Nairobi, Kenya – Many perceive him as immoral, outright crazy or both.
But George Wajackoyah, one of four front-line presidential candidates in Kenya, is pressing on, hoping to become the fifth elected president and solve the country’s debt burden by legalising cannabis farming and exporting hyena testicles.
Tuesday’s presidential vote is seen as a straight contest between Deputy President William Ruto and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, but less has been said about the other two – David Mwaure, a conservative clergyman, and Wajackoyah.
But the latter, a 62-year-old professor of law and former policeman whose unconventional campaign so far has taken the road less travelled, away from the insult hurling that is rife in Kenya’s political campaigns.
In 10 years, the national debt has gone from 2 trillion shillings ($16.8bn), or 40 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), to 9 trillion shillings ($75.5bn), or 67 percent of GDP, and analysts say the next president faces a tall order in reviving Kenya’s economic fortunes.
“The growing of marijuana … will enable this country to pay its outstanding debts, and ensure Kenyans have enough money wherever they are so that we can sustain and arrest the [debt] situation,” Wajackoyah said.
“China in 2021 planted 169,000 acres of marijuana and made $1.2bn in returns,” he added, referring to Kenya’s top creditor. “Here is China that we are 9 trillion shillings in debt, meaning we are spending China’s marijuana money on our projects.”
He plans a large-scale export of hyena testicles and snake venom to give Kenya enough export revenues and legalise cannabis farming for medicinal purposes, which, he says, would fetch Kenya 9.2 trillion shillings ($77.2bn) a year.
The proceeds would help clear Kenya’s debt and afford each citizen 200,000 shillings ($1,679) in annual dividends, he has said.
Unsurprisingly, that has stimulated a national debate on the subject and his candidacy has cultivated a small and growing followership.
A life of many twists and turns
A seasoned lawyer, Wajackoyah shocked many when he promised to suspend the constitution for a month if elected and to hang convicted criminals to death with rope made of hemp.
But young people have been excited by his promise to institute four-day working weeks and his campaigns have been more like music concerts than rallies.
Sandwiched between young ladies dressed in skimpy crochet outfits and Rastafarian colours, the sexagenarian has shown up in bars and nightclubs, dancing to blaring reggae music before addressing his audience.
He wore a durag and a T-shirt to submit his presidential nomination form for the Roots Party at the office of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).
And despite being a proponent of cannabis legalisation, he says he neither smokes nor drinks and is also a vegetarian.
Multiple local reports have indicated that he has 16 degrees, including a doctorate from Walden University in the United States as well as an advanced diploma in French from the University of Burundi. He speaks English, French, Swahili, Luhya and Luo.
He grew up on the streets of Nairobi and has told reporters that he was only three years old when his parents abandoned him after their divorce. He claimed to have taken to the streets while trying to locate his mother who was rumoured to have moved to Uganda.
A well-wisher reportedly rescued him and enrolled him in school, a story he tells to street children while encouraging them to take education seriously.
Wajackoyah also reportedly spent 10 years in the Kenya Police Service’s Special Branch as a spy under the Daniel Arap Moi administration. He reportedly fled into exile after unearthing damaging details about the assassination of one of its ministers, Robert Ouko.
Information about his postings in the dreaded spy service in the Moi era is scanty but in one interview, he explained that he fled the country in 1991 to the United Kingdom.
While there and studying law, he claims to have fended for himself by being a gravedigger, later moving to the US to boost his academic credentials.
The professor is married to an American citizen with three children who are split between the US and the UK.
‘An impact on the people’
For a largely religious and conservative country, Wajackoyah’s eccentricity and role in politics have been questioned by members of the public.
At an August 6 rally for Odinga, Emily Adhiambo, a 31-year-old who does menial jobs in Kiambi, a Nairobi slum, said she would not vote for the professor because “Wajackoyah will spoil our children with bhang [cannabis]”.
When members of Kenya’s clergy came out strongly calling him out for tearing the society’s “moral fabric”, he retorted at a rally in the Nairobi central business district by saying the bishops “don’t know what they are talking about”.
“Bhang is smoked in Israel, even Jesus smoked weed,” he continued as the youths cheered him on.
A number of youths, tickled by his ideologies, trailed his campaign truck chanting his slogan, “bangi! bangi! bangi!”, the Swahili word for cannabis.
“Kenya has the best marijuana in the world,” he announced during the rally. “All the flower beds will be turned into beautiful green shrubs of bhang.”
On the campaign trail, the professor of law mostly dons sweatpants and a T-shirt with “Roots Life” inscribed as a reference to his political party and a trademark durag on his greying hair, There are also the sandals which he shoves aside often, preferring to walk barefoot.
Sometimes, he wears green coveralls with Rastafarian tags and inscriptions.
It is a departure from years ago when he appeared in court with suits accessorised with a bow tie. His grey beard was also neatly trimmed then, unlike its expanding mass now.
Kenyan elections could be forced into a second round if no candidate gets more than an outright 50 percent of the vote. So, it has been suggested that he is “a state project”, strategically positioned in the presidential race to take enough votes from the leading candidates.
This comes as President Uhuru Kenyatta and the ruling Jubilee party and the state machinery have been backing former opposition leader Odinga, under the umbrella of the Azimio la Umoja coalition.
At a club in Kisumu on June 24, Wajackoyah asked for respect for Odinga, in what many interpreted as either a pledge of support or a Freudian slip.
“I have roots in the Luo community and we must respect Raila. If you don’t vote for me then you would rather vote for him,” he said.
But Wajackoyah is unperturbed by those who say he stands no chance of winning. For him, the endgame is not to win elections but to change mindsets. “A win is when I impact on the people, and that I already see,” he told Al Jazeera.
That change in the mindset has already landed some of his staunch supporters in trouble with the law.
On June 12, a die-hard fan Boniface Mutua was arraigned in court for smoking during campaigns. He pleaded guilty but argued that he smokes cannabis to get courage to campaign for the Roots Party.
“Who knows, I might be among the commercial farmers of bhang if my candidate is elected President and legalises marijuana,” Mutua stated amid laughter within the court.
Benard Ogoye, a Nairobi resident, said though he does not support Wajackoyah’s presidential bid, he supports legalising cannabis to control its usage and likes the campaign.
“Political seasons are often so tense and Wajackoyah adds humour to it, easing the atmosphere,” he told Al Jazeera.
Indeed, the professor nameed a comedian, Jaymo Ule Msee, as his spokesperson.
Dismus Mokua, a Nairobi-based political analyst believes that the unorthodox campaigning has gotten Wajackoyah national attention, in a country where the focus is on two candidates.
“I think he is positioning himself as an international lobbyist for marijuana,” said Mokua. “He is a very smart man and clearly, being president is not his goal … when leading pharmaceuticals are looking for raw materials or countries where they can grow bhang, they’ll know who to approach.”