is elected president of Kenya next week—and that is a huge if—he’ll order gardeners to pull up the flowers gracing Nairobi’s brand-new, 17-mile-long, Chinese-built elevated expressway.
And replace them with marijuana.
In a presidential election where the leading candidates are the same old politicians, nobody could accuse Prof. Wajackoyah of making the same old campaign promises. And although he is polling in the low single digits, it might just be high enough to deny the favorites a majority and force a runoff that would disrupt Kenyan politics for months.
Street child turned Hare Krishna priest turned secret policeman turned lawyer, Prof. Wajackoyah is vowing to put the entire country on a four-day work schedule. He is threatening to expel Chinese workers and is planning to export snake venom.
But it is his plan to legalize marijuana that has grabbed the attention of Kenya’s underemployed, discontented youth, who mob him whenever he pops out of the sunroof of his borrowed campaign SUV or stops at a filling-station restroom.
Prof. Wajackoyah has taken flak from church leaders for his stance on marijuana, and from conservationists for his proposal to cull hyenas and sell their testicles to Asia as an erectile-dysfunction treatment.
More than 70% of Kenya’s population is under the age of 35, however, and for many of them Mr. Wajackoyah represents welcome and at times comic relief from the political circle that has run the country since independence in 1963.
“Every reggae club in the country has my picture in there,” he beamed during a recent campaign stop in Garissa, an arid university town in eastern Kenya, about 100 miles from the Somali border.
Driving around this East African country in a pot-themed T-shirt, Adidas track pants, sports sandals and signature doo-rag, the 62-year-old candidate may be collecting just enough support to elevate himself to kingmaker in an October runoff election.
A series of new polls puts him at between 1.8% and 2.9% nationally, with neither of his major opponents polling above the 50% threshold needed to declare outright victory. In one poll in June he hit 4%.
That could be enough for Prof. Wajackoyah’s way-outsider appeal to spoil the race for the presidency between two longtime politicos: Deputy President
the self-described advocate of working Kenyans, and fifth-time candidate
who has been endorsed by outgoing President
Candidates must win a majority of the national vote and meet county vote thresholds to secure victory and avoid a runoff election in October.
Prof. Wajackoyah’s Roots Party platform begins with legalizing marijuana, which is called bangi in Swahili. Prof. Wajackoyah, who says he doesn’t smoke it himself, has said if industrial hemp and medicinal marijuana are grown in just one county, it would produce enough revenue that “Kenya could buy
in just two years.”
The young men who surrounded his car in Garissa, however, weren’t picturing industrial hemp when the white-bearded candidate raised his fist and shouted, “Bangi power!”
“He lets me smoke,” said Abdi Kani Abdullahi, 21, who drives a motorized rickshaw taxi.
“We will be high ‘til we die,” said fellow driver Mohamed Shambi, 31. He plans to try to talk his parents into voting for Mr. Wajackoyah, too.
Prof. Wajackoyah said his government would write new regulations to discourage people from walking into expressway traffic to pick pot from the flower boxes.
Also on his to-do list: Close the Chinese-built railway connecting the capital with the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa, pay off Kenya’s outstanding debts to China with bags of marijuana and install a Kenyan-built railroad.
His campaign manifesto promises to “deport foreign idlers who have taken over Kenyan jobs,”—a group, he identifies as Chinese workers brought in to build Chinese-funded infrastructure projects. Beijing has dotted Africa with ports, airports, roads and bridges, a campaign that has often left countries deeply in debt to Chinese state-owned companies.
“In Kenya we’re being overrun by the Chinese,” he said.
Zhou Pingjian, Beijing’s ambassador in Nairobi, has said less than one-fifth of Kenya’s foreign debt is owed to Chinese creditors and what loans China has provided go to valuable infrastructure. “The fruitful and tangible outcomes of our cooperation are solid, there for all to see,” Mr. Zhou wrote in a recent op-ed in Kenyan news outlets.
Prof. Wajackoyah grew up tending to his father’s cows in Indangalasia village in western Kenya. But after his parents split up and his mother fled after a dispute with other villagers, he ended up hitchhiking to Nairobi at the age of 15. He lived on the streets until being rescued by a community of Hare Krishna, the faith that he still practices.
Generous sponsors put him through school, and he ended up getting an undergraduate degree in the U.K. and a master of laws degree from the University of Baltimore.
When he’s not campaigning, Prof. Wajackoyah practices law in Nairobi and has been an adjunct professor at the U.S. International University in Nairobi.
He met his American wife, flight attendant Meller Cheatham, at a departure gate at Philadelphia International Airport in 2010.
She thought him a bit full of himself but was struck when he said he wanted to be president someday to make a difference in the lives of ordinary Kenyans.
“They’ll love you just like everybody does,” Ms. Cheatham assured him when he and his all-volunteer campaign staff departed in a tiny convoy to Garissa.
The items on his manifesto include exporting dog meat and harvesting snake venom to make antivenin. He predicts a Kenyan farmer could earn $5,300 for a vial of black-mamba venom, a jackpot in a country where per capita gross domestic product is $2,000.
Prof. Wajackoyah promises four-day workweeks, with the entire Kenyan economy, including bars, run on a hospital schedule of three shifts, open 24 hours a day.
Tom Molony, a University of Edinburgh political scientist who studies Kenyan elections, said many young voters see little hope either leading candidate will change their lives. “Then there’s Wajackoyah,” Mr. Molony said.
Prof. Wajackoyah won’t say who he would support in a runoff, or what he would demand in return. He said both main candidates have reason to fear Plank 4 in his manifesto, which states: “Hang the corrupt.”
Kenyan political circles are rife with rumors that supporters of Mr. Odinga are providing indirect backing for Prof. Wajackoyah because they believe he siphons young voters from Mr. Ruto.
Indeed, police showed up in force to protect Prof. Wajackoyah when he arrived in Garissa with a speaker truck blaring Bob Marley.
Officers posed for selfies with him as he passed through checkpoints. He spent eight years in Special Branch, Kenya’s secret police, eavesdropping on the enemies of former President
Daniel arap Moi,
who served from 1978 to 2002.
“That’s the hand of government,” an aide to Prof. Wajackoyah said regarding the enhanced security presence.
Prof. Wajackoyah revels in the adulation. He proudly points out reports of a woman with a marijuana leaf tattooed on her forehead in his honor.
His convoy left Garissa escorted by a spontaneous herd of hundreds of young people on motorbikes shouting his name and waving his campaign posters.
“A lot of people think I’m crazy,” he said in one campaign speech. “But the Lord God made me this way.”
Write to Michael M. Phillips at [email protected]
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