John Gakuo: Restoring Nairobi’s Glory

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.

These included;

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.

21 thoughts on “John Gakuo: Restoring Nairobi’s Glory

  1. MainaT

    Tx Banks. Gakuo has done an excellent job and been lucky that Mayor Wathika hasn’t interfered as much as I feared he would.

    For sure there is a lot to do-infrastructure needs to catch up with the housing expansion and work on slum clearance is overdue.

    The return of the “Green City under the Sun”? I hope so

  2. no-spin

    I agree, “town”, as we used to call it is now cleaner; but what about the areas in Nairobi that are outside town? Kiosks everywhere – look at Mimosa court area, Golf-course, area outside Kenyatta Market, the road to Kibera, starting at Ngong road through woodley. The rest of Nairobi needs attention.
    In the estates, there are all these add-on constructions that are not just an eye-sore, but a safety risk in case of fire etc.
    Nice job, but plenty of room to improve.

  3. luke

    very nice job, definitely alot of room for improvement as no-spin has suggested but for overall initial effort I would give the performance of the town clerk John Gakuo in 2 1/2 years 5 stars. are councillors and town clerks voted in? if so, this is one man i would definitely want to be allowed to continue carrying on his good work


    At least he has started somewhere. Lets give praise where praise is due, and encourage him to do more where work has not been done.

    On a different note, Bankelele:
    How does one open a CDSC account if you are not physically in KE?

    Bankelele: most of your readers take you to be an authority in these matters. It would be nice if you provided a HOWTO somewhere.
    (if you do not have time for this type of stuff, you could send me the relevant places to look and then i will create a public howto)

  5. The Figure

    That’s a nice summary about the City Hall Clerk. Without sounding hawkish, I guess he could also extend some gratitude to the central govt for the leeway. He can also help the cause by highlighting any future developments. That way we the City ‘users’ can throw in our 2 cents worth of advice.
    Good works Banks ( please make more entries on your blog…we wait for too long….tsk !)

  6. bankelele

    MainaT: True, and he has survived despite the turbulent councillor politics of Naiorbi. There’s much more to be done in Naiorbi, esp infrastructure & housing, but those problems are bigger that the council can do now

    no-spin: again, council is not able to aoo all they hope, but write to him, and see if he takes action on those kiosks, thought he mentioned its a highly politial issue

    Luke: I’ve always wanted to see a positive role model in local government and I thought it would be a small town mayor, not a big city town clerk drope me a line at Most of the stockbrokers lsied on the main page have forms you can download and then (snail) mail to them

    JKE: thanks, city has been transformed

    The Figure: The Late Minister Maitha started with a lot of force, but seems to have worn down by the time he passed away. I can’t put much stock in the acheivements of the current minister though

    Kenyan Entrepreneur: Permanent secretary would likely be his next docket

  7. muthii fulani

    its a big transormation from the days i used to work in the city centre in the mid to late 90’s. I must visit the recreational parks soon its been too long since i was last there. good post!

  8. Ms K

    Thanks for this Banks. I for one am convinced Gakuo is the man to move Nairobi forward.

    About kiosks, obviously he has to start somewhere and he has. I believe there are no kiosks near Mimosa court now. Adams Toi market has also been cleaned up, stalls were put up and traders no longer along the road. Ok a few break the law but I’m sure they’ll be dealt with soon. The road through Kwality Hotel has also been cleared of kiosks.

    I’m just saying, they are trying to clear all those eysores while minimising impact ie allocating alternative space to traders. Let’s give them time.

    As he says, many Nairobians are impatient but don’t contribute. Otherwise why do matatus still stop at undesignated areas????

  9. Kenyan Entrepreneur

    what is the mayor of nairobi elected to do??? because there’s seems to be a disconnection between various local authorities:

    the mayor does one thing…
    the city manager another…
    the ministry of local govt does something else..

    aren’t all these departments supposed to work together? or at least coordinate their activities and strategies?

  10. mushenzi

    When gakuo took over the city under the garbage, it was a serious mess. He has obviously made significant contributions. Gakuo for president! 🙂

  11. bankelele

    muthii fulani: we have come along way from when street families used to live outside Kencom House and Aga Khan walk & garden was their toilet

    Ms K: I agree that we are part of the matatu problem. The traffic at Hurlingam is all beacause of people being picked/dropped anywhere but the (small) bus stops.
    – Kiosks are also complex, and will take time. They represent peoples’ livelihoods, and if they had no customers in the sububs they would not exist.

    Kenyan Entrepreneur: good question. I think it’s the ceremonial side of City Hall – the Chairman of the board (councillors) while the Town Clerk is the (CEO)

    mushenzi: Credit also to his oficers who enforce his directives

  12. Maishinski

    John Gakuo is a modern Kenyan Hero.

    I was in Colombo recently and was amazed at how dirty and chaotic the place is – compared to that place, Nairobi is heaven on earth!

    If it wasn’t for the traffic, Nairobi CBD would be at the same level as a typical city in Europe.

    Perhaps Gakuo can convert CBD into a pedestrian zone. All Narrow streets & roads in CBD should be converted into pedestrian walkways like they did at Mama Ngina. Then restaurants can expand and put tables outside (more sales – more jobs – better economy) and special areas can be demarcated for tourist sales.

    CBD congestion tax should be introduced to cut down traffic. Parking fees within CBD should be several times (e.g. 10x) higher than elsewhere if 1HR is exceeded. Clean, airconditioned, buses and organized Metered Taxis should be the only Public transport vehicles allowed in CBD.

    Security cameras and lights could then be put in specific areas (e.g. near banks and shopping streets).

    Side effects include improved security & safety for all (e.g. how easy would it be for jackers to rob banks /shops if they always have to run on foot & on camera)?.

    Kudos to John Gakuo and his team!

  13. Anonymous

    hahaha how come kombo gets no credit…since he appointed the guy and has been more on developing processes unlike the previous gusy maitha who was all about using force or extra judicial power.

    anyway does it mean nairobi will not function without gakuo. is ist the person or the institution?

  14. Maishinski

    The institution has always been there… Not so long ago, city hall was always associated with dirty, rotting and stinking garbage in the streets of Nairobi.

    This time, it is definitely the PERSON.

    Kombo did well by appointing Gakuo. When a subordinate shines, the manager also shines.

    Even President Kibaki looks good in the public eye because of the good work of his juniors!

  15. just what?

    good work from gakuo, but will he and his reforms survive to next year?
    clean streets and trees make a city a more pleasant place to live and work in, but is anyone thinking of the larger concepts that drive cities? i’m thinking dubai’s ‘media city’ or ‘internet city’.

  16. Loco

    When I was in Kenya earlier this year I was actually able to walk through central park at around 8.00pm without being accosted by the usual boogeymen who used to haunt the place. I was impressed to say the least!

    It’s always good to see a leader set the pace in terms of what leadership should be, especially in Kenya. Visible change lays the foundation for Kenyan’s to start having faith in the systems that are being set up, albeit some of the by-laws are taken to the extreme by the city council askaris, and we still have a long way to go with issues such as parking, hawking, congestion and so forth, but it’s definitely a positive start.

  17. Saundra

    Good way of explaining, and good piece of writing to obtain data on the topic of my presentation topic, which i am going to convey in institution of higher education.

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