How we ended up with a broken Nairobi city

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The old black Vanden Plas Princess limousine that is now owned by the Nairobi City County is still the signature of wastage and bad manners that the city fathers acquired from 1963 when it got its first mayor, Charles Rubia. It should be preserved as such – and for posterity.

Actually, and Nairobi residents know this, Mike Mbuvi Sonko, the modern-day gadfly governor of the city, continues a tradition and impunity that was perfected in yesteryears. Unlike other cities in Africa, Nairobi has been an unlucky citadel of inept leadership. There have been attempts to right the wrongs, the flips and flops but at worst, and like in a quagmire, the more we struggle the more we sink. The electorate has not helped either.

At independence, Nairobi was, by then, one of the cleanest cities  in Africa. The entire system was choreographed:  buses arrived on time, garbage was collected at night, and there was even, at the basic level, the office of the mosquito superintendent – to make sure that all stagnant water was sprayed.

There were parks, gardens, manicured flower-beds, and picnic sites and by then the Nairobi dam (now extinct) was the place where mothers could take their children to play, bathe in the dam, play cricket, and basketball. There was even the Nairobi Sailing Club and the middle-class would while away their weekend there with their boats.


After independence, City Hall decided that the new mayor did not deserve to ride in the new Humber Super Snipe, which was marketed as the luxury car for the upper-middle-class managers, government honchos and senior executives. In the adverts, marketers would describe it as “Luxury with a capital H” or as “luxury on the move. Elegant but not flamboyant. And beautifully fitted inside, with the luxury of polished woodwork and deeply cushioned leather seats.”

But that is not what Nairobi fathers of then wanted – a Rolls Royce for its mayor and they wanted to discreetly buy that car until their cover was blown by Ronald Ngala. It was an expensive undertaking and the car was to cost Sh217,000.

The council’s first decision to purchase such an expensive car for the mayor turned out to be Nairobi’s first scandal – something described by the media as “extravagant and wasteful”.

“This expenditure is a gross, careless squandering of public money. The City Council is in a serious financial difficulty even now,” said Mr Ngala.

When Nairobi was going for that car, it had loans it could not repay. Just before independence in 1963, Nairobi City had borrowed £8.5 million for some of its housing and water projects and only managed to repay £607,000. They then borrowed some £140,000 after independence and the total debt – by the time they wanted to buy a Rolls Royce – was £8 million, which was equivalent to a staggering Sh161 million then.

“I think it is very shameful for any person to talk of dignity when there is a financial position of this type. The overseas investors who lend money to undeveloped African countries, what will they say when they see all this stupidity in expenditure? To spend such money when you have such a big debt, to spend such money before we meet the demand for community development halls…is a very ridiculous position,” said Mr Ngala.

Mr Ngala had done his calculations. Listen to this: “The money could feed seven people for 120 years. The money could feed 50 people for 32 years…it could send six students to Cambridge or Oxford for three years…it could build a school or a hospital (or) it could buy a helicopter for the use of the country. We are now being told of the durability of that car. That is nonsense. The truth is sheer wastefulness prompted by naked ambition.”

Why Mr Rubia would not drive around in a Humber Super Snipe, which was used by the last colonial mayor Harold Travis – the man who founded the hire purchase company Credit Finance Company (CFC) which later metamorphosed into a bank with the likes of Charles Njonjo and P.K Jani on its board – has never been explained. But again, it was Alderman Travis who proposed the election of Mr Rubia as the mayor, describing him as “a man of integrity”.

Parliament was told that the Mayor of Berlin – “a very prosperous country where there is no unemployment” – was chauffeured in a Mercedes that cost less than Sh40,000 “and here we are talking of Sh200,000 for one car. Take the Lord Mayor of London, even he sits in a very humble car and London is a prosperous city from where we obtain our loans. If the Mayor of London, from where we get our loans, is not so pompous and wasteful, how dare you allow this?”

Mr Ngala had some choice words for Mayor Rubia: “I would advise Alderman Rubia to read and study Roman history including the story of Emperor Nero and Julius Caeser. These people wanted material happiness, and used threats and misused public funds. In so doing, they destroyed their own empires.”

The city of Nairobi had also flown a driver to London to be taught “the mechanics of driving” that car. Even as Parliament was complaining about the Rolls Royce, what we know is that the city had ordered a luxurious four-litre Vanden Plas Princess, which is still in Nairobi. If you look at the adverts on this car in 1965 you would understand why it was the love of the city fathers: “Men who have arrived, arrive in the Princess with the Rolls-Royce engine. It is not surprising that successful men should choose the Vanden Plas Princess. They are demanding people, and in this beautiful car they find the highest skills of the coachbuilder and the engineer perfectly matched.”

