Nakuru: From colonial railway outpost to a city


An Aerial view of Nakuru town on December 29, 2020.[Courtesy]

Founded in 1904 as railway outpost, Nakuru town has evolved into a vibrant commercial hub and the country’s political nerve center.

Today, the town that acquired the municipality status in 1952 has grown to the fourth largest urban center and is now a city after President Uhuru Kenyatta granted the city charter to Governor Lee Kinyanjui, yesterday.

As the residents celebrate its elevation to city status, it is important to reflect on how the town has, for the past more than 100 years, occupied a special place in the history of both colonial and modern Kenya.

During the colonial era, the town was considered the commercial and administrative centre for the European settlers in the region who christened it the “Happy Valley.”

And the town that drives the name Nakuru from Massai word “Nakuro,” which means a place of the whirlwind or simply a dusty place, continued to prosper after gaining municipality status.

It became the melting pot of the country and face of Kenya, with all the cultural heritage of virtually all the 42 ethnic communities.

Kiswahili language became the dominant mother tongue to embrace ethnic diversity.

According to Andrew Yatich, from one of the families that settled in Nakuru in the late 1960s, the growth of the town is closely intertwined with the country’s socio-economic transformation and the development of the nation’s changing geopolitics.

 Saying “When Nakuru sneezes the entire country catches a cold,” Mr Yatich underscores the significance of Nakuru as a central actor in the country’s economic and political landscape.

Due to its ethnic diversity and intense political interests from virtually all key personalities from different parts of the country, Nakuru has witnessed intense political completion in electoral politics.

Right from the first elections in 1963 when the country attained independence, the county has been a bastion of competitive politics that have in some instances degenerated into ethnic violence.

In 1963, KANU which was led by Mzee Kenyatta and Oginga Oginga fielded Mr Ramogi Achieng Oneko to contest for the Nakuru Town parliamentary seat against a KADU candidate.

KANU drew its support base from mainly Kikuyu and Luo communities while KADU brought together members of the small tribes who advocated for majimbo system of governance.

Mr Oneko was among the six politicians who were arrested and put on trial together with Mzee Kenyatta for allegedly supporting the Mau Mau rebellion in 1952.

From the colonial times when several hundreds of families were forcibly evicted from their farms in Olengurone area in the 1940s, Nakuru gained notoriety as an anti-establishment area an image that persisted even after the country gained independence.

The county which has for many years been perceived as the hotbed of the country’s politics is home to a battery of firebrand politicians who were a thorn to both Kenyatta and Moi administrations.

The politicians include the later Kihika Kimani, the late Mark Mwithaga and the late Mirugi Kariuki, and a former Subukia Mp Koigi wa Wamwere.

Mr Kimani who played a pivotal role in the settlement of thousands of people in different parcels of land in Nakuru championed the change in the constitution movement which sought to effect amendments to the constitution to bar Vice President Daniel Arap Moi from automatically ascending to office upon Mzee Kenyatta’s death.

The politician who made history as one of the leaders to have been elected to represent three different constituencies was later arrested and jailed for allegedly embezzling public funds after Mr Moi took office.

Mr Mwithaga, served as the chairman of the parliamentary select committee that probed the murder of the then Nyandarua North Mp J.M Kariuki and which implicated key personalities in the Kenyatta administration in plotting the murder.

The fiery Nakuru Town Mp who was perceived to have crossed swords with the ruling elite was arrested and jailed on the charges of assaulting his wife.

Mr Mwithaga who had the support of the residents made history when he was overwhelmingly voted in as Nakuru Town Mp while serving the prison term prompting the holding of a by-election.

Both Mr Wamwere and Mr Kariuki served stints in detention for their persistent attacks on the government.

The duo had also been charged with treason charges which were later terminated while Mr Wamwere was arrested and charged with raiding Bahati Police Station.

Scores of politicians and businessmen from Nakuru were arrested and jailed for allegedly being members of Mwakenya, an organization that was alleged to have been plotting to topple Mr Moi’s regime.

Nakuru is also reputed for having produced such other colourful and maverick politicians as Kariuki Chotara and Wilson Leitich who both served as the local chairmen of the Nakuru Kanu branch at the peak of repression.

Mr Leitich during a rally ordered Kanu youth-wingers to carry knives and chop off the fingers of pro-multiparty crusaders found flashing the two-finger salute in support of multi-partyism.

After the introduction of multi-partyism in the country, Nakuru County emerged as an opposition stronghold a posture it retained until President Mwai Kibaki ascended to power in 2002.

The county has since 2002 shed off the anti-establishment tag and has been solidly voting for President Kibaki and President Uhuru Kenyatta.