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Genesis of tyrannical, corrupt chiefs dates back to 1901

 Colonial administrators at a village during the Mau Mau crackdown in the 1950s. [File, Standard]

The rungu, a crown and heavy military boots were the stock in trade. When a blanket was thrown in as well a fistful of medals, the picture was complete.

Some locational chiefs sought supernatural powers to stupefy their subjects whom they ruled with extreme terror and violence. They employed headmen and spearmen known as tribal retainers, whom they paid out of their own pockets. These retainers acted as aides who however had no official salaries but were paid from the spoils of war against the citizenry.

A study on introduction of the institution of the chief in Kenya by the colonial government is as entertaining as it is chilling. Far from the administrators they were projected to be by their bosses, majority of the first generation colonial chiefs appointed between 1901 and 1920, were village tyrants who had just evolved from social misfits.

Historian Evanson Wamagata in his thesis, A Biography of Senior Chief Waruhiu wa Kungu of Githunguri, Kiambu District 1890-1952 describes the first crop of colonial chiefs as a “motley crowd of mercenaries who had served as porters, guides or askari”.

He argues that these nonentities who had no social status, would later use their offices to get many wives and amass wealth through corrupt dealings and punished anybody who stood in their way to prosperity.

One of the most notorious chiefs was Kinyanjui wa Gathirimu who had ran away from his home in Murang’a because of his waywardness. He served as a mercenary for the white men during the routing of Waiyaki wa Hinga in 1892.

The crown for the most notorious chief during this period however goes to Kamiri wa Itherero of Riuki location who was a famous witchdoctor.

On August 11, 1889, Kamiri had surrendered all his sovereign rights as the “chief” of his locality and was later appointed chief by the whites. He was however arrested tried and jailed in 1921 after he was convicted of being a witchdoctor. Even after he and his sons were released, he continued using witchcraft.

An Annual Report for 1911-1912, said chiefs were often more criminally inclined than the average native and had abetted many offences they were supposed to prevent in their jurisdictions.

Although the chief’s monthly salary was meagre, their positions gave then sweeping powers: they were to report crime, apprehend offenders, build roads and public utilities, recruit labour for settler farms and communal projects, collect taxes and keep law and order in their locations. 

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