Like former Mayor (and now Presidential Candidate) Rudy Giuliani did for New York in the mid-1990’s, John Gakuo, the town clerk of the City Council of Nairobi, is credited with the clean up of the city, making it a cleaner, safer, and a more beautiful place to visit.
So how did he do it? He gave a Leadership Forum talk on October 17 on his time at City Hall
Who: John Gakuo is a University of Nairobi Graduate and had been an administrator (provincial administration) for over 20 years. He was appointed Town Clerk (effectively CEO) of the Nairobi City Council in 2004. He is inspired by history – France’s recovery since WWI, the Arusha Declaration (Tanzania) – and believes that Nairobi can be restored to its glory, which last shone in the 1970’s.
He gave his talk on the challenge of effective resource management and began by saying that resources were not the key to change, noting that some countries with abundant mineral resources have their citizens living in extreme poverty, while others with fewer resources, have prudently managed what they have to achieve great things. And that was the theme of his talk – use what you have to get what you want
The success he has had at city hall has been through effective resource management and he decried leaders who use the ‘we have no money’ excuse for not doing things, noting that they should solve problems in other ways
Beginning: He was transferred there from the Ministry of Health and initially believed someone wanted him fired (from the Government) by having him posted to the ‘chaotic’ office – one that attracts insults in the media every day, for the poor conditions in the city. He found the city dirty because they had no brooms, and was told there was no money to buy brooms. He thought about it and decided that the staff could not be idle, so he asked them to cut tree branches to sweep up the city. In no time, this led to money becoming available, and soon brooms were procured and work continued.
And from that point on he decided to set out priority areas that he could tackle with his limited resource base, and which produced visible results, since he did not have money to do what people wanted most.
Recreation Areas: Nairobi city was planned for ½ million people, but now had 3 ½ million, and even up to 4 million during the daytime – and there were no places for recreation. Two parks – Central Park and Uhuru Park were very dirty, un-maintained, and controlled by gangs of urchins who molested anyone who dared go near the parks. So he fixed the one tractor and grass cutter and began a long attempt to mow the grass and clean the parks of trash. They also set up lighting for the park and security so that couples and families could begin using the park. He is gratified by the numbers of people (couples, families) who now visit and rest in the park, in relative safety. Later he extended his campaign to Uhuru Gardens (Langata Road) even though it is not under the Council’s jurisdiction – and it is now a popular weekend rest point for people.
Statutory (Legal) Powers as a Resource for Service Delivery: He said, even when you have no money, you still have to be seen to be at work, and that people always want to see new things from leaders. So he undertook measures which were visible and which he could maintain, but which did not require money. He took advantage of very powerful, but dormant, by-laws in the city council code, which he combined with the abundant staff resource at his disposal. These efforts included curbing down on garbage dumping at Kangemi (though it took over 2,000 arrests for the message to sink in), and requiring buildings owners in Nairobi to fix & paint their buildings prior to license renewal. Also littering, public urination, and zebra crossing, and numerous other (unfortunate ‘violations’ were punished by the council’s various inspectorate teams.
Lighting & Beautification: Lighting is an essential feature of beautification and security in the city. He set out to put lights that would give visitors a positive impression of the city, right from Jomo Kenyatta airport and into the city, as well as on Langata Road and Waiyaki Way up to the city boundaries – and plans to light up Thika Road up to Kenyatta University. Within the city, lighting, combined with other inspectorate crews were used to rid the streets of urchins who used to snatch women’s purses and who made several parts of the city no-go zones after sunset. They plan to light up the other side of Tom Mboya Street up to Nairobi River and Khoja Mosque as well.
In addition to urchins, he also cut down on the women who’d beg with children on their back all day, believing that few of them were genuine cases. He does not know where they went, but they are not on the streets anymore as they can be charged with ‘idling’. He joked that when you see him coming up with a new by-law to enforce, you know the City is broke again
Trees are relatively cheap to plant; they make the city beautiful and filter the exhaust fumes from vehicles. So the council has planted thousands of evergreen trees in the city and along the major highways.
Roundabouts and fountains are being resorted in parks and at strategic points in the city after years of disuse.
Roundabouts are archaic and they will all be ripped up along Uhuru Highway.
Kiosks often harbour undesirables, some can do, but they are a very sensitive political matter and he gets a lot of pressure when he cracks down. However, with the ones outside Nairobi Hospital, he was able to accommodate them by asking that they rebuild them in a manner that they were not an eyesore
Matatu’s: He described the transport minibuses as a menace. Some measures he has taken to rein them in include stationing 2 tow trucks at the Westlands roundabout to intercept any matatu dropping of picking up passengers on the road, instead of using the bus-stop, while on Thika Road, they are digging trenches to prevent matatu’s from driving down the side of the road.
Garbage Disposal The Dandora dumpsite been around for 50 years to the detriment of their residents’ health. The City Council is seeking an international company to tackle solid waste disposal soon.
Partnerships: He said Business & Residents Associations have not provided meaningful assistance – all they do is have endless meetings and resolutions with no action thereafter, while most who have pledged to restore/beautify some roundabouts have not done more than put up their own advertising. He welcomes anyone or business that has a plan/action to beautify/restore any project in the City to contact his office, noting that majority of city residents have been impatient but not helpful.
Media relations: He has engaged the public through the media by responding/replying to each accusation or report he read about in the news about the City Council. This has helped the media come around to understand the challenges he faces.
Numbers: He was questioned later about revenue and staff numbers. On staff, he said that they have about 13,000 staff and ideally should have 7,000. He said when he has enough money, he will retrench some of them, but for now he’ll continue to use them as effectively as he can so they earn their keep. On revenue he said when he joined 2 ½ years ago, the city was collecting 3 billion, now they are up to 11 billion and growing. Earlier on he took over aspects of the Finance Department, since Treasury was receiving very little of what was being collected.
Succession: One questioner dropped a Tom Peters quote on him challenging that ‘leaders are not judged by how many followers they have, but by how many leaders they create’ – to which he replied that all he can do is let others see his strategies and actions and see if they are worth emulating.
Summary: The Town Clerk is a man who believes in action, not talk. And with his style and achievements, you can expect him to probably, like Rudy Giuliani (minus the personal baggage), step into politics in a few years.
May 2018: John Gakuo was jailed for three years and fined Kshs 1 million for abuse of office stemming from the irregular purchase of cemetery land for Nairobi.
October 2018: John Gakuo died while receiving treatment at a Nairobi Hospital.