Polycarp Igathe has resigned as Deputy Governor of Nairobi City County, claiming that he failed to win the trust of his boss, Governor Mike Sonko, as would be necessary for him to discharge the functions for which the two were elected on a joint Jubilee party ticket.
Before this shocking development, sections of the media had published rumours that, with support from people in high office, Igathe had already taken charge of the city, reducing Sonko to a mere figurehead.
According to the rumours, Igathe was carrying out a Jubilee-backed policy that would lead to a de facto stripping of functions from the Nairobi County government, so that these would be carried out by the national government, and specifically State House.
However, Igathe’s resignation does not seem consistent with the rumours that the media had published and leaves the impression that the problems at City Hall, and possibly also in Jubilee, are more complex.
Igathe came from the private sector and was viewed as complementing, or making up for, the perceived weaknesses of his boss, the governor.
A streetwise operative whose life before politics has remained the subject of some controversy, Sonko devoted his first term in elective office, first as MP for Makadara and later as Senator of Nairobi, courting public attention through charlatanry, with his so-called “Sonko Rescue Team”, staging public stunts that were held out as substitutes for deficiencies in the delivery of public services.
In preparation for last year’s elections, where Sonko was expected to run for governor, and in response to criticism that he lacked the depth to run a city, Sonko went into a process of making himself over, gradually shading his gaudy attire in exchange for designer suits, in a bid to shake off the image of a punk that had fastened around him.
Whatever their differences in private, Igathe remained reverent towards Sonko, even attracting some criticism while defending the governor’s ill-advised use of the Sonko Rescue Team in performing cleaning up services in the city. There was a torrent of disapproval of Igathe’s support for Sonko, based on an argument that Igathe and Sonko already had a public budget for the very services for which they were accepting private charity.
Sonko and Igathe came into office as contrasts. With little formal education before he went into public office, Sonko presents himself as an example of the political success of the underclass.
Sonko has brought into office a style that celebrates an underclass sub-culture which he supposedly represents, and his charitable stunts often target the poorest people in the city. On his part, Igathe has a corporatist image, and was presented as the person who would do the work as Sonko embarked on populism.
Within Jubilee, Sonko is viewed as aligned to Deputy President William Ruto, while Igathe is thought to have the confidence of President Uhuru Kenyatta. In the circumstances, it has been tempting to extrapolate the problems at City Hall as representing something larger within Jubilee, possibly involving the President and his Deputy.
Whether or not this is the case, the implications of Igathe’s resignation will not be confined to City Hall and will almost certainly touch on the core of the Jubilee power arrangements.
To begin with, as the capital city whose management signifies how the country is run, disagreements in Jubilee over the management of Nairobi could set the tone on how the whole country gets to view the government in the next five years. In their first term in office, Nairobi was under the control of the opposition, Cord, while Jubilee held the presidency. With Jubilee now in charge of both the presidency and the government of the city, responsibility at the two levels is aligned, making it difficult for Jubilee to pass the buck for failures.
It is not unlikely that President Kenyatta or his Deputy Ruto was aware of Igathe’s resignation before it happened and could have intervened suitably. The fact that this did not happen may signal an inability within Jubilee to mediate internal problems before these become crises for the country.
Secondly, by allowing a situation that led to Igathe’s resignation, Sonko has suffered a major blow that will significantly weaken his own authority, both within Jubilee and as governor of the city.
Although undoubtedly popular, Sonko’s capacity to lead has remained suspect. Having lost his deputy so early, Sonko will come under significant public scrutiny and may be forced to cede significant amounts of authority to Igathe’s successor, for fear that if the next deputy governor also resigns, public pressure may then force Sonko out as well.
Thirdly, while Igathe’s resignation may not be related to the alleged rivalries within Jubilee said to revolve around the Kenyatta succession, it could trigger those. To begin with, the fallout from Igathe’s resignation may have made Sonko a one-term governor, or may even trigger events that could force him out before his term is over.
In that case, the search for a Jubilee candidate for Nairobi governor in 2022 may have begun already and could cause major shifts in the governing party. Further, Sonko’s ambitions for higher office may have been checked irreversibly. Also, as a key county in Kenya, all the factions in Jubilee will want to have a say on how Nairobi is run, and would naturally want to influence the selection of Igathe’s successor.
Fourthly, Jubilee has previously sounded out a plan to abolish the county government of Nairobi, whose functions would be assimilated by the national government. A bill by then Muranga Senator Kembi Gitura was viewed as Jubilee’s hot air balloon on this plan.
It remains to be seen if this plan is still on, and unless more transparency is allowed into the Igathe affair, suspicion that this is a plan to wreck devolution in Nairobi will deepen.
The timing of the Igathe affair could have been better: President Kenyatta has to deal with a divided country, after another contentious General Election. A divided house in Jubilee does not represent the best beginning point for doing so.