Insiders say it was a question of when, not if, Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko would release recorded conversations with the city’s Woman Representative Esther Passaris.
The sources, who spoke with the Saturday Nation in confidence, say Mr Sonko had been using the recording as a weapon to ensure Ms Passaris co-operates. And when they differed at a Madaraka Day event last Saturday, the recordings surfaced online a few hours after.
It was a manifestation of Mr Sonko’s well-known crude ways of dealing with fellow politicians or ordinary citizens in his complicated power-play matrix and business schemes.
Ms Passaris joined a list that includes Kiambu Governor Ferdinand Waititu, Polycarp Igathe, former County Executive Committee member Janet Muthoni-Ouko and businessmen Mike Maina, Patrick Nderitu and Praful Kumar who have been exposed after differing with the governor.
If it is not leaked conversations or images, it will be Mr Sonko revealing controversial details about his target as cameras roll, and insults are usually not far.
The leaked phone conversations hardly come from Mr Sonko’s official channels, but no one has ever denied being part of them.
Apparently, no one is safe — if what he told Radio Maisha in 2013 is anything to go by.
“I have modern equipment — though it is against the law — and I can see any SMS, any WhatsApp and to listen to any conversation of any person I am interested in. My gadgets are more sophisticated than those of al-Qaeda and NIS (Kenya’s spy agency),” the then Nairobi Senator said in a live radio interview.
It is no wonder that a joke has been circulating on social media circles, where Kenyans are being encouraged to only engage with Mr Sonko “face-to-face, preferably in an open field, and without his phone or recording devices”.
So, is Mr Sonko as nasty as he makes the public believe?
Former Nairobi County Education executive Janet Muthoni-Ouko is among the few people who have worked closely with Mr Sonko but later differed with him.
She told the Saturday Nation that blackmail is one of Mr Sonko’s favourite tools. She claimed that Mr Sonko gives people financial assistance but with strings attached.
“He will forever be telling you how you ‘ate’ from the deal and uses it against you later in case of a fall-out,” she said.
Ms Ouko said the only way to measure up to the City Hall boss is by ensuring that your engagements remain as professional as possible and resisting any attempts to act like him.
“Why do you think I had the courage to answer him back? If he had any scandal or deals we had done with him then why didn’t he bring it out?” she posed.
Another insider, who has worked at City Hall, said Mr Sonko governor capitalises on people’s needs sometimes to trap them.
“If you listen keenly to the conversation between him and Passaris, you can hear the way he is repeating a question that tells you he is recording and he wants you to come out clearly on the content,” said the insider who wanted to remain anonymous.
However, there are those who see nothing wrong in Mr Sonko’s actions.
An ally who spoke in confidence for fear of reprisals said Mr Sonko is misunderstood because he is easily irritated when things go contrary to his expectations.
The ally explained that Mr Sonko, by being a hands-on person, means he will wage fights along the way but when he is pressed against the wall, he overreacts.
“A while ago when we were not close, I thought that he used hand-outs to ensnare people. But that is not true. He means well with his dole-outs but he loses it when someone short-changes him or does what he did not expect. His being ruthless is because of the fights he has. But he is a very good person,” the confidante said.
As evidence of how some people dread Mr Sonko’s techniques, a nominee for the county Health minister position turned down Mr Sonko’s appointment earlier this year despite the lucrative perks that come with the position.
Dr Stella Bosire, who was nominated after Mr Sonko fired the former head of the county health docket, failed to submit her papers to the Nairobi County Assembly, saying she could serve the country in other areas.
Mr Sonko’s unorthodox methods of dealing with perceived enemies have drawn much attention to him and one would wonder if they can make him lose the favour of some sections of the electorate.
However, according to communication expert Hezron Mogambi, Mr Sonko is unlikely to suffer any serious blow.
“Voters, unfortunately, do not look at issues and integrity when it comes to electing leaders. So, sometimes it is about wave; sometimes it is about an individual. But it is mostly about perception,” said Prof Mogambi, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Nairobi.
“But increasingly, many people are getting tired and agitated with the antics; the insults, the show-offs. Such tricks are becoming tiresome and people are getting fed up,” he added.
One of the supporters who admitted getting fed up with Mr Sonko is Dandora resident John Macharia, who used to admire Mr Sonko during his days as Makadara MP. He even runs a Facebook platform named “Youth for Sonko Page”.
FIGHT FOR POOR
Mr Macharia admitted that his support of Mr Sonko has dropped but not because of the governor’s antics. “The controversy is not something new. Sonko is dramatic. He is good today, then few weeks later he is punching the gates and trying to sleep on the road,” said Mr Macharia.
His main concern is that Mr Sonko does not engage with locals as much as he did before becoming governor.
“When he was MP, he was close to the people. He was on the ground and trying to offer a helping hand; paying hospital bills and the like. Right now, we don’t see him a lot,” said Mr Macharia, formerly a resident of Makadara.
Like Mr Macharia, many supporters of Mr Sonko have reasons why they vouch for him.
As stated in a post on the Facebook page “Mike Sonko Supporters” on May 25, some say he has never lost an election, is fearless, hardworking and with a nationwide appeal.
The post is an embodiment of how some people perceive Mr Sonko, who brands himself as a fighter for the downtrodden.
For instance in a speech to Muslims at Nyayo Stadium on Tuesday, he directed his guns at investor Manu Chandaria over his alleged plans to evict residents of Mukuru kwa Njenga slums over a disputed parcel of land. “I don’t want anyone to beat you up because my mother came from a family like yours; a family of lowly-placed people,” he told the Mukuru residents.
Mr Sonko’s communications director Elkana Jacob claims Mr Sonko’s agenda, which has been to fight for the poor, is the reason why he is receiving so much flak.
“Tycoons are unhappy with his leadership,” he says. “Sonko has so many enemies because he has been sealing corruption loopholes like land matters. The other day he repossessed 200 plots that had been illegally allocated to tycoons because he fights for the poor. These tycoons might have friends in the media. And that is why you are seeing all this (noise) in the media.”
Mr Jacob insists the negative coverage Mr Sonko has been receiving lately is because these ‘rich enemies’ have been “blowing things out of context.”
He also claims no one is focusing on the positive things Mr Sonko has done for the county. “Most of his achievements in health, education, transport and sanitation can be seen but they are never reported. Instead we have negative issues being blown up.”
Even with the support from the low-income earners, one thing Mr Sonko is sure to lose is the trust of allies because of his recordings, as Prof Mogambi opined.
“The recordings have instilled fear,” he said. “That affects his privacy in the sense that people don’t feel safe with him. And that will affect his campaign as well, because he will not campaign with that confidence from people. Politicians will fear; his associates will fear.”
Human rights lawyer Harun Ndubi said it is completely illegal to snoop into people’s private conversations and, in particular, record individuals without their knowledge.
According to Mr Ndubi, it is even a bigger offence to post such audio or video recordings on social media.
And even if the recordings of private conversations are geared at gathering evidence against political foes and criminals, the lawyer dismisses the effort as one in futility “because evidence that is illegally obtained is not admissible in law” as stated in Article 50 of the Constitution.