When colonial authorities mopped up people they classified as undesired elements, they took them to faraway places which were closed to civilisation and travelling to such areas required a special movement permit from the District Commissioner.
One of their favourite detention centres which acted almost like a prison without walls was in Marsabit. Any jail break would entail contending with walking through jungles infested with wild animals as well as intolerable deserts.
When the country was gripped by political tension and violence in 1952, the government had to hurriedly make ramshackle holding grounds for scores of political detainees who were shipped there for confinement.
Some of the troublemakers who were exiled in Marsabit included colonial chief Mbiyu Koinange, Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, Elijah Masinde, and a host of other politicians and trade union leaders who were agitating for Kenya’s freedom.
A senior clerical officer who served at the DC’s office at the time, Mervyn Mercial, recalled how he assisted the old colonial chief draw his pension while in Marsabit.
According to the clerk, Koinange was a very old man who would collect his pension from him each month. Occasionally he would request assistance to write letters to his family. Much later, long after the state of emergency was lifted, his frail state would catch the attention of London.
The DC grabbed some blankets and sleeping mats from the Marsabit Prison and spread them in a ramshackle structure he had just constructed but later threw a barbed wire fence around the temporary camp.
On June 11, 1959, lawmaker John Stonehouse demanded his release so that he could join his sons in Great Britain to which the Secretary of State Allan Lennox Boyd replied: “I have discussed this with the governor, who would be ready to agree that in this exceptional case ex-Senior Chief Koinange, who is a very old man, might be permitted to join his sons in this country if he wished and if the medical authorities considered that at his advanced age he could safely do so.”
The secretary of state was however outraged by accusations that the old man who had sacrificed his youth serving the colonial government had been subjected to vindictive treatment. But while Koinange was suffering in Marsabit, a trade union leader Mwangi Macharia quickly adapted to the detention camp and ended up securing a job. He played a key role in laying the first pipeline in Marasabit.