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What administrators can learn from efficient colonial system

By Mohamed Guleid | July 6th 2021
Police recruits receiving instructions during driving school lessons from colonial police in Nairobi, November 1955. [File]

When Kenya became independent in 1963, the new republic inherited several administrative systems that were useful in helping the government govern with ease.

The provincial administration became a tool for not only providing government services to the population, but also the closest the government could get to the people. Unfortunately, the initial regimes used the DCs and DOs to suppress dissent. In the first two decades, these administrators were semi-gods who were feared.

They had power to hire and fire. Many of the first generation DCs also amassed wealth and later became powerful politicians. Over the years, the core roles of the DCs became diluted because they ended up becoming tools for the central government to consolidate power and rule with an iron fist. The district heads could decide to punish anyone as they deemed fit.

During the colonial period, the DCs performed many tasks and supervised an efficient civil service. The National Archives has a record of what they did. Every year, the DCs were expected to provide annual returns which captured everything and anything imaginable. Using a common template, they collected data that gave a full picture of what transpired in the district. From registration of population numbers to the number of commodities sold in the district. Any development planned was based on the data provided.

A glimpse of Isiolo DC's annual returns between 1929 and 1940 would make the current administrators or county governments jealous. The DCs consistently gave transparent information on the revenue collected and how it was used. There was no centralised treasury and therefore most taxes collected locally were also used at the local level. They had a mechanism for collecting taxes, which was at times punitive. Data from the health facilities is most amazing. The administration listed the most frequently occurring illnesses, and the deployment of experts was informed by this data.

Seeing the raw information was enough to show that the government had an easy time deciding what to procure. The maintenance of roads was also informed by demand. The frequency of traffic, both human and goods, was used to gauge when or how often the roads were to be maintained or new ones constructed. The colonial administrators also would close some roads during the rainy season to avoid people getting stuck. Also by gazette notice, these roads were closed for maintenance for three months.

The most interesting activity was the tasking of chiefs or headmen as they were called to undertake population census. In one of the reports, the Isiolo DC was surprised by the drastic increase in the number of urban Somali, also called alien Somali. In his yearly report for 1934, he said he could not understand the cause of their sudden increase in Isiolo towns.

The most comical part was the annual evaluation of headmen’s performance. Out of the eight chiefs, the DC sacked one and gave unqualified status to two others. He declared the rest useless.

My intention of writing this boring narrative is to compare the level of service delivery between the colonial administration and our current administrators, including the county governments. I believe if we maintained the colonial model, we would be getting better services.

-Mr Guleid is CEO, Frontier Counties Development Council. [email protected]

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