Launched in January 2015 as part of the fulfilment of campaign promises made to the residents of Nairobi County during the run-up to the 2013 General Election, the Sonko Rescue Team has attracted a lot of controversy.
According to the team’s website, the initiative, financed by Governor Mike Sonko, was started in a bid to provide emergency services to the residents of Nairobi County free of charge, besides empowering thousands of unemployed youth in the capital.
Despite its noble mission and acceptance by the majority of youth and residents who continue to benefit from its services, the team has had to weather a litany of accusations, disapprovals and opposition from some politicians and a section of people who live in Nairobi.
Such individuals saw the unit as the former senator’s political vehicle disguised as a charitable organisation.
Among those opposed to the team was former Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero, who argued that its operations undermined his administration.
He called for its disbandment, arguing that it operated illegally as it had not conformed to the laws of the county.
At one time he alleged that “the city was being run by drug barons masquerading as empathetic service providers”.
At the same time, a section of residents criticised the project, saying it was a publicity stunt aimed at raising Mr Sonko’s profile ahead of his battle to be the next governor of Nairobi.
In 2015, former Nairobi County Environment executive Evans Ondieki said the team comprised unqualified members lacking in basic rescue requirements, adding that its work was a “PR gimmick”.
“Rescue operations are very technical. You need people with medical backgrounds, who can attend to patients. It’s not enough to just wear uniform and say you have a rescue team,” Mr Ondieki said at the time.
“When you have a rescue team, you must give us (the county government) inventory of the team’s units,” he added.
The controversy, instead of cooling down, has intensified in recent months with Mr Sonko’s governorship victory and assumption of office at City Hall.
Debate is still raging about the outfit — with numerous questions over its role vis-avis that of county workers, its financier and conflict of interest, considering that it is under the auspices of the governor — yet to be fully addressed.
County staff and contracted private companies disapproved the operations of the outfit, raising concern that it clashed with their roles.
The two groups feared that the slow but determined absorption of SRT into City Hall was aimed at usurping some of the functions the workers performed in the past.
They were also worried as contracts were now being given to the outfit. A case in point was a deal on helping in garbage collection in the city.
SRT manager Joab Ogolla, however, defended the outfit against the barrage of criticism.
He said the team was only there to complement various City Hall operations and should not be seen as a threat to the job security of county workers and the contractors.
The Kenya County Government Workers Union (KCGWU) has at one time endorsed the Sonko Rescue Team, commending it for its efforts.
KCGWU chairman Boniface Waweru said the team was only helping in service delivery, allaying fears of duplication of roles meant to be handled by the over 13,000 county government workers or even render some of them jobless.
“The rescue team is helping in duties county workers are supposed to carry out. They include collection of garbage, clearance of drainage, provision of water and response to disasters. We are more than happy to work with the team,” said Mr Waweru.
Mr Sonko has been on record defending the outfit. In an interview with a local daily in 2015, he said he was not running a parallel county government.
On the source of finance for SRT, Governor Sonko said the team gets money from his seven buses, which he said generate about Sh7 million annually, which was enough to sustain the project.
“Before I became a politician, I was a transporter. I have now donated all my seven buses to the Sonko Rescue Team. Proceeds from my double-decker bus are also channelled to this project,” he said at the time.
In June, Mr Sonko denied claims by Nairobi Woman Rep Esther Passaris that the organisation was being funded by the government, saying the team was being assisted by donors, who had been impressed by the work it has done.
“We have donors from France, Spain, Germany and Belgium who are willing to help us,” he said in the interview with a local daily.
Attempts by Nation to get comment from acting county secretary Leboo ole Morintat and county Environment Executive Emmah Muthoni on the engagement of the group by the county and its involvement in garbage collection proved futile as calls went unanswered.
But on Thursday, Ms Muthoni said the county had adopted an open-door policy in the awarding of contracts.