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A smile has been put on the face of bwana chief, who we all love to hate

By Kamau Ngotho | Nov 7th 2021 | 6 min read

Senior Chief Njiiri wa Karanja. [File, Standard]

With politics filling all spaces around us to near suffocation, it is possible we don’t notice the important things happening in our midst. Among them is the commencement of new scheme of service for the public administrators we call chiefs and their assistants.

Whereas the highest position in their ranks was the senior chief and which only came in the event of death or retirement of the incumbent, chiefs will now be promoted on merit all the way to the highest rank in that line which is the regional coordinator formerly known as Provincial Commissioner (PC).

Already 150 chiefs have been elevated to the level of assistant county commissioner, the position formerly known as District Officer (DO). Training and special skills henceforth will be the consideration for promotion unlike before when chiefs were picked mainly on reasons of grey hair and politics.

At times despised or taken for granted, the office of the area chief is the basic unit of public administration. It is the primary set-up that impact on society orderly living. It is also the grassroots focal point for provision and coordination of government services.

It is the chief who has at his fingertips information on the State of security in his area; knows where children aren’t attending school and why, where the starving, the sick, and the aged are. Chiefs are also first stop in arbitrating disputes and enforcing peaceful coexistence.

Serikali saidia

I will relate two incidents almost half a century apart in my personal life which tell the regard and perception Kenyan society have for the area chief. When in lower primary school in 1970s, our history teacher began the lesson on traditional African chiefs by asking us to say who we thought was the “biggest man” in our village. A boy who came from a relatively well-to-do family said it was his father. We all laughed. Another one said the school headmaster and we kept quiet not knowing whether to agree. The third boy said the area chief and the teacher asked us to clap.

Fast forward to an incident last year: We were coming from bride price negotiations in the hinterland of Kitui driving on a rocky road late evening when we hit a bump and badly damaged the axle of the old car. We decided not to proceed and risk total breakdown. Some teenagers passing by told us they didn’t know of any motor vehicle repairer around but pointed to us the chief’s camp. “Hapo serikali itawasaidia. (There you will get help from the government),” the boys assured us.

The area chief was very helpful in that he linked us with the MCA who towed our vehicle to the nearest shopping centre where we got a mechanic. It turned out that the MCA lived much nearer to where we were stuck than where the chief’s camp was, but it never occurred to the teenagers who directed us to the chief’s camp that the MCA could help!

Three-legged stool

In a republican state model as Kenya is, the presidency is the backbone institution that holds the country together. The presidency itself is a three-legged stool made up of the department of defence (DoD), the national police, and the Provincial Administration what is nowadays known as co-ordination of national government. The DoD falls under the Defence ministry while the other two are in the Ministry of Interior and Co-ordination of National Government.

It is a time like this and in the coming months when election fever and related madness grips the country when one realises it is indeed the presidency that holds the country together and gives us a sense of nationhood.

By March next year, the presidency will literally be the only institution left standing. The Deputy President has already fled - barely hanging on the mere title. And over half the Cabinet is likely to follow suit in February, which is the deadline for public servants eyeing electoral seats to resign. Quite a number of senior civil servants too are likely to join politics.

At the grassroots, there will be no MPs, senators, Woman Reps and MCAs once Parliament and county assemblies are dissolved. That is the moment the public wakes up to reality that the one institution we are used to love or hate in equal measure – the presidency – is one that holds us together, with office of the area chief as its representation at the grassroots.

It isn’t a coincidence that the signpost to chiefs’ office even in the most far-flung corner of the country reads: “Office of the Presidency” followed by name of the specific location. 

The office of the chief and generally what used to be called Provincial Administration has a mixed bag of history. At the onset of colonialism early last century, African societies were either governed through elders and age-set systems.

Instrument of terror

In an effort to conquer and rule, colonialists imposed a Provincial Administration system where they worked with friendly African chiefs and hand-picked others where they didn’t exist. Chiefs and other community leaders who didn’t yield were hounded and murdered in cold blood.

Among most callous of the killings was that of Chief Waiyaki wa Hinga in Kiambu who was shot and reportedly buried alive at Kibwezi in Makueni County. Another one was Nandi leader, Koitalel arap Samoei who was tricked into a truce and bayoneted in cold blood as his people were massacred.

In the colonial era, Africans would never rise beyond the rank of senior chief. The ranks of DOs and DCs were strictly for the Whites. Only towards the tail-end of colonialism were Africans appointed DOs and DCs, but very few and far between.

As the struggle for freedom from British rule intensified and the State of Emergency was declared, the Provincial Administration was converted to an instrument of terror with firm instructions to crush African rebellion. The ensuing confrontation was ugliest in Mt Kenya region and sections of the Rift Valley where the Provincial Administration burnt down villages, destroyed crops, and confiscated livestock.

A chief in Kiambu called Kibathi wa Gitangu went out of his way to gather a crowd to witness him raze down Jomo Kenyatta’s homestead at Gatundu after the latter was carted away to colonial imprisonment. He swore Kenyatta would never come back alive and that if he did, the chief would put enough sugar and tea leaves at the source of Tana River and make party for everybody living downstream!

Another chief in Murang’a called Njiiri wa Kariuki broke his radio set into pieces on the day it was announced Jomo Kenyatta had been set free. He accused the radio of having “lied” to him that Kenyatta would never be set free!

Such is the bad history and baggage the independent Kenya government inherited from colonialism. However, as the only established structure on the ground, the new government correctly knew it needed the Provincial Administration to hold the country together and instill law and order. But the new structure would be reformed and given a facelift to reflect changed circumstances from colonialism to self-governance.

By and large, the Provincial Administration did a good job but for the end days of one-party Kanu rule when the provincial administration, like in colonial days, was used to suppress expansion of the democratic space. But that was reversed in the 2010 Constitution and symbolised with change of name from Provincial Administration to the coordination of national government.

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