December 7, 2022

GARISA, Kenya – If George Wagakuyah is elected president of Kenya next week — and that’s a huge if — gardeners will be asked to pluck the flowers that decorate the new 17-mile Nairobi highway built in China.

Replace it with marijuana.

In a presidential election in which the main candidates are the same old politicians, no one can accuse Professor Wajakuyah of making the same old electoral promises. And while the poll is taking place in low single numbers, it could be high enough to deny the preferred candidates a majority and force a run-off that would disrupt Kenyan politics for months.

Street kid turned Hare Krishna priest turned secret policeman turned lawyer, Professor Wagakuyah vows to put the entire country on a four-day work schedule. He threatens to fire Chinese workers and plans to export snake venom.

But it is his plan to legalize marijuana that has captured the attention of a disgruntled unemployed Kenyan youth, who rush to him when he emerges from the sunroof of a borrowed SUV for his campaign or stops at a filling station restroom.

Professor Wagakuya has taken criticism from church leaders for his stance on marijuana, and from conservationists for his suggestion that hyenas be culled and their testicles sold to Asia as a treatment for erectile dysfunction.

However, more than 70% of Kenya’s population is under the age of 35, and for many of them, Mr. Wagakuyah is a welcoming and at times comical from the political circle that has run the country since independence in 1963.

“Every reggae club in the country has my picture there,” he said during a recent campaign layover in Garissa, a barren college town in eastern Kenya, about 100 miles from the Somali border.

Driving around this East African country in a Destiny T-shirt, adidas sweatpants, sneakers and signature rags, the 62-year-old may garner enough support to position himself as kingmaker in the October run-off election. .

A series of new polls put him between 1.8% and 2.9% nationally, with none of his main opponents having crossed the 50% threshold needed to declare his outright victory. In one survey last June, it hit 4%.

Young supporters greet Professor Wajakoya during the campaign’s visit to Garissa.


Michael M. Phillips/The Wall Street Journal

A fan displays his campaign shirt at Garissa.


Michael M. Phillips/The Wall Street Journal

That may be enough to appeal to Professor Wagakuyah from abroad to spoil the race for the presidency between two long-time politicians: Vice President William Ruto, an advocate for working Kenyans, and fifth-time candidate Raila Odinga, who is endorsed. by outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Candidates must win a majority of the national vote and meet county voting limits to secure victory and avoid a run-off election in October.

Professor Wajakuya’s Roots Party platform begins with the legalization of marijuana, which is called bungee in Swahili. Professor Wagakuya, who says he does not smoke it himself, said that if industrial hemp and medical marijuana were grown in just one province, it would generate enough revenue that “Kenya could buy Bill Gates and Microsoft in just two years.”

But the young men who surrounded his car in Garissa weren’t even imagining the industrial hemp when the white-bearded candidate raised his fist and shouted, “Bungee power!”

“He lets me smoke,” said Abdi Kani Abdullah, 21, who drives a wheeled taxi.

“We’ll be high until we die,” said fellow driver Mohamed Shambi, 31. He plans to try to get his parents to vote for Mr. Wajakuya as well.

Professor Wagakuya said his government would write new regulations to discourage people from walking in highway traffic to pick pots from flower boxes.

Also on his to-do list: shut down the Chinese railway connecting the capital to the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa, repay Kenya’s debts to China with bags of marijuana and install a Kenyan-made railway.

His campaign manifesto promises to “repatriate the foreign unemployed who have taken Kenyan jobs,” a group he described as Chinese workers brought in to build Chinese-funded infrastructure projects. Beijing has spread to Africa with ports, airports, roads and bridges, a campaign that has often left countries heavily indebted to Chinese state-owned companies.

“In Kenya we are being overrun by the Chinese,” he said.

Zhou Binjian, Beijing’s ambassador in Nairobi, said that less than a fifth of Kenya’s external debt is owed to Chinese creditors and that the loans provided by China go to valuable infrastructure. “The fruitful and tangible results of our cooperation are strong, and there for all to see,” Mr. Chu wrote in a recent editorial in Kenyan news outlets.

Professor Wagakuya grew up herding his father’s cows in the village of Indangalasia in western Kenya. But after his parents separated and his mother fled after a dispute with other villagers, he ended up roaming on foot to Nairobi at the age of 15. He lived on the streets until he was rescued by the Hare Krishna community, a faith he still practices. .

Generous sponsors put him through the school, and he ended up earning an undergraduate degree in the UK and an LLM from the University of Baltimore.

When not campaigning, Professor Wagakuyah practices law in Nairobi and was an assistant professor at the American International University in Nairobi.

He met his American wife, flight attendant Miller Cheetham, at the departure gate at Philadelphia International Airport in 2010.

She thought he was a bit full of himself, but she was amazed when he said he wanted to become president someday to make a difference in the lives of ordinary Kenyans.

“They will love you just as they all do,” Mrs. Cheetham assured him when he and all his expedition volunteers left in a small caravan for Garissa.

Professor Wagakuya said he wants to pay off Kenya’s debt to China with bags of marijuana.


Michael M. Phillips/The Wall Street Journal

Policemen pose for pictures with Professor Wagakuya outside Garissa.


Michael M. Phillips/The Wall Street Journal

Items on his manifest include exporting dog meat and harvesting snake venom to make antivenom. He predicts that a Kenyan farmer can earn $5,300 for a vial of black mamba poison, a jackpot in a country with a per capita GDP of $2,000.

Professor Wagakuya promises four-day workweeks, with the entire Kenyan economy, including bars running, on the hospital’s three-shift schedule, open 24 hours a day.

Tom Moloney, a professor of political science at the University of Edinburgh who studies Kenya’s elections, said many young voters see little hope that the lead candidate will change their lives. “Then there’s Wajakoya,” said Mr. Moloney.

Professor Wagakuya won’t say who he will support in the run-off, or what he will ask in return. He said that both major candidates had reason to fear Planck 4 in his statement, which reads: “Hang the corrupt.”

There are rumors in Kenyan political circles that Mr Odinga’s supporters are indirectly supporting Professor Wagakuya because they believe he is pulling young voters away from Mr Ruto.

In fact, the police appeared in force to protect Professor Wajakuya when he arrived at Garissa with a megaphone truck that drove off Bob Marley.

The officers posed for selfies with him as he passed through the checkpoints. He spent eight years in the special branch, the Kenya Secret Police, eavesdropping on enemies of former President Daniel arap Moi, who served from 1978 to 2002.

“This is the hand of the government,” said one of Professor Wagakuya’s assistants regarding the reinforcement of the security presence.

Professor Wagakuya delights in adulation. He points proudly to reports of a woman holding a cannabis leaf on her forehead in his honor.

His convoy left Garissa, accompanied by a spontaneous flock of hundreds of young men on motorbikes, chanting his name and waving campaign posters.

“A lot of people think I’m crazy,” he said in one of his campaign letters. “But the Lord God made me this way.”

A billboard in the capital, Nairobi, showing Professor Wagakuya and his colleague Justina Wamay.


yasuyoshi chiba/AFP/Getty Images

write to Michael M. Phillips at [email protected]

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