The rise and fall of Sonko, the Matatu King

Sonko's dramatic rise to power challenged the vested interests of the country’s ruling elite. So they fought back. And won

In Summary

• Before his 40th birthday, Mike Mbuvi Gidion Kioko Sonko straddled Nairobi's Eastlands like a colossus

• He recruited some of the shrewdest youngsters across Eastlands to be his drivers, conductors and hangers-on

(Editors note: This story was first published in August 2021)

A taxi overlord, Mike Sonko, used the power and profits from his blinged-out transports to buy and batter his way to the governorship. His dramatic rise to power challenged the vested interests of the country’s ruling elite. So they fought back. And won.

We piece this together from original reporting, public records and the utterances of the various participants. The story is extraordinary. And true.  


In the mid-2010s, before his 40th birthday, Mike Mbuvi Gidion Kioko Sonko straddled Nairobi's Eastlands like a colossus; a king and his bulging fiefdom.

Eastlands is many things, one among them being a constellation of colonial housing estates and their post-Independence imitations.

Once upon a time, Eastlands was the hallmark of arrival for the Black African elite. But upon seizing state power, that gentry migrated en masse to hitherto Europeans-only neighbourhoods.

Left to its own devices, swathes of urban ghettos burgeoned across Eastlands’s flanks. Later attempts at urbanisation yielded poorly designed highrise residential structures made up of mostly cramped and poorly-lit flats.

But Eastlands wasn’t sulking.

Out of the dusty roads, unlit streets and dried-up taps came Sheng, a popular slang made from an intricate mix of English, Kiswahili and bits and pieces of other vernacular.

The language paved the way for Kenya’s ’90s rap culture, a paunchy mimicry of American gangster rap.

Art forms such as graffiti piggybacked on the music, with both the music and graffiti finding their way into matatus, the unruly public transport minibuses that are ubiquitous in Nairobi.

This evolution saw matatus morph from plain-looking jalopies into manyangas – cosy rides with ostentatious bodyworks and exteriors embellished with avant-garde artwork, blasting deafening music.

Matatu crews – drivers, conductors and hangers-on who moonlight as drivers and conductors – lived up to their billing as some of the most fashionable Nairobians.

Dressed to the nines and blinged-up as if teleported off a Snoop Dogg music video – they had tattoos, dyed their hair and wore gold and silver teeth, chains, bungles and rings – deres and kanges were a hip hop version of the DR Congo’s immaculately dressed sapeurs.

Earning a modest daily wage, which was spent as quickly as it was gained, these exuberant personas were demigods in Eastlands’ jobless corners.

They regularly sponsored bottles of cheap liquor and bundles of khat, the narcotic shrub, to the delight of their less endowed peers and admirers. The matatu subculture became an integral part of Eastlands’ fabric.

In 2010, when the rest of Nairobi and Kenya got to know him, the 35-year-old Mbuvi was already the undisputed supremo of Nairobi’s matatu subculture.

He owned a dozen of the swankiest nganyas, the Sheng word for souped-up matatus had evolved from manyanga in the ’90s to nganya in the 2000s and choda most recently.

These all plied route number 58, operating between downtown Nairobi and Buru Buru shopping centre, a busily congested hub populated with pubs, hypermarkets and discotheques.

The rule for matatus is the more flagrant the better, so Mbuvi went all out, pioneering the installation of big-screen TVs at the front of the passenger cabins of his 32-seater matatus, and giving them names like Brown Sugar, Convict, Ferrari, Lakers and Ruff Cuts. Commuters could now watch the music video as the song played. Mbuvi even added a double-decker bus to his fleet, affording Buru Buru residents a lofty view as they traversed their city.

For Mbuvi, who just 12 years earlier was serving time in a maximum security prison, this was already a remarkable turnaround in fortunes. Few realised then that he was only just getting started.


Born in Mombasa and bred in Kwale, Mbuvi had been a resident of the two coastal towns for most of his life. His father ran a property brokerage company, and the young Mbuvi dabbled in the family business. But Mbuvi’s wheeling and dealing occasionally crossed the line.

In 1995, aged 20 and already making petty cash, Mbuvi was arrested and charged with assault. The following year, Mbuvi was charged with impersonation in the course of cutting his land deals. He was released on bail on both occasions.

But he kept failing to appear in court, a practice that violated the terms of his bail and eventually, in 1997, got him arrested and sentenced to six months in prison.

Mbuvi was dispatched to the Shimo La Tewa Maximum Security Prison on March 12, 1998, as prisoner number P/No. SHO/477/1998.

After a month behind bars, he feigned illness and was admitted at Coast General Hospital in Mombasa, from where he vanished on April 16, 1998, only to reappear in Buru Buru.

Mbuvi’s justification for skipping jail was that he needed to pay his last respects to his late mother, Saumu Mukami, whose funeral he had missed while behind bars.

