“The people’s messiah”-Understanding Sonkoism
The Nairobi senator is so fascinated and enamoured by himself and his persona that he makes it easy to interest others. Mike has come up with a character that is so compelling that it has kept Kenyans interested for longer than you would expect.
It was always going to be a hard choice. The Nairobi Senator’s position was a choice between a self-promoting, peroxide-hair-styled controversialist with a cult following and an interesting past versus a self-promoting bishop with a dodgy doctorate, an equally interesting past, and a cult following. It was a bit like watching the Iran-Iraq war or Al-Shabaab quarrelling with Al-Qaeda in 2012; you wish both sides would lose.
Eventually, Sonko — the Lord of the Rings — won with a clear margin. In the battle between one who constantly talks to the people of a coming messiah and one who thinks he is the people’s messiah come, many went for Sonko. In fact his defeat of Wanjiru was total — he won in all the voting stations in the county, bar two. He got more votes in the county than any presidential or governorship aspirants in the county, proving him to be a vote omnivore with appeal across the intractable tribal chasm formed in the elections.
Elected as Nairobi’s first senator, Mike Gideon Mbuvi “Sonko” does not exactly bring cerebral value to the upper chamber, neither is he known for his sound and measured judgment. He was voted in on the strength of the character he plays in public.
Props and accoutrements
He has been seen in public in a Rastafarian wig, went to Parliament in sunglasses, did the whole studded thing before Willy Mutunga made it tolerable… and has more rings than Saturn. In all, Sonko can be said to have more props and accoutrements about him than NTV’s Comedy Club.
But what makes him so interesting a person is that there is such a glaring lack of conclusiveness about his character. He has so many contradictions. You could decide he is a symptom of the rot that is wrong with the youth’s worship of wealth — wealth here is thought of as an unquestioned good regardless of its sources — but then you come across an astounding act of kindness and forethought by him that you are forced to reconsider.
You could admire him and think him a saint until he performs an act of such juvenile churlishness, such as rolling on the ground and punching walls, that makes you change your original position. Sonko seems to know he can afford to make mistakes and charm and smarm his way back into your good books via a simple interview.
When asked about his educational background once, he retorted that “Sonkoism” is being studied at university. Why bother studying at a university when the institution can have others study you? There is perhaps no greater academic honour than lending your name to an academic pursuit.
Some think he is a visionary who has perceived the problems his people face and gone about helping out as best he could. Others think he is a politician with, like all the others, the traditional ambitions and who is ready to sacrifice a small personal fortune to achieve them. The answer concerning the Nairobi senator may lie somewhere between these two extremes.
Sonko is a man who has figured out the difference between having money and having power. He first made his money alongside a few court cases, account freezes, a short stint as a guest of the state and CID investigations, then set out to convert his piles of money into power, which is more meaningful and everlasting.
There is also the bling. He does not wear his wealth lightly. He walks around with more gold than a Congolese musician going for a video shoot. I like my leaders to at least display a utilitarian modesty about them, but for Sonko, it is the way he displays his wealth that does not seem quite right.
Displaying wealth so ostentatiously is a sign of insecurity, not strength. Truly rich people do not need to walk around with gold-coated pig iron for others to marvel at. Bling on a leader is all about creating mystique. Look at how the lavish autocrats in Saudi let their people know how they live. In Tunisia, Ben Ali had his tigers. Assad has a wife who keeps spending fortunes on shoes, and Mobutu was always surrounded by opulence.
The Nairobi senator is so fascinated and enamoured by himself and his persona that he makes it easy to interest others. Sonko has come up with a character that is so compelling that it has kept Kenyans interested for longer than you would expect.
As the last elections neared, TV footage showed him ever willing to walk into any disaster — man-made or natural — cheque book in hand, deploying parachutes of relief aid across the breadth of Makadara Constituency. He thrives in his self-appointed messianic role, going about dropping goodies all round with the zeal of a rat catcher on a rubbish dump.
His constituents love it. His deeds of do-goodery are too many to list in so short a space, but Sonko thrives on his self-appointed position of tribune. He reportedly even used to give all his salary to charity. Why?
Hannah Arendt, a German-American political theorist, once pointed out that truly virtuous acts are not meant to be seen. Generosity is meant to be mute, charity invisible. So what should we make of Sonko’s very visible acts of charity?
Julius Caesar always flirted with bankruptcy, using up all the money his creditors gave him to host entertainment and games for the Romans. He was, of course, angling for more power than the Roman Republic could yield. On the back of popular support, he was able to make himself dictator for life and ushered in the era of the emperors. He used the fact that the “ordinary” people were solidly behind him to reach for power.
Caesar showed that public good works at great personal expense and could be used as a down payment for future power. The ambitions many feared Sonko nursed came to the fore when he announced his candidacy for the presidency 15 years in advance. I would not bet against the Lord of The Rings, and neither should you.
Yes, Sonko shows exactly what you need to succeed in a multicultural urban area: you need to be a crass, goody-dispensing, pantomime Santa Claus who is always ready to mine the populist vein for political power.
Bling a display of power, not wealth
Peter York, in the book Dictator Style, talks of how dictators make it known to their people just how decadently lavish their lifestyles are to give themselves extra mystique, how tyrants need conspicuous shows of wealth to convince their allies and intimidate enemies.
The eccentric and ostentatious foibles are not just a sign of mental illness that come with being handed absolute power over a people, it is more useful than that. Bling is not just about showing how a lot of easily earned money can lead to bad taste; it is also about making a political statement.
Sonko has used his bling to give him street credibility, a sort of badge indicating his rags-to-riches story and setting himself apart from his competitors.
Here is the Beijing connection to current runaway poaching
Last week a news report in the Business Daily had China trying to absolve itself of blame over increased ivory poaching. Well, Beijing has a thriving legal trade in ivory ornaments and the current boom in the trade comes on the back of increasing purchasing power of Chinese nationals and a particular increase in the number of Chinese tourists to Africa. It also coincides with an increase in the massacre of these majestic beasts.
Chinese actress Li Bingbing was even here this month to draw attention to this illegal trade. She pointed out that most Chinese buyers of ivory products do not know that their fetish for ivory bracelets drives the massacre of elephants. China is the world’s largest market for illegal ivory, according to World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and its consumption of the product is remarkable even by Asian standards.
I think all legal trade in ivory should be banned if we have any hope of saving our elephants. It is embarrassing that some would still deny a direct link between increased ivory sales and elephant massacres.
Meanwhile, I read of a Kenyan hotel chain that seeks to increase the number of Chinese tourists that patronise its establishments. One of the sites of interest being marketed is a rhino sanctuary. Smart move! That is sure to get their attention in Guangzhou.