Stamping authority? Covid-19 sees return of powerful chiefs

Prior to the promulgation of the Constitution in 2010, one of the issues that stuck out like a sore thumb was the Provincial Administration.

Critics of the system that provided the national government 'eyes and ears' in every village argued that it was a colonial relic that had been used for political expediency while its supporters postulated that it was to ensure that government activities were felt on the ground.

Some of the bad memories of an era when a powerful chief could raid a home,  seize livestock and even banish a person out of the location are flooding back.  The coronavirus pandemic seems to have revived the moribund powers, as some people have lately tasted a dose of the administrators' once uncontested word.

Recently, a couple's plan to solemnise their union in Kiawaithanji, Tetu Sub-county, was temporarily cut short by the area chief after he cancelled the wedding three days to the big day. 

The wedding was scheduled for May 11 at Baptist Church in Kiawaithanji.  It was postponed to May 14.

"The chief informed us that he had cancelled the wedding because of coronavirus. We couldn't understand yet we were ready to comply with the set guidelines," said Charity Gathii, the bride-to-be. 

The 24-year-old says she and her lovebird Kenneth Mwaniki had carefully followed the directive by the government after gatherings were restricted to 15 people. Their guest list had nine names.

“There was to be the two of us, our parents - two from both sides- two witnesses and the priest,” says Gathii.

"We had bought sanitisers, water and soap. The masks were ready but he still denied us the permit. It was so embarrassing because our friends who didn't know of the cancellation were asking for wedding photos that were never there."

The chief would have none of their pleas. With the return of the Public Order and Public Health Act, the chief’s word on the matter was final.

It took the intervention of area Deputy County Commissioner after the matter was reported in the media. He allowed the couple to proceed with