Managing the city like the military

Nairobi is already witnessing the sidelining of democratic institutions. Now a new city management agency is further excluding the public.

A poster erected at one of the main entry points to Mukuru kwa Reuben. Source: author.

Under the 2010 Kenyan Constitution, functions and powers are shared between the national government and devolved units (county governments). In 2013, Nairobi elected its first governor under this new system of governance: Evans Kidero, who describes himself as a “slum-born” former businessman. He vowed to improve service provision in the city within his first 100 days. Not much happened during his tenure, and, in fact, social exclusion was further entrenched. In 2017, Kidero lost to Mike Mbuvi Sonko, a self-confessed jailbird with a penchant for juvenile drama. Sonko devised a simple hierarchical order in which service provision to the residents of the city punitively came as an afterthought, secondary to his habitual revels. He would later be impeached by the Nairobi County Assembly in December 2020. By this point, Sonko had already fostered an ecology of inefficiency, making it easier for the national government to usurp the constitutional powers of the county government.

On February 25, 2020, prior to his impeachment, the governor signed an agreement to hand over certain functions of the county government to the national government. The argument advanced to justify this move was that service delivery in the county had ground to a halt and that intervention by the national government would ensure that residents received services efficiently. A new entity, the Nairobi Metropolitan Service (NMS), was created and a serving military officer handpicked by the president as its director general.

The establishment of the NMS must be viewed as counteraction by a national government that felt emasculated by devolved governance. NMS brings with its establishment an authoritarian spatial order premised on the managerial delivery of results. We are already witnessing the sidelining of democratic institutions like the county government and the county assembly, their places taken over by undemocratic and militarized institutions. In the usual style of an undemocratic institution, the NMS continues to mobilize its capacity for opacity, which is ubiquitous in military governance. It has extensively partaken in the violent erasure of the collective agency of Nairobi’s inhabitants. This is evident from how the views of the city’s inhabitants are never sought or considered whenever the NMS initiates and implements public projects. Similarly, the emasculation of the Nairobi County Government now appears to be complete, as it has adopted a subordinate posture to the NMS.

It appears that for the NMS, public participation in spatial governance processes is a form of odious politics that stands in the way of the “missing discipline” it desires to reign supreme. It has conjured an image undoubtedly intended to evoke the feeling of orderliness which is supposedly portended by its arrival in Nairobi. With this image, the NMS strives to impress upon Nairobians and visitors alike the idea of an emergent urban imaginary organized around militarism and a lack of accountability. Its director general, Major General Mohamed Badi, has on numerous occasions scoffed at calls for accountability, quipping that he is only answerable to the president. The General, as he is known, often donning military fatigues, has been a frequent visitor to many of the city’s neighborhoods, where he inspects ongoing projects that are being carried out by the NMS. According to him, “managing the city is just like managing the military”; serving in the military, he claims, places him at an advantage when dealing with the city’s numerous challenges. He asserts that this is particularly true for the issue of cartels in the city, since, he says, “dealing with enemies is part of my training.” This rhetoric is alienating and has as its goal the reinvention of passivity in spatial governance.

By allowing for the fetishization of managerial logics in public policy spaces, we are unwittingly courting dictatorship and facilitating a power grab by an unelected elite. It is therefore critical that we examine the spatial order that the NMS introduces, expose its violence, and grapple with the implications of its entrenchment. From the way it is structured, the NMS is an anti-politics machine designed to subvert the logics of participatory governance which were beginning to take root in the city with the establishment of devolution. Its romanticization of “efficiency,” a moniker for lack of accountability, obscures its ideological scaffolding as an undemocratic project and masks its repressive character. We must therefore lift the veil on the NMS and reveal its true character as a sophisticated apparatus of political deception oriented at the systematic dismantling of democratic norms and practices. This requires maintaining a calculated circumspection when consuming its generosity, as its liminal distributive acts will most certainly fail to materially alter the living conditions of the inhabitants of Nairobi, especially those living in informal settlements. Ultimately, the struggle for space in the city must be approached as a wider radical political project that seeks to challenge the asymmetries of power and undo structures of oppression and marginality.

Further Reading

Homeless in the city

The periodic evictions of poor families in Nairobi follows in a long tradition in Kenya, dating to colonialism, to keep the city as a space for the elite.