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Public Participation is a Luo Culture

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Kenyans applying for Kipande (identity cards) MAY 1954. [PHOTO: FILE]

Parliament passed the Public Participation Bill, 2019 to provide parameters for public participation and define the obligations of State organs and public officers in conducting the exercise prior to formulation of new policies and amending old ones. This Bill has seen many government decisions stopped by the courts for not consulting the public.

Political consciousness among the Luo in the former Central Kavirondo (present-day Kisumu, Siaya, and Busia counties) began after the First World War. The Young Kavirondo Association was formed in 1921. The core of this anti-colonial move was from a group of the first class that joined Maseno School around 1907.

By 1921, some of these students were training as teachers in Maseno and they decided to form YKA. Jonathan Okwirri of Uyoma was the chairman, Simeon Nyende of Gem Regea was the treasurer, and Benjamin Owuor from Seme was the secretary.

Their main point was to lobby against Kenya becoming a colony, the kipande system, increase of hut tax, and push for the introduction of paramount chiefdom.

WWI had affected the economic climate of the British protectorate; taxes became a burden coupled with lower wages. These are the conditions that provided fertile ground for political activism among the Luo within the YKA. The Luo called the group piny owacho – the people have spoken. This has come to be the Luo word for government.

The YKA came up with a 10-point memorandum to the colonial governor. These included an independent legislature for Kavirondo, abolishment of kipande, reduction of hut tax, a government school in Central Kavirondo,  revocation of the crown colony, increase in wages, abolishment of forced labour and labour camps, granting title deeds for land and paramount chief for Luos.

The memorandum was drafted at a public meeting at Lundha in Gem on January 13, 1922. The meeting was attended by a multitude of colonial standards as well as 11 chiefs from the Luo and some representatives from the Luhya community who were being invited into YKA. The meeting resolved the memorandum to be sent to Nairobi.

On February 7, 1922, much to the consternation of the assembled Luos under piny owacho, Provincial Commissioner HR Tate continued to negotiate the demands and to assure the Luo that their problems were being addressed. This meeting convinced Tate that the Luo leadership was determined in their agitation. “The attitude of the natives,” Tate reported, “was not all altogether respectful.” By March 11, 1922, no word had been received from the PC. An executive committee, headed by Benjamin Owuor, drafted another letter to the PC, insisting on a meeting with the Governor.

Eventually, Governor Sir Edward Northey called for a meeting at Nyahera on July 8, 1922. Luos from as far as Karachuonyo and Migori attended in their thousands. The meeting went on for 10 hours with only a one-hour break for the governor to have lunch. The governor indicated his willingness to debate each of the 10 points, not knowing that he had thrown the Luos into their culture of conclusive deliberations. He however said he wouldn’t deal with two; alter Kenya’s current status as a crown colony and the issue of title deeds. Those could only be handled by the government in London.

The YKA and the governor were victims of the Luo political heritage of inherent democracy that allowed for long, exhaustive public discussions and negotiations involving the whole community in Nyahera on that sunny day in July 1922.

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