At only 32, JOHNSON SAKAJA, the chairman of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s political party, The National Alliance (TNA), has attained political success many reach at much LATER IN LIFE. He seems a good case study to answer the age-old question of whether leaders are born or made, writes GRACE WACHIRA
According to 32-year-old nominated Member of Parliament Johnson Sakaja, his father noted that he was innately wired to become a leader at a tender age.
“I remember my dad expressing disappointment in me when I did what boys my age at the time did – frequently going wayward – as opposed to using a cane. He always told me that I would be a great man, and used to call me Sir Johnson PM (prime minister). I too knew I would be a leader, but I did not know how or when,” Sakaja recalls.
“Now, he is a very proud father,” adds the MP.
Johnson Sakaja was born and brought up in Ngara, Nairobi. “I am the last born and the only boy. I have two elder sisters, so I pretty much grew up as a mamas boy,” he beams.
Growing up, he experienced the best of both worlds. “We lived in Ngara while my dad worked at Firestone East Africa, which at the time was doing well, and my mum worked at Kenya Prisons in the management department,” he narrates. “Later on, my dad lost his job when the tyre company could not keep up with competition amid high production costs. When I was nine, my mother passed on,” says the TNA chairman.
Life expectedly became a bit harder and the family struggled financially, but they somehow sailed through and got a decent education. Young Sakaja attended Aga Khan Nursery and Primary where he was a head boy, and later Lenana School where he became the prefects’ coordinator and was the law society vice chair.
“I have always been a leader and a great part of my high school has shaped the way I speak. On one occasion, I was the best in public speaking in the country during the National Music Festivals.
My topic was ‘My Country Kenya’. I will never forget that feeling, I still hold it dear,” an eloquent Sakaja explains. Surprisingly, growing up, he was shy, and overcompensated when it came to school competitions to cover up for the shyness.
He also performed well academically, setting a straight A’s record for Physics and English that to date, remains at the national school.
Sakaja the rapper
He landed his first job aged 19 at PricewaterhouseCoopers, where he earned Sh15,000 per month. “It was enough then, but a year later, I lost the job and worked at a cyber café with my aunt to make ends meet. It was while there that I began producing music at Sh5,000 and also designed cards. I made art work for me,” he said.
He was interested in rapping and says he had the lyrical prowess, so he wrote rap songs while working at the cyber café, but didn’t follow through to record and release the songs.
Sakaja then enrolled at the University of Nairobi to pursue Actuarial Science after he failed to raise fees to join Harvard University in the US, where he had passed the entry-level exams.
“Growing up, I wanted to study law, but since my eldest sister was already doing that, I opted for something else,” he laughs.
When he joined campus, he put up several businesses, from laundry to hairdressing shops. “I needed to pay my college fees and also help my two sisters. By the time I was in third year, I had already bought my first car, a green Mercedes Benz that I still have to date. By Fourth Year, I had moved my sisters to an apartment in Yaya Centre,” Sakaja says. He went on to set up a financial consultancy firm, which is still up and running.
A family man in the limelight
Sakaja and his wife Beatrice tied the knot in October 2011. Theirs is a love story brewed in high school and led them to the aisle. “My eldest sister kind of hooked us up. She had been telling me about a young girl that was in their debate team at Moi Girls School Nairobi, who was smart.
I was also an active member of the debate club, and during an inter-school function, as we chilled with my pals from Lenana, I heard some guys seated behind me talking to her. I recognised her name when it was mentioned, and said ‘hi’. She has been the love of my life ever since,” he says affectionately. “She’s my best friend and is supportive. In fact, when I met her, she told me that I would become president one day. She has been my rock all through,” he adds.
They have had to adjust to him being in the limelight. “We have learnt as a family to deal with negative publicity. I have given my family the luxury to lead normal lives,” he states, explaining that this is why he avoids parading his wife in public. As such, she is able to lead a private life. She goes to the market and can board matatus without being publicly identified.
“Beatrice was with me when I had nothing, when we used to wait for fries prices and bus fare to drop so that I could take her out on a date. If I was not with her since that time, it would probably be very difficult for me to meet someone sincere and be married now,” chuckles the father of two sons. “My little ones are in pre-school, and whenever I can, I pick them from school and we hang out. It is important to be intentional about spending time with them now,” the politician adds.
The MP, who serves in several committees in parliament, is good friends with President Uhuru, and they meet often. “He’s like a father or older brother to me, a great friend and my mentor,” says Sakaja. They meet up about two to three times a month, and bump into each other two to three times a week when it is matters party. “He and First Lady Margaret attended our wedding after he excused himself from another engagement to come join us, and he stayed till late celebrating with us,” recalls Sakaja.
At one point, he worked with the president in the Finance ministry, as well as in his office when he was the deputy prime minister, during former president Mwai Kibaki’s regime. “Now, we are in government, and we are working to make Kenya a great nation,” the MP adds.
A decade in politics
It was while in campus that he first actively became involved in politics, and started making his way into the political realm. He became a student leader, and later vied and became chairman of Students Organisation of Nairobi University (SONU).
“With my platform, I rallied the youth during the 2005 referendum,” he said of his introduction to national politics.
He worked as a driver for the then director who was spearheading ‘Vijana na Kibaki’ campaign. “I literally worked my way up from there. I later became the director’s personal assistant and rose up the ranks,” recounts Sakaja, who is also the chair of Kenya Young Parliamentarians Association.
During the deadlock talks in 2007 to have a referendum and adopt a new constitution, he was among those called upon as mediators between Party of National Unity (PNU) and Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). “I had legal knowledge, and my sparking political flame had caused me to get acquainted with those that mattered in the ring,” he said.
His views on how to resolve the crisis saw him address the Cabinet when he was just 22. To be at such a platform at that age was challenging, being much younger than those in the game. “Brushing shoulders with the older folk though, helped me mature. I learnt how to handle all sorts of people, irrespective of age and profession.
“I have since been part of four successful ballot elections and this year’s will be the fifth. These opportunities explain a lot about my circle of friends. A lot of them are much older than me,” stated the youthful legislator, who met and became close to President Uhuru after getting into political circles.
Some lawyers still address him as ‘learned friend’, yet he has no formal legal training. “I love reading and people say I am smart. I used to help my elder sister study. That’s where I picked legal knowledge,” says Sakaja. He is currently reading 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene.