm of City Hall.

For this maverick, the phrase “friends for life” apparently makes no sense. At the height of his power, it was his way or the highway. This bred numerous controversies, drama and falling-out.

Sonko fashioned himself as a politician who never shied away from defying the powers-that-be in his quest for power. He also took on anyone who dared cross his path.

Philanthropy

The man gained the name Sonko from his philanthropic ways, though the source of his wealth remains the subject of speculative debate.

After relocating to Nairobi in 1994, he ventured into the matatu business, starting out with eight public service vehicles that plied the Kibera route, before the flourishing business expanded and he had more matatus plying the Umoja and Dandora routes within three years.

In 1998, he added minibuses to his fleet, which were christened ‘Ruffcuts’ and were soon very popular on the Buru Buru route.

While still running his matatu business, Sonko would also venture into the night-club business as well as cybercafés, salons and boutiques, as well as phone and accessories shops in Nairobi.

Tours and travel business

He next ventured into the tours and travel business and bought a double-decker bus to ferry tourists and two buses. His dominance in the matatu industry saw him elected chairperson of Eastlands Matatu Association.

This catapulted him to the limelight, as he was quite visible and vocal in his defence of the youths, who were back then subjected to police harassment and extortion. Sonko even helped put behind bars officers who were caught extorting bribes from motorists.

And in 2007, he won a court battle against a move to bar Eastlands matatus from accessing the city centre.

The father of three made his debut in politics in 2010, when he won the Makadara parliamentary seat through a by-election.

He went to Parliament on a Narc-Kenya ticket after being denied a slot in ODM party, trouncing city political godfathers Reuben Ndolo and the late Dick Wathika.

Near fanatical following

Thanks to his near fanatical following in the city, he repeated a similar feat in 2013 against renowned televangelist and Starehe MP Margaret Wanjiru for Nairobi’s senatorial seat.

He owed much of his reputation to splashing cash on the poor. He sponsored needy children, youth and women and always rushed to help Kenyans in distress. His Sonko Rescue Team was formed after he became a senator.

In 2017, he walloped Dr Evans Kidero to become Nairobi’s second governor, garnering more votes than presidential candidates Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga in the capital.

The ex-governor’s public image of a combative loose cannon belies his abilities as a shrewd political schemer.

Unorthodox leadership style

His unorthodox leadership style rubbed many people the wrong way. From punching walls to putting the President Kenyatta on loudspeaker, his was a populist one-man show that exerted unparalleled control on both the executive and the assembly at City Hall. This totalitarian streak ended up becoming his Achilles heel.

Two years after assuming office, Sonko fell out with his deputy, Mr Polycarp Igathe.

Mr Igathe resigned in a huff in January 2018 after failing to earn his “boss’s trust”.

Sacking and suspending county staff at will, recording people and falling out with other leaders became the order of the day for the Sonko reign at City Hall.

Mr Sonko soon started pointing accusing fingers at “people close to the seat of power”, whom he said were keen to control operations at City Hall.

Investigative agencies soon tightened the noose on him over a multimillion-shilling corruption scandal at City Hall.

He would in late 2019 be barred from office by a court over graft charges and with impeachment hanging over his head and the county government in disarray.

Impeachment motion

In February 2020, he was almost kicked out of office but a court stopped debate on a motion in the city assembly pushing for his impeachment.

President Kenyatta thereafter convened a meeting of all Nairobi MCAs at State House to whip them into abandoning any bid to remove the governor from office.

Close shaves and narrow escapes seem to have been the lot of his life.

On the night of April 16, 1998, Mr Sonko reportedly escaped from Shimo la Tewa Prison dressed as a woman to pay his last respects to his late mother, Saumu Mukami, who passed on in 1997.

He had been jailed for six months for jumping bail in a case where he was accused of forging documents with the intention of selling a beach plot belonging to a former police commissioner.

That, however, that was not his first brush with the law. He had been arrested and charged with assault in 1995 before being released on bond.

The bond was revoked in 1997 and Mr Sonko was incarcerated at Shimo la Tewa Prison for failing to appear in Mombasa courts over three cases.

Jailed

In February 2000, a magistrate’s court in Mombasa jailed him for 12 months for obtaining money under false pretences.

Feigning illness and armed with Sh1.9 million in a briefcase, court papers said, Sonko was admitted to the Coast General Hospital, from where he escaped to Tanzania after bribing prison officers.

After serving nine months, he moved to the High Court seeking a revision of the sentence, pleading that he was sick. Sonko would be released by the late Justice Samuel Oguk before completing his sentence.

City Hall fights

Flash forward to his last days at City Hall. With the county government running almost on autopilot, the flamboyant governor would sign a Deed of Transfer that saw four functions taken over by the national government.

Nonetheless, the fights at City Hall continue. Not even President Kenyatta and Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) boss, Lieutenant-General Mohamed Badi, would be spared Sonko’s barbs.

He soon started facing isolation. He was conspicuously missing from the main dais in the 2020 Jamhuri Day celebrations. His hitherto unusually elaborate entourage was greatly whittled down.

With no more straws to clutch on, Nairobi assembly members would in December 2020 impeach the self-declared El Matador of City Hall, with the Senate confirming the resolution of the city assembly, thus bringing to an end Sonko’s three-year stint at the helm of City Hall.

The man now leads a quiet life away from his old stomping ground.

“I have been busy fighting for my impeachment appeals and I also have a future because I have a family. I am taking care of so many orphans and many people are depending on me. I have been busy looking after my businesses in Mombasa and Nairobi,” he told the Nation.

School

Mr Sonko attended Kikowani Primary School in Mombasa before proceeding to Kwale High School. He passed up a chance to join college in order to venture into business, following in the footsteps of his father, who as an astute businessman with interests in real estate.

Besides property development, his father also sold beach plots to mainly European investors through Pelly Properties, an agency of which he was a co-owner.

Sonko also served as marketing manager of Gidson Properties, a company his father incorporated after the dissolution of Pelly Properties.

Sonko also reportedly studied business administration at Pwani Business College and Excel International School in Mwanza. He also reportedly enrolled for a bachelor's degree in Business Administration at the Kenya Methodist University (KEMU) after 2010.

Sonko is married to Primrose Mbuvi and his children are Saumu Mbuvi, Sandra and Salma, all born of different women.


****

Timelines

1995: Arrested and charged with assault before being released on bond.

1997: Incarcerated at Shimo la Tewa Prison for failing to appear in court over three cases in Mombasa.

1998: Escapes from Shimo la Tewa Prison dressed as a woman to pay his last respects to his late mother, Saumu Mukami, who passed on in 1997.

2010: Becomes an MP after winning Makadara parliamentary seat on a Narc Kenya ticket during a by-election.

2013: Becomes Nairobi County’s first senator.

2017: Succeeds Dr Evans Kidero as the second governor of Nairobi.

December 2017: Falls out with his deputy Polycarp Igathe who tenders his resignation letter in January 2018.

December 2019: Barred from accessing his City Hall office over Sh357 million graft case.

February 25, 2020: Signs the Deed of Transfer giving away four key county functions to the national government.

December 3, 2020: Impeached as Nairobi governor by city assembly members.

December 17, 2020: Senate upholds his impeachment, officially seeing him lose the governor’s seat.

Welcome!

You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.