I am having a conversation with a friend when Man Around Nairobi comes up and my friend asks me if I would like to interview Sakaja Johnson for the segment. I have seen him on TV, and have heard a lot about him and I am curious about him so I am open to the opportunity if it can happen. Sakaja is a young politician who has made history by becoming the youngest Chairman of a ruling party in the world at the age of 27. I decide to push my luck and ask whether I can ask him some political questions as well. The meeting is set up for a Thursday afternoon and I am all set with my questions, he has agreed in advance to answer my other questions.
Politicians can be fickle and are known to cancel appointments after keeping people waiting. I keep asking whether the interview is still on and I am told that Sakaja is committed to the interview. I get to his office (I think it’s his campaign office) and one of the things I notice is that all of the people working for him are young.
When he arrives we sit outside under an umbrella table. He asks me if I will drink something and I ask for water. He requests some for me and some juice for himself. His PR team is also present and they are all young, none of them looks like they are over 35. As I ask him questions I am pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t sure of what to expect, we have a conversation like you would with a friend on a lazy afternoon over lunch or a drink. He is a very easy guy to talk to; he doesn’t carry himself like a politician, all serious and conscious of his position. I interview him for around 3 hours during the two interviews and he is candid, we have a few laughs as he tells me his story especially when he talks about his life growing up and his life in campus.
Sakaja Johnson is a man comfortable in his own skin; he does not let power define him as many politicians or leaders do. He does not have to remind you who he is, that he is a powerful political figure. One of the things I notice is that he takes this interview seriously and doesn’t keep looking at his watch impatiently like he needs to be somewhere else (this happens a lot). We talk about his childhood and what he loves about Nairobi. Check out his Man Around Nairobi interview.
Here is a short bio. Sakaja Johnson grew up in Nairobi, in Parklands. While he was pursuing his degree in Actuarial science at the University of Nairobi he became a student leader. Sakaja’s first dalliance with national politics was in 2005, during the referendum for the then-proposed constitution.
In 2007, Sakaja Johnson joined the Kibaki team and he took a lead role in tallying support for the former president. It was here that he first came into contact with the current president (Uhuru Kenyatta) who was then the Minister for Local Government. He shortly moved to help with the formulation of the 2010 constitution where he took a lead role in the definition of constituency boundaries. After that, he helped form The National Alliance (TNA) and he became its chairman. This was the party that H. E Uhuru Kenyatta rode to electoral victory in 2013.
Sakaja Johnson is a nominated Member of Parliament and is the Chairman of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on National Cohesion and Equal Opportunities. He has sponsored 2 key Bills; the Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Act Amendment 2015 and The National Youth Employment Authority Bill.
Let’s start with the easy questions. Who is Sakaja Johnson?
I am a husband to a lovely wife, a father to two young handsome boys, the chairman of TNA and a member of parliament.
Who or what inspires you?
God. There has been a heavy hand of spiritual calling in what I do. It is a deliberate calling to transform lives, give direction; to show people by example what society can be, and to bring out the best in people and situations.
What are your hobbies?
I like listening to music, playing the guitar, writing, watching rugby and sports, meeting new people and driving.
What kind of books do you read?
I love reading books on history, biographies, and books that talk about the stories of countries, I also like books that forecast what may happen in the future, and books about ideas and that test ideas (sort of like TedTalks). I love books that interrogate the status quo like Wizard Of The Crow by Ngugi Wa Thiongo. Sadly I don’t have as much time to read now as I used to.
What motivates you?
Seeing people’s lives change because of my actions. Creating, selling and implementing ideas that change lives.
What were you doing before you got into politics?
I have been in politics for a long time, around 11 years. I started out as a student leader. I was always one of the technical guys. However, before I started out formally in party politics I was a driver. Just before the 2007 elections, I got a job working for a politician who wanted a driver. He knew I had been a student leader. He just asked me two questions. Are you violent? I said no. Are you a guy who fights? I said no but if provoked …. After I answered the question he gave me the job. I was his driver and PA. I was only a driver for 3 weeks. As a PA I made him shine. I then joined youth for Kibaki.
What made you decide to go into politics?
I have always been in leadership. It has been spotted by others. When I was in university I had a problem with paying fees. I realized that the student leaders got certain privileges so I decided to run. Being a student leader enabled me to do business to pay my school fees.
I run a salon and a kinyozi. I also teamed up with a pal’s mum to buy a 20 kg washing machine. We used to wash a load of clothes for 60 bob. The businesses helped me pay my fees and also enabled me to buy my first car in third year. I did not start doing biashara in campus though. When I was younger I used to play marbles with my friends. My mum was an athlete so she used to bring me the really expensive kind of banos (marbles). I would sell them to my friends and I made a handsome profit.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Growing up, my dad used to call me prime minister. I knew it was somebody important so I wanted to be that.
One time when I was in Class 2 we were in a bus with automatic doors. I was so impressed I went home and said I want to be a bus driver. My parents weren’t too happy about that.
What has been your biggest challenge as a politician?
My biggest challenge is non-political. It is when people judge you because you are a political figure. Politics is almost a four-letter word. When people say you are dirty, rough, tribal etc. I would struggle to be any of those. I am a terrible liar. I always try to be honest and sincere.
