NAIROBI — The presidential candidate swiveled his hips and shimmied his shoulders, reggae music blasting from his campaign bus. As George Wajackoyah danced, an increasingly rowdy crowd sang along to what has become his campaign anthem.
When Wajackoyah, 62, took the microphone in Tala, a town outside Nairobi, he talked about fixing Kenya’s public corruption, the country’s economic woes and its overreliance on China. But the line that earned the most applause — the one at the heart of Wajackoyah’s campaign and which has turned the outlier candidate into a viral sensation — was the most simple.
“Bhangi, bhangi, bhangi,” Wajackoyah shouted — using the Swahili word for marijuana. In the crowd, fists pumped and at least one puff of smoke trailed into the sky. Hundreds of people roared in reply, “Bhangi, bhangi, bhangi.”
Kenya’s election on Tuesday will ultimately be a contest between two of the country’s most established politicians — former prime minister Raila Odinga and deputy president William Ruto — who recent polls show running neck-and-neck. Wajackoyah could, at most, earn enough votes to force Odinga and Ruto into a runoff, political experts say.
Critics have dismissed Wajackoyah, a longtime adjunct law professor and immigration lawyer, as insane, immoral or both. But during an election season in many ways characterized by disillusionment with the status quo, even Wajackoyah’s critics agree that he is shaking up the race — and fueling a bigger conversation about marijuana, in Kenya and across the region.
“What Wajackoyah has done is to bring this discussion about marijuana legalization to the forefront,” said Macharia Munene, a professor of history and international relations at the United States International University in Nairobi. “If it is legalized in Kenya, the possibility is that the region might also start talking about it seriously … so the effect is big, and other countries are watching this comical fellow.”
Across Africa, a half-dozen countries — with Lesotho the first in 2017 and Morocco the most recent last year — have legalized marijuana for medicinal and commercial purposes, but not recreationally. In South Africa, adults are allowed to possess, cultivate and use weed in private, but not in public.
The way Wajackoyah sees it, the criminalization of marijuana reflects one of the many Western values that’s long been imposed on Kenya. Legalization for industrial and medicinal purposes, he says, would help the country break with its colonial past and allow Kenya to pay off its approximately $71 billion debt. Experts say Wajackoyah’s figures are wildly exaggerated. Jeffrey Miron, an economics professor at Harvard University, estimated that annual tax revenue from weed sales for Kenya would be closer to $60 million.
Although Wajackoyah’s claims can be outlandish — he also talks about exporting hyena testicles and dog meat — his proposal to use the legalization of weed to boost the economy has struck a nerve, said Ledama Olekina, a senator from Narok County in Kenya who has been pushing in recent years for legalization.
“When you go see the expatriates who live in Nairobi, they are all smoking marijuana,” the senator said. “Why is it that they are allowed to smoke and the poor people are not allowed to smoke?”
Kenyan society is still too conservative and religious for Wajackoyah to gain real traction, Olekina said, and Wajackoyah has not made any attempt to gain the experience or alliances necessary to succeed in Kenyan politics. But Olekina said he is confident that the tide will one day turn.
“Eventually, marijuana will be legalized in Kenya,” he said. “We just need to have more crazy people like George Wajackoyah, myself and others talking about it.”
Despite his big talk, Wajackoyah said he does not smoke weed himself and is not actually pushing for recreational legalization. His focus is instead on industrial hemp and medical marijuana. But he’s quick to add that he sees no problem with recreational use: “What is wrong with smoking? Our grandfathers have been smoking this thing.” If he wins, he said, he looks forward to smoking his first joint in office.
One morning last week, Wajackoyah popped out of his white Lexus at a gas station on the outskirts of Nairobi wearing Adidas sandals, track pants and a neon yellow shirt emblazoned with the name of his party: “Roots.” Peering over his sunglasses, the gray-bearded politician motioned with a wave of his hand for two Washington Post journalists to get in, quickly.
His campaign is small, he explained, and he doesn’t like to let people know where he is ahead of time, lest the crowds get too big. The car doubles as an office, he said, and the rickety campaign bus — retrofitted to include a makeshift stage and DJ booth — was on loan from a friend.
Wajackoyah pulled out his phone, pulling up videos of the massive crowds he’d attracted in Western Kenya days before. “This,” Wajackoyah said, “is the first time we have had a revolution of this kind in Africa.” In recent months, his TV interviews have received hundreds of thousands of views and discussions about his message — both adoring and dismissive — have rapidly spread on Tik Tok. Sitting in the front seat of the car, Wajackoyah paused, listening to the growing number of young men gathered outside the car, shouting his name.
“We’ve been discovered,” Wajackoyah said with a shake of his head.
He hopped out for an impromptu address. He told them that the wheelbarrow, a symbol of his rival Ruto’s campaign, should be repurposed to transport weed. The crowd laughed. When he closed with his signature “bhangi eeeh!” those gathered cheered in response, throwing their fists in the air.
Among them was Jack Juma, a motorcycle taxi driver who smokes weed after breakfast and lunch. Juma, 26, said he believed Wajackoyah would be “a voice for the youth.”
Taken in by Hare Krishna worshipers as a child after living on the streets of Nairobi for years, Wajackoyah said he does not drink alcohol or eat meat. He became a police officer after graduating from school, eventually joining the intelligence unit. But he was forced into exile after picking up information about the murder of a government minister in 1990, Wajackoyah said, fleeing to England — where he worked as a grave digger and security guard — then the United States. Along the way, he acquired a list of degrees so long it’s led to some mockery along the campaign trail.
He returned to Kenya in 2012, saying he felt a pull to come home. He graduated in 2015 from the Kenya School of Law in Nairobi, enrolling after he said the legitimacy of his earlier degrees was questioned. In Nairobi, he established his own law firm, representing high-profile clients such as Stella Nyanzi, a Ugandan activist and critic of President Yoweri Museveni, and said he most recently served as an adjunct professor at United States International University Africa.
As the campaign bus wove through Nairobi’s traffic and rattled along the highways outside the city, Wajackoyah chatted with his running mate, Justina Wamae, a 35-year-old businesswoman raised in the slum of Kibera, and shuffled and shimmied by himself as the DJ played a reggae stream of Lucky Dube and Bob Marley. Occasionally, he grabbed the handrail running alongside the perimeter of the bus and dropped it low.
He leaned over to fist bump a crowd of butchers who approached, blew kisses to beauty salon students who clambered onto a roof to see him, hugged young men sporting marijuana T-shirts and phone cases and danced with women who grabbed his hand over the railing. He attracted massive crowds in Grogan, one of the Nairobi slums where he sometimes begged as a child, telling the rapt crowd: “I lived along this river just like you … someone whose father is a nobody, just as you are perceived, can be president of Kenya.”
Even when the bus was swarmed by young men — many of whom appeared to be high and some of whom tried at points to grab his microphone — Wajackoyah remained calm. Often, a little smile would appear on his face. He said he’s content because the crowds demonstrate the impact he’s already made, regardless of the election results.
The real goal, he said, is to transform minds, and on that: “We have already won.”