Argument

Kenya’s Road to Dictatorship Runs Through Nairobi County

The handover of municipal services to military officers makes clear how the president wants to wield power.

Nairobi, Kenya, which has seen rapid economic expansion in recent years, is seen through a crisscross of electrical lines on May 16, 2019.
Nairobi, Kenya, which has seen rapid economic expansion in recent years, is seen through a crisscross of electrical lines on May 16, 2019. TONY KARUMBA/AFP via Getty Images

On June 3, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta signed his first executive order of the year. Among other things, it listed a newly created Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS)—including functions such as health care, transportation, and public works—as part of the president’s office rather than an independent office in the county government system. The decision goes against the spirit of the 2010 Kenyan Constitution, which established county governments to promote democratic accountability by devolving some powers to the local level.

In March, Mike Sonko, the governor of Nairobi County, signed a deed of transfer with the national government. Under the terms of the deal, county functions would be administered by the national government through the new NMS. Air Force Maj. Gen. Mohamed Abdalla Badi was appointed the director-general by Kenyatta, and seven more senior military officers were added to the leadership ranks of the NMS two months later.

As Kenya reels from the coronavirus pandemic, a shift in power is underway in Nairobi, with municipal duties being transferred from elected public officials into the hands of military men. Even Sonko, who in April captured global attention for including bottles of Hennessy in coronavirus care packages for the public, has spoken out against the militarization. He says he was hoodwinked into signing documents he didn’t understand and has now taken the national government to court on the grounds that the deal is unconstitutional.

The militarization of Nairobi and the subsequent transfer of the county’s administration into the president’s office is a brazen power grab by Kenyatta.

The militarization of Nairobi and the subsequent transfer of the county’s administration into the president’s office is a brazen power grab by Kenyatta; even more worrying is the fact that the moves have gone unchecked by Kenya’s parliament. With presidential elections due in 2022 and Kenyatta’s two-term limit up, the shift also raises questions about succession and whether he intends to attempt to remain in presidential office. Kenyatta’s allies are already clamoring to remove the term limits, and Kenyatta’s move to seize control of Nairobi raises questions about whether he will flout the norms again in two years.

The handover of Nairobi County to the office of the president has drawn angry reactions from critics, who view the move as an assault on Kenya’s democratic institutions. “To put it plainly, Uhuru Kenyatta is out of order,” Brenda Wambui, a Kenyan writer and public policy scholar, wrote in an email. The constitution “vests sovereignty in the Kenyan people, and Uhuru’s Executive Order is a direct attack on that sovereignty.”


Nairobi County is Kenya’s political and economic hub, controlling 21.7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. And the Kenyatta family is one of Nairobi’s biggest landowners. It recently unveiled a plan to build a $5 billion urban development in Nairobi dubbed Northlands City. To some, the project is at the heart of the president’s power grab.

Economic control of the city is key to the Kenyatta family’s manufacturing dynasty, and Kenyatta has already successfully pursued, or attempted to pursue, changes elsewhere that tie in with his family’s business interests. For example, two Kenyatta family-owned construction firms figure heavily in deals to build affordable housing in the country, a hallmark project of the president’s administration.

However, Northlands City is the biggest ongoing Kenyatta family project. Once completed, the urban development is projected to have 250,000 people working and living within it. The plans have influenced key government decisions, such as the building of a $376 million interchange in Nairobi. The development is rumored to be the reason for a series of demolitions that rendered thousands homeless amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“We know that much of how Uhuru Kenyatta has strategized has to do with consolidating business interests and, as many have noted, I think the grabbing of Nairobi has to do with consolidating Northlands,” wrote Mumbi Kanyogo, a Kenyan activist, in a text message. “And if Nairobi is supposed to become an expat city, then we’re going to see mass displacement of poor Nairobians in ways that remind me of Nairobi’s colonial history, as well as the continued pushing out of middle-class renters to the outskirts of the city, possibly into Northlands.”

It is noteworthy that Kenyatta has chosen to use military officers to consolidate his power. Nairobi was never completely demilitarized after British rule ended in 1963, and it is still replete with strategic military installations that were intended to prevent a revolt or takeover by natives; since independence, the barracks have continued to serve a similar function. The Kenyan government relies on them to dispatch the military to quell dissent.

While military involvement in Kenya’s political institutions is not often overt, with Badi’s appointment to the NMS leadership, Kenyatta has made clear how he wishes power to be wielded in Nairobi—and the Kenyan military is key.

The militarization of the capital is just one of several unconstitutional moves by Kenyatta. The composition of several branches of his government violates constitutional mandates, including a rule that “not more than two-thirds of the members of elective or appointive bodies shall be of the same gender.” The president has also blatantly refused to appoint new judges to the country’s courts, leading to backlogs in the judicial system.

Kenya’s constitution does not provide for an all-powerful president, but it seems to be what Kenyatta is trying to make himself.

Kenyatta’s recent executive order also brought other independent offices under his authority, including the deputy president’s office and the judiciary. The action, which is illegal under the constitution, has raised questions about what Kenyatta is trying to achieve. Kenya’s chief justice, David Maraga, has pointed out that the president doesn’t have the power to transfer the judiciary or other state organs to his office’s control. Kenya’s constitution does not provide for an all-powerful president, but it seems to be what Kenyatta is trying to make himself, rolling back democratic gains in the process.

“We have separation of powers in our Constitution for a good reason,” Wambui wrote. “The separation of powers protects Kenyans’ right to be fairly represented and to seek legal redress, whilst stopping executive overreach, which is what Uhuru Kenyatta is attempting to do.”

Kenya’s history is replete with unilateral declarations from the president’s office. It is to this past that Kenyatta seeks to return. Kenyatta’s recent move in Nairobi is a brazen attempt to undermine democracy in the country, leading Kenya back to the type of imperial dictatorship imposed by his father, Jomo Kenyatta, and his successor, Daniel arap Moi.

Carey Baraka is a Kenyan writer and freelance journalist. Twitter: @CareyBaraka

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