Recently, the two gentlemen at the top of Kenya’s executive have expressed contrasting views on how Nairobi is being run. 

First there is Rigathi Gachagua, who sounded miffed when talking about the governor’s plans for Nairobi’s matatus. “Nitamketisha chini,” (I’ll sit him down) he said of Johnson Sajaka.

Then there was the President. “Keep the noise away from our children. You have our support,” William Ruto approvingly told Johnson Sakaja.  The President was commenting on governor Sakaja’s decision to outlaw nightclubs in Nairobi’s residential areas, soon after a very public spat between a television presenter associated with a bar and a resident, Emma Too. Too, a landscape architect, has complained for months, that music from the bar makes it impossible to sleep at night

We don’t know whether the bars will reapply for their licenses, or stick it out and treat Nairobi to an extended dry period. Importantly, and aside from all the numbers, the bars will need to clarify whether they are actually fighting for the right to blast music into people’s homes, which violates environmental regulations (Also see commentary from a law firm here). 

While lovers of Andy Capp (RIP Roger Mahoney) and readers of Mutuma Mathiu will know that home is often the last thing on the mind of a bar patron, it bears saying that a home whether owned or rented is also an investment, and bars which make homes unlivable are therefore investments which destroy other investments in a zero-sum game.

But back to the President’s outward support for Johnson Sakaja and the Deputy President’s desire to “sit him down” for a chat. These two snippets provide a peek into a developing post-NMS relationship between the national government and Nairobi City County.

Not too long ago, the relationship between the capital and the national government was one of fiat. As the NMS takeover loomed, the morning talk-shows were full of politicians arguing that the city county should cease to exist and that the national government should take it over so that the city could get services. 

The inappropriate examples given in support of this takeover included Washington D.C. which has a hybrid arrangement, and Abuja, which became the capital during Nigeria’s military rule. No, thank you. In fact, there is nothing wrong with having a city that is also a county and the national capital. This is how Berlin operates.

The now-ended takeover of the city by the thankfully-defunct Nairobi Metropolitan Services was slightly more surgical than Daniel arap Moi’s bludgeoning of Nairobi City Council and its replacement with the Nairobi City Commission. This time, four functions were parceled off and run from KICC. We got cabro footpaths in the central business district, clinics, and water in informal settlements, but also the feeling that the Jubilee administration saw the county government as wholly inadequate for its grand plans.

Yet if the national government felt that the county was unable to deliver, it was surely because of its own emasculation of Nairobi (p. 211) over decades, placing under the thumb of the local government ministry. While the national government exerted power through the City Commission, planning fell by the wayside. From the expiry of Nairobi’s 1973 Metropolitan Strategy in 2000 to NIUPLAN in 2014, our capital city went without a master plan. 

Public transit collapsed, waste disposal struggled and water and sewer surrendered to the septic-borehole juggernaut. What a coincidence then, that the national government would intervene on the pretext that the city could not run its affairs, the governor’s high jinks notwithstanding. I was elated to read the 2020 inventory that Nairobi produced of its open spaces with the help of UN-Habitat, yet also concerned that the city might have been unable to do it alone, even if that is the kind of task you’d expect to be well within its abilities.

A national government that wants Nairobi to run its affairs better should perhaps begin by restoring the city’s capacity to govern to what it was before the need to dominate it was prioritised above all else.  It should follow that up by freeing the city’s planners to actually plan, to deny approval to developments that should not be built, unnamed important people notwithstanding. In America, they say “You can’t fight City Hall.” In Kenya City Hall is fought often and loses often.

Freeing the county from under the national government’s boot does not leave it without oversight because there are myriad laws and the Senate for just that purpose. And the very rare instance that a national government takes over a city, as happened here and here, it should not be for political ends but instead to get the city’s books in order and position it to run itself better.

As the new administration gets to work Nairobi will surely need financial help from the national government to solve some of its problems, but the city should be the national government’s partner in development, and not an underling. Nairobi running itself would free the national government to focus on other pressing problems. Instead of looking to dominate Nairobi, the national government should empower the county to truly speak and work for those who live in the city and have no other home.

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