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Era when powerful chiefs reigned over villages in terror

Senior Chief Njiiri wa Karanja (centre). [File, Standard]

History seems to be repeating itself and Kenyans should brace themselves for a new dawn where an all-powerful chief will superintend proceedings in every village. This follows a government directive to allocate each chief six police officers.

At the height of their notoriety, the chief was a symbol of the government's authority and was so powerful that he could banish one from his home or location.

It was during their reign of terror in the 1980s that a chief could saunter into a village and demand money for harambee. In the event the head of the household had no cash, the chief would help himself with a chicken, a goat or even a bull all in the name of the government.

These powers are residual from the colonial era where the chief of a location had the power of life and death over all his subjects. A slight royal nod of the chief's head in the 1950s at the height of the struggle for independence condemned many a man to detention camps, gallows or jail.

This explains the violence meted out on the chiefs starting with Chief Waruhiu wa Kungu on October 7, 1952, triggering a wave of chaos following the declaration of a state of emergency. Two other chiefs, Wang'ombe wa Nderi and Luka Kahangara were also killed by Mau Mau on October 23, 1952, and March 25, 1953.

The colonial government had lionised the chief in the eyes of the villagers. It was commonplace for military officers to report to their chiefs whenever they went to their villages during their annual leave.

The soldiers first reported to the District Commissioner when on leave. The DC would register their date of arrival which was the start of their leave. When they reached their locations, they notified their chief. In the event there was a delay occasioned by circumstances beyond their control, the chief would relay the reasons to the DC for onward transmission to the military bases so that the soldier's pay would be safeguarded.

Soldiers from arid areas sometimes found themselves at the mercy of the chief when they returned home only to find their families had migrated in search of pastures. The chief would record the soldier's challenges in tracing his family and explain to his superiors why had not reported back to base on time.

Although the Constitution promulgated in 2010 eroded most of these powers, the chief still has a big say in matters life and death. A birth or death certificate without a chief's signature is not worth the paper it is written on. The chief still remains the government's face at the lowest administrative unit. And thanks to Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki, they will claw back some more.

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