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06.12.2019 Africa

Flashy Nairobi governor arrested for 'economic crimes'

'Sonko' is Swahili slang for rich and flamboyant.  By Yasuyoshi CHIBA (AFP)
LISTEN DEC 6, 2019
'Sonko' is Swahili slang for rich and flamboyant. By Yasuyoshi CHIBA (AFP)

The flashy governor of Nairobi was arrested Friday after Kenya's chief prosecutor ordered his detention for alleged economic crimes.

Governor Mike Sonko is the latest in a string of top officials -- including Finance Minister Henry Rotch -- to be hauled in on corruption charges as Kenya battles to clamp down on rampant graft.

"The Governor of Nairobi Mike Sonko has been arrested by our officers in Voi," in the south of the country, Yassin Amaro, spokesman for the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) told AFP.

Footage on local media showed the governor scuffling with police before being handcuffed and put in a chopper to Nairobi, where he arrived in the late afternoon.

Sonko and other county officials are accused by public prosecutor Noordin Haji of having benefitted from irregular procurement and payments of $3.5 million.

Haji said he had sufficient evidence to prosecute Sonko and his fellow suspects for "unlawful acquisition of public property, money laundering and other economic crimes".

"I have therefore ordered for the immediate arrest and arraignment in court of the Governor of Nairobi Hon. Mike Mbuvi Sonko and other persons," Haji said in a statement earlier Friday.

Born Gidion Mike Mbuvi, the governor formally adopted the nickname "Sonko" which is Swahili slang for a rich and flamboyant person.

It was seen as a maverick move when, in 2017, the ruling party chose him as its candidate for Nairobi's gubernatorial poll.

He was a controversial politician who has spent time in jail -- for failing to respect court dates -- and has had to deny allegations of illegal activities, including drug trafficking.

Haji said his investigation into Sonko and his officials had been challenging "because of the repeated attempts by the accused to obstruct the course of the investigations by deploying intimidation tactics in addition to using goons to threaten law enforcement officials carrying out their constitutional mandates."

'Choreographed lies'

Since his election, Sonko has chosen to operate from his rural home in Machakos, 60 kilometres (37 miles) southeast of Nairobi.

He is beloved by poor Kenyans for running his personally branded fire trucks and ambulances to assist people living in the slums.

He is also known for his style mimicking an American rapper, dripping with expensive gold and diamond jewelry, wearing bright colours, and on occasion, golden shoes. He recently drew criticism for displaying his opulent dining room on social media.

He also has a fleet of gold-coloured cars.

In a statement issued on county government letterhead, Sonko dismissed the charges against him as "choreographed lies" and urged his supporters to remain calm.

"Be calm. Don't worry. Don't panic. For justice will prevail," he said, adding that there was no need for his arrest and he would happily have turned himself in.

Kenya has for decades battled the scourge of corruption, and President Uhuru Kenyatta -- like many presidents before him -- has vowed to combat graft.

Dozens of top executives and government officials have been charged since Kenyatta's 2017 re-election, including sitting Finance Minister Henry Rotich who was in July charged over an alleged multi-million dollar corruption scandal.

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