Governor Sonko made his comments to a gathering of mourners that included Okoth’s Italian-born wife, whom he met at college in Austria, and with whom he had no children.
Sonko’s words unwittingly touched a raw nerve, sparking criticism from some politicians and dividing opinion in this deeply religious and conservative society, where such family matters are expected to be aired only in the privacy of the home.
CNN’s efforts to reach Sonko and his staff for comment were unsuccessful. When asked about the governor’s comments, Okoth’s brother, Imran Okoth, told CNN: “No comment. It’s a personal matter.” The alleged mother of Okoth’s child declined to comment.
Nairobians immediately took to social media with the hashtag #Sonko to jokingly warn each other not to share their secrets with the governor, who would inevitably spill them in a very public manner.
Sonko, who has three children, can best be described as a maverick operator. But his comments reflect a very real problem in Kenya, where many children go through life without any paternal assistance.
On Friday, Sonko announced on Facebook that he had received numerous complaints from women via his hotline. His “investigation,” as he described it, found that numerous politicians had impregnated their girlfriends and had “refused to take responsibilities [for] their babies.”
Sonko said evidence of some of these transgressions would be published soon in newspapers and on his Facebook page. None of these claims could be verified by CNN.
The fallout from Sonko’s comments at the funeral split opinions in Kenya’s capital. Was the governor right in exposing his legislator friend’s alleged infidelity so publicly?
Brandish Kotia, a restaurant owner, told CNN: “What Sonko did wasn’t right. Those are family affairs. They could have just talked to each other, there was no need to make it so public.”
Mary, a shopkeeper in Nairobi’s Westlands District who declined to give her last name due to the sensitivities of commenting on politicians, agreed with Sonko: “It will be a lesson to everybody. There is too much hiding and when you try to tell the men, they don’t want to hear about it. But now everybody will be alert.”
The men CNN spoke to largely refused to comment and shook their heads at the governor’s audacity. “He’s letting us men down,” said a taxi driver, before he drove off.
And despite the governor’s public concern for single mothers, there have also been growing questions about how the Kenyan parliament treats its women members. In June, a male legislator was accused of physically assaulting a female MP, and last week a female MP was kicked out of parliament for bringing her five-month-old baby into the chamber because current rules do not allow children.
There has been tension too between female legislators, women’s rights groups and Sonko after the episode at the funeral.
With that, Sonko lost the respect of Memory Kachambwa, executive director of African Women’s Development & Communication Network, which works for gender equality and women’s empowerment across 47 countries.
“You cannot speak from both corners of your mouth and apply double standards as you purport to speak for women,” Kachambwa told CNN. “It is absurd to aspire to do so when your utterances and actions are heavily sexist and objectify the very same women you claim to speak for. And in any case, who said women cannot speak for themselves?”
Poverty is an unlikely problem for Kenyan legislators, who are paid 76 times what an average Kenyan makes in a year — the second highest figure in the world after Nigeria, according to an Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) study in 2013 and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Given such salaries, many average Kenyans would say that politicians who err in this way ought to be able to afford to look after their offspring.