That Johnson Sakaja sits at the head of the table at TNA shouldn’t surprise anyone. At Aga Khan Primary School Nairobi, he was the headboy (he won the Unicef International Children’s debate).
In Lenana School, he played the guitar in a gospel band; at University of Nairobi where he studied Actuarial Science, he was vice-chair of the Actuarial Students Association and later Sonu. (He also ran a successful laundry business on campus.)
Then there was his involvement in the 2005 referendum and his role in the re-election of former President Mwai Kibaki.
I ran into him at a party and pulled him aside for this interview. He was cultured, sharp, eloquent and – surprisingly – showed no form of hubris.
What’s the biggest misconception people have of you?
That I’m arrogant and that I’m rich. (Chuckles) Neither of which are true.
Looking back, at what point do you think your tide took a turn?
You know, I have always had a keen interest in national politics since I was young. Deep down, I knew I would get into politics someday. I just didn’t know it would be this soon. I thought it would be later after I retired. I think through student leadership, I got an opportunity to work in ex-President Kibaki’s campaign but even then, it’s only in the 2010 Constitution-making process that I think I came to politically as a consultant.
The real turn happened while working with President Uhuru Kenyatta when he was Minister of Finance.
You rub shoulders with party old guard. At 30, does your age ever come into play?
It used to a lot, especially at the beginning but it no longer does. There was, of course, some scepticism at the beginning. Being chairman of a party is not a technical position, it’s a position of leadership. You have to arbitrate, give direction and make tough decisions. I think over time I was able to gain their trust. It’s no longer an issue in Parliament.
Does that sometimes make you insecure?
No, it makes me believe in myself more. What I have learnt is that it’s really not about age, it’s what you can bring to the table. Whilst perhaps I come in without any political baggage from the past, I find their [old guard] experience and age useful so I also bounce ideas off them.
What has power done for you – or to you, for that matter?
The best way of handling power is by not realising that you have it. I don’t think I have power because if I do, then it will go to my head. I don’t walk around with bodyguards as you can see. I drive myself, I stay simple, I hang out with everybody. I look at power as a tool. It’s like fire, you can use it to cook or to burn.
Has your position – being a politician and all – affected your friendships?
I’m still with many of them, as you can see here. The other day I was in West Pokot, my pal was getting married but I was the driver, picking up and dropping people and someone said, “no mheshimiwa, let someone else do that.” And I said, “today I’m not mheshimiwa. Today I’m a pal supporting a friend.”
But it’s been difficult and at some point, I was almost losing some of them because we are at different places in life. The things that I would think about all the time are not what the normal 30-year-old would think about.
What makes you the most insecure?
(Pause) That’s a tough question, man. (Long pause) What can shake me? Hmmm. When I realise that there is a potential of losing touch with the ground, that it would take very little to be a sycophant or to be aloof. Sometimes in the course of my work, when I say certain things, my wife says, “look, that’s not you.” And I have to listen to her because she knows me.
What’s your greatest struggle as a man right now?
As a dude? (Pause) You see, for me, it’s about legacy. That pre-occupies my mind. There are only a few people thinking about what Kenya will be in the next 30 years and what that means for us now.
We are busy thinking about how to put grass on Uhuru Highway instead of putting a tram and some mass transport system for our capital city. And so when I look at my sons – I have two boys – I wonder what they will say about me when they are my age.
Who or what has had the greatest influence in your life?
At a personal level, I would say my dad and my sister, Annmarie, who was only six years older than me but who shaped the person I am today. We lost our mum a long time ago and she stepped into that position even when my dad would not always be there later on.
And what’s your weakness as a politician?
Trust. I trust too easily and many times I have trusted the wrong people. I have been betrayed several times and on many things. I always like to start from the position that everyone is good until you prove otherwise.
What’s the one thing you have learnt in politics so far?
(Sigh) That’s a tough one, my friend. I have learnt so many things. (Pause) You know, I have 10 years’ experience in national politics, but the thing that I have been able to get is that people don’t care what you know or what you say.
People will never remember what you tell them but what you make them feel. Kenyans want consistently honest and strong leaders and they are not stupid, they see honesty.
When were you ever so wrong in politics?
I’ve made a couple of bad decisions. (Thinks) I don’t want to give a recent example because that might just make the news. (Laughs)
I think for me, it has been on the type of individuals to support. One wrong call that I wasn’t directly involved in and I saw coming was the Kajiado by-election. I think I could have done more, but I didn’t.
Will Kenyans ever look at you politicians differently?
No. All over the world, people are dissatisfied with politicians. It’s because the system of governance is increasingly getting out of touch with the pace people are living at because we are working within a system of governance designed in the 19th century.
I want to look forward to a point where leaders will see Kenyans differently; where guys aren’t coming from retirement to lead, or to make money but that it will be more about guys who know this is about service to the nation. Kenyans will not look at leaders differently until leaders look at Kenyans differently.
I love that soundbite. What do you think you are best at, being a dad or being a politician?
I don’t think I’m a good politician. I strive to be a better dad. I don’t know how good I am though. I try to make time. My boys are two and three. My first born, JB, just started school so I try to drop him or pick him up. I used to live in Karen but I moved nearer to the city so that I can have lunch at home.
I’m not a good politician because I’m an obvious liar. My eyes give me away. Plus, I wouldn’t want something so bad that I would be willing to step on people. I’m vying in the next election, I don’t have to win… this antagonistic me-versus-you kind of politics is not for me.
Who is the one mind you like and admire in the Opposition?
Currently? Well, I really used to admire him but he’s beginning to disappoint me. (Laughs) John Mbadi. I like how he thinks, especially before he became ODM chairman. But I think the pressures of being chair has made him make one or two bad decisions, but still he’s my favourite politician in the Opposition.
Has politics affected you as a husband?
I got married as a politician. (Laughs) I met my wife in high school and she told me, “This is the path you will take.” She has been very supportive since.
You know my opening speech during the launch of TNA, the one that people remember the most? I wrote that speech with her. She’s an excellent writer.
What does she do?
She’s now raising our children. You know, she’s one of those really bright people, very exceptional. She’s a marketer. She was doing accounts before, she was number one in the country during her year but despite all that, she is now keeping our home and, of course, doing other biasharas.
What’s your biggest fear as a man?
Failing as a dad. I give a lot of credence to where I am to the kind of father I had. My dad built me up.
When I was three, he would come home and ask, “where is my prime minister, Sir Johnson!” And I didn’t know what that meant then but I just knew it was something great and I internalised it and it built my confidence. I want to impact the same greatness on my kids.
What excites you the most now?
I have sat at the same table with some of the most powerful people in the world. I’ve driven big cars, travelled all over the world. Those things don’t excite me anymore. I think for me now, I’ve got to that philosophical point where I’m thinking of impact, purpose… something bigger.
You must be a reader. What’s the book that you read that had a major impact on your life?
When I completed fourth form, I read, Anthony Robbins’ Awaken the Giant Within. That book had the biggest impact on my life. It taught me one thing that I see as my greatest strength – the ability to make decisions and think clearly.
What’s your biggest extravagance, tangible or intangible?
Two things. I’m a bit careless when it comes to giving people money. That and cars. I have a weakness for cars and my wife has given up on that story. (Laughs)
So what car are you?
(Pause) You know, you have the best questions I have ever heard! (Laughs) Wow. I have never thought of that one! (Long pause) I think I am a Land Rover Defender. I’m strong and reliable. I get the job done. I’m not sleek or showy, I just get things done.