Whether it was a battle of ego between the mayor and President Jomo Kenyatta is not clear – and whether the vehicle was purchased behind Kenyatta’s back is not known. But J. Z. Kase, Member of Parliament for Tana River, wondered loudly whether Rubia wants to have outriders like President Kenyatta, saying Rubia “is just a councillor like any other councillor”.

“Ambassadors of foreign countries in this country do not have as expensive cars as a Rolls Royce, and yet we know, an ambassador is a man to maintain the dignity of his country. Even the President of the United States does not have a Rolls Royce. Why should the Mayor of Nairobi have a Rolls Royce?”

The suggestion was that “the mayor should buy a Peugeot 404…we do not want to see the mayor with piki-pikis. The minister for local government should withdraw this car immediately.”

What is known is that as the uproar continued, President Kenyatta summoned ‘Alderman’ Rubia and later on Mr Rubia issued a statement, saying he had convened a special council meeting to discuss the matter. Also, there was a letter Mr Rubia was said to have written to the minister for Local Government, Lawrence Sagini – it was said he had intimidated the minister to approve the purchase.

But by then, in Parliament, there were calls for a commission of inquiry or the resignation of Mr Rubia. While the Minister of State James Nyamweya told Parliament that the government had stopped the importation of the Rolls Royce, the city actually bought the Vanden Plas Princess, which was as good – and was not discussed anywhere. By the time the matter was being raised in Parliament, the luxurious car was already in Mombasa. The minister lied to Parliament that “the car is not in Kenya and the order has been cancelled.”

But this was not a battle about the car, but on who would have an upper hand in Kanu politics. Mr Rubia was by then one of the most prominent power brokers within Kanu A, which had the likes of Charles Njonjo, Mbiyu Koinange, Daniel arap Moi, Njoroge Mungai and Dr Kiano.

There was also Kanu B, which coalesced around Tom Mboya and had the likes of Lawrence Sagini (the minister said to have been intimidated to approve the purchase of the car), Ronald Ngala (the man who brought the matter to the House) and Samuel Ayodo, whose clash with Rubia was epic.

It is no wonder that when Rubia resigned as the mayor, he was succeeded by Isaac Lugonzo, who was then thrown out of City Hall to pave the way for the election of Margaret Wambui Kenyatta, then councillor for Kilimani ward.

Margaret had her own gang, which included Andrew Ngumba and Gerishon Kirima.

Because Nairobi was run by politicians, and the management was left in the hands of people who cared little about the growing population, the masterplan that had been done in the 1950s was thrown away, and chaos reigned at City Hall.

Most of the public spaces were either sold or grabbed and no attention was given to the provision of services. Slowly, Nairobi ended up on auto-pilot.

It was a seed that was germinated early in the 1960s and, many years later, that is how we ended up with inept leadership.

For the past 50 years, it has deteriorated into a sorry state, thanks to inept policies, wanton theft and lack of foresight. For ages, it has been the victim of whistle-start whistle-stop policies, unorthodox bylaws and plunder.

The broken city has in turn become the destination of myriad of jobless people escaping the dilapidating poverty at the countryside – only to swell the numbers of jobless who pay no taxes to the city but demand services.

Eastlands, once a blue-collar neighbourhood with solid middle-class that included African legislators, senior clerks and fresh university graduates from Uganda’s Makerere, has become the haven of hobos, misfits, conmen and organised gangs – and they easily get their own into leadership.

At the moment, an estimated four  million live in the more than 200 slums and informal settlements – up from 50 in 1971 – and thus straining the infrastructure and encroaching on former green spaces. By 1971, the slums only housed 32 per cent (167,000 people) of its population of 520,000 people. Today, more than 60 per cent of Nairobi residents live in the slums.

Who will rescue this city?

When colonial Governor Edward Northey was sent to Nairobi, he faced the wrath of European settlers in February 1919 who asked the Nairobi maverick Col Ewart Grogan – the man who built the Gertrude’s Children’s Hospital – to deliver a classic welcoming speech: “Before we sit down to business with you sir, before we tabulate to you all our innumerable woes of the last 14 years, we are entitled to know whether you have been sent here as another telephone exchange girl …This country is not willing to be governed by secretariat officers, men of little more brains than the creatures that crawl around at the bottom of the sea … we want people with vision that extends beyond the end of the noses …”

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