But in reality, he just needed a fresh start.

Speaking Kiswahili with a coastal accent, Mbuvi landed in Buru with a bang. Together with his wife Primrose, Mbuvi scrounged for capital and set up a hair salon, a barber shop, a video library, a cybercafé, an outlet for selling automobile parts and a clothes boutique.

Being a fugitive, Mbuvi operated in the shadows. Primrose ran the show, and the businesses flourished. The couple opened a popular nightclub, then ventured into the matatus business.

Initially, Mbuvi couldn’t afford nganyas. And so he settled for a couple of worn-out matatus, which he deployed into the deep of Eastlands in Dandora, a sprawling settlement that hosts Nairobi’s largest dumpsite.

It was while operating on these Eastlands back routes that Mbuvi got a deeper understanding of the business and the place.

It was also around this time, aged 25 in 2000, that Mbuvi got in trouble with the law again, over yet another property deal gone south.

While detained at Nairobi’s Industrial Area Remand Prison awaiting trial, wardens connected the dots backwards to Mbuvi’s escape from Shimo La Tewa prison in 1998.

Before Mbuvi knew what had transpired, he was moved to the more secure Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. Soon, he was back at Shimo La Tewa to complete his pending 12-month sentence.

But after just nine months, he applied for a review of his sentence. In his dramatic affidavit, Mbuvi claimed he was epileptic and HIV positive, and suffered from chronic tuberculosis and peptic ulcers.

He was released on the strength of his supposedly dire medical condition and reported good behaviour.

Back in Buru, Primrose had grown their businesses. With satisfactory liquidity, it was now time to get into the top league of the matatu business.

Making it their main hustle, Mbuvi and Primrose accumulated a fleet of Nairobi’s loudest and most dashing nganyas, thereby dominating the Buru route. Money started streaming in by the bucket.


There is a hierarchy of nganyas, which works in the same fashion as music charts.

The longer a song stays at number one, the more the artist earns. For nganyas, those at the top of the pecking order make more money per day: by charging higher fares or making the highest number of roundtrips, or both.

The audacity to charge higher rates emanates from the fact that nganyas always have a steady stream of passengers – call them fans or groupies – who will stay put at the terminus until their favourite nganya shows up.

This group of commuters never minds paying something extra for the comfort, music choice or prestige of riding their favourite nganya.

More importantly, reigning nganyas manage to make as many roundtrips as possible since they are ordinarily exempted from certain protocols within the matatu ecosystem, including the first-come-first-boarded rule at the pick-up and drop-off points.

This meant that whenever Mbuvi’s nganyas got to downtown Nairobi, they skipped the queue, filled up instantly and turned around.

The same applied when they got to Buru shopping centre, never allowing the ignition to turn off. As long as the nganyas were on the move, Mbuvi’s bankers were elated.

However, the biggest advantage nganyas had was that they were a law unto themselves. In their pursuit of making as many roundtrips as possible, nganyas overlapped, took shortcuts, bullied motorists off lanes and occasionally drove on the wrong side of the road.

All of this, christened matatu madness by Nairobians, was made possible through the collusion of traffic police, who were on the payrolls of matatu barons.

According to deres of some of Nairobi’s top nganyas (the routes they ply can’t be named for fear of victimisation), there has always existed a bribery food chain, where the top cops are paid monthly, and the amount drops as one cascades down the ranks, with the lowest earners being roadside cops who take as little as half a dollar per nganya per day.

This rule-breaking by nganyas was deemed necessary, considering it cost an arm and a leg to transform a regular minibus into a nganya.

Aside from making him incredible amounts of money — Mbuvi has previously estimated that on an average day, at the end of the morning shift at midday, he’d have a clean $200 (Sh20,000) per nganya, excluding whatever he’d make during the evening rush hour — matatus made Mbuvi an el jefe; a boss.

To run his ever-growing matatu empire, Mbuvi recruited some of the shrewdest youngsters across Eastlands to be his drivers, conductors and hangers-on, making him the leader of an influential network across Eastlands.

It was in this era of Mbuvi’s life that he earned the nickname ‘Sonko’, which is Sheng for boss or the monied one. Mbuvi’s other moniker, which was never said out loud, was Kabumba – a Sheng term insinuating black magic.

Mbuvi’s rise had been so meteoric that some onlookers suspected sorcery.

These whispered rumours were partly fuelled by the fact that he was born and bred at the Coast, and tapped into the popular myth that there is a powerful form of wizardry that draws its powers from the Indian Ocean.

Mbuvi did little to discourage this impression; he donned gold rings emblazoned with weird-looking animal statues on all his fingers, bling bling believed to be the repository of voodoo powers.

This story was first published in The Continent, the award-winning pan-African newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Message +27 738056068

Edited by T Jalio

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