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Jonathan Mueke talks second chances

The Spartan Group
The Spartan Group (TSG) executive director Jonathan Mueke during the photo session at the firm's Nairobi office. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NAIROBI  

Jonathan Mweke’s life has been building up to something. He was a prefect all through primary and secondary school. At the university, he was the organising secretary of the African Students Association in the US. He did a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, an MBA in Information Technology. In 2007, freshly back home, he took a stab at politics and lost. He later became Nairobi’s deputy governor. Now he is in real estate but he is planning on going back to the madness of politics, this time as governor because politics and governance are is in his blood.

He talked to JACKSON BIKO

Do you think that you are naturally a political animal?

My conscience to public service, philanthropy was awakened in Kilimani Primary School when I shared class with very talented children from Kawangware and Kibera who came from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Some of them didn’t even know how to read up to Class 7. When I was in Class 6, my uncle ran for elections, and he became a minister. I learnt that when you’re in government, you can make decisions that can affect a population. And if you have the political will, you can use that power to make those decisions to change people’s lives. So I took interest in leadership.

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You came back from the US, perhaps with great idealism on political process and then your ran against the likes of Fred Gumo and Betty Tett, a sort of baptism by fire. Were you shocked at the brand of politics?

I was naive. I got shocked after the election results came out. (Loud laughter). Because I did everything right.

I raised money from well-wishers and friends. I had researched the problems of the people of Westlands and came up with a manifesto addressing all of them. (Chuckles)

I put together a think tank. I did competitive analysis of my competitors. I campaigned hard. When I went to Kihumbuini Primary School in Kangemi I found my campaign team wearing orange T-shirts voting for Fred Gumo. (Chuckles) And that’s when I knew I had lost the elections.

You were way over your head.

Yes, but the lessons I learnt there is what enabled me to become a deputy governor. I was not going to run for office in 2013 if I was not in a major political party. I also learnt that the smartest and most experienced people in this country work for the government. It’s something I had not fathomed.

I always thought that coming from the private sector you’re more efficient, more experienced, more learned, you can move things much quicker and make good decisions and so you’re better off than people in government. It is not true.

The last thing I learnt is that with goodwill you can do a lot when you are in power.

At 43, what haven’t you done now that you've always wanted to do?

Have a substantive public office where I can make decisions that solve people’s problems.

Is there any other way that you can solve these problems without being in a political office?

Yes. You can be a philanthropist or you can start a foundation. That happens a lot in developed countries. But for us, I believe the fundamental problem in our country is political. That’s why I think the fastest way to fix it is by fixing it politically.

For example, 80 percent of the problems in this country would be over if people followed the law. People don’t follow the law because the political system doesn’t care about following the law.

Is there a danger that perhaps, for you to rise to a political office, you'll have to change who you are in order to swim with these sharks?

I don’t think so. I think there’s a lot of structured, methodical guys who just want to do good who’ve been elected and they're doing a great job.

The Kivutha Kibwanas, the Johnson Sakajas of this world. Prof. Anyang’ Nyongo is one of those people as well. And they’ve always been sober, real and they do good.

What are your interests outside of politics?

First of all I’m a family guy. I’m married with two children—six years and 10 months. I enjoy spending time with my family. I’m very cautious about our world today because of the Internet so I believe good parenting is very important.

I’m a classic car enthusiast. I restored a 30-year-old Mercedes 126, 1990 model just the other day and it’s up and running. I recently bought a car that is 46 years old that I'm restoring now—a convertible Mercedes SL 280, 1974. I also spend a lot of my time trying to solve problems through technology. I’m a techie.

What is it about restoring vehicles that attracts you?

The challenge. I’m a builder, so I like to build things from scratch.

I’ve built two companies from scratch; one which I sold two years ago to a French company. I grew it to be the second largest records and documents management company in the region and then sold it off.

Which part of your life is currently work in progress?

The leadership part. I believe that to keep learning, you have to stay foolish. So I read a lot. I belong to a very prestigious leadership fraternity called FirstForward. I’m nine years deep right now.

Describe your life at 50.

(Pause) First, I’d want to be healthy. (Laughs) I’ve been pretty ambitious Biko. I bought my first house when I was 22. I started working at 19 when I got into college. I first ran for office when I was 30. I became a deputy governor at 36. So I’ve really been kind of ahead of the curve in many things. I’ve never worked for anybody since. So by the time I’m reaching 50 I just hope I’ll have achieved my financial stability.

I’d have brought up my children well, provided for my family and really began looking at the bigger picture of life. Looking at how to impact the community, the region and the world.

What is financial stability? What does that look like?

Well, personally I can say I’ve already achieved that. Financial stability is to be able to provide for myself and for my family. I’m not very extravagant. As long as stuff is functional, I’m OK with it.

You are in your second marriage. Is marriage pretty much the same, and the people different?

It is the same thing. I think marriage is, most importantly, about communication. Communication is not just listening to what people say, it’s about listening to their feelings and emotions. The biggest lesson I learnt from my first marriage— which failed after a year and a half — was that if you don’t listen to the whispers you’re gonna have to hear the screams. You have to know each other. You also have to take your significant other the way they are. You can’t change people. And that’s why it’s important to date and get to know somebody before you marry them, so that you can know your irreducible minimum.

What have you had to change about yourself this second chapter?

It’s not just about my marriage but it’s about life in general. I think through my leadership journey I’ve learnt to become more calm. In my younger days, I was a little bit aggressive. I wanted things done right and sometimes I would come off as aloof or arrogant. I’ve also become more sensitive to other people’s needs than to myself. And I’ve seen that make a big difference even in my second marriage.

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