How do you define success?
Success is when you connect with your purpose. When you do what you are meant to be doing, what you were created for. Leadership is natural for me; it is part of my life.
What is your favourite aspect of your job?
This may surprise many but I love to interact with kids. I love kids, and I enjoy making them laugh. Kids make so much sense.
Making decisions – I am always in the centre of it. One of my assets is clarity of thought. I am always clear in my thinking. I am able to look at a problem and get a solution. The only thing I have to be careful that I don’t have to go too far ahead of everybody else.
I learnt something from President Uhuru Kenyatta on the issue of making decisions. When it comes to politics the questions I ask myself are; Is it good for the country, community, family and then the individual?
What would you say are the key elements to being successful?
Being true to yourself
Connecting with your spiritual side
Not mistaking symptoms of success for success.
What has been your most satisfying moment in terms of politics?
That’s a hard one. There have been so many.
There is a day I went to a recreational facility and this young guy came up to me and told me that the bill on 30% procurement for the youth had opened up opportunities for him. He is now supplying stuff to the military. When you change a person’s life, when something stops being a theory and becomes practical that is amazing.
When I sign a cheque for some of the kids I support.
You are running for the Nairobi Governor’s seat? Why should people vote for you? Are you asking people to vote for you because you are young or because you are a Nairobian and understand the problems here?
I want people to vote for me because we all want Nairobi to prosper. If our co-beliefs align then people should vote for me. I believe in respect, unity and delivery of services to the people. I believe in the story of opportunity and possibility. I want to change the narrative of Nairobi – I am interested not in the past but in looking at what it must be. Because you are Nairobi – I am Nairobi.
What is your vision for Nairobi?
A thriving, safe, clean and working Nairobi.
A place where you can get a fair shot at life, no matter who you are or where you are from. And where you are able to provide for your children a future.
What have you achieved so far as a politician? What will be your legacy?
I have debunked the myth that young people can’t lead. I have been able to articulate things and show that the sky is the limit. More people will now believe that young people can make great leaders.
The Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Act, 2015 provides “30% Procurement Reservation Criteria” for Youth, Women and Persons with disability. Also the National Youth Employment Authority Bill.
Being a peace ambassador. (He is the Chairman of the Joint Committee on National Cohesion and Equal Opportunity.)I organized a peace treaty between the Samburu and Turkana in Baragoli that brought people in Baringo and Turkana together.
Looking at the last voter registration many youths did not register to become voters. There is now apathy among the youth on the issue of politics, governance etc. What are your thoughts on this?
It is not really apathy. The youth don’t believe that their votes count. If they have the right candidate they will register. Kenyans are tired of tribal politics and politicians’ personal gratification at the expense of the taxpayers.
I am confident that the youth will register to vote for a new type of leader.
How do you plan to deal with the apathy that the youth have now? They would be the strongest voter base in your race to become governor
That is not quite true. There are older people who have said they will be voting for me. It is surprising that some of my friends’ parents have already said they will vote for me when my friends are not convinced they will vote for me. The older generations believe I have a safe pair of hands.
Youth will register last minute. I intend to put up a serious campaign. I believe that if you are not at the negotiating table you are on the menu. Younger people – 8 million who have not registered. The youth must interrogate what is happening. I am asking them to be part of the movement.
More young people should get into politics. Youth with a different outlook. The youth parliament is a great place to start. There are many young people with mature ideas.
The youth should be defined by more than statistics. They are resilient, hopeful and enterprising. They shouldn’t be defined by things like crime.
Growing up we were told the time for youth to lead will come. There are many young leaders who have been voted for in the last 10 years. We thought there would be a change but it seems the youth also don’t keep the promises they have made to the voters. Why will you be different?
I have shown that I am capable. I have a proven track record. I started proving myself a long time ago. I want them to believe in the things I can do based on what they have seen me doing.
What are the challenges of being a young politician?
I no longer face the scepticism that I did when I started. Many people don’t believe in young people. You have to prove yourself especially when you are in charge of senior politicians.
There is something in Timothy about not letting people despise you because you are young. 1 Timothy 4:12 –‘Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.’ That is my guiding principle.
In 2013 a blog post asked the question “will Sakaja cost Uhuru the presidency?” I proved them wrong.
One of the issues for young politicians is not getting any airtime. There are amazing young MPs doing great things but their stories are not being told.
Another thing is culture shock. Young politicians need to learn not to be mesmerized by power. I was not shocked. I had already been in politics for some time before going to parliament.
I have heard you mention God and spirituality a couple of times. Are you a committed Christian?
I have a relationship with God that I value. The place of God is special in my life. I go to church when I can. I have a strong, real relationship with God. I am not ashamed of it. It may not be the traditional definition of what a Christian should be but I cherish the relationship I have with God. My story is one of the most unlikely stories and it is only by the grace of God that I have come this far.
What advice would you give somebody who wants to go into politics?
Is it your calling? If it is about you then don’t get into politics. It is a huge sacrifice. You can end up being frustrated and depressed. It is not easy thing to give service to the public. It is some form of social work. You are called to lead, and give direction. Many politicians are not leaders, leaders are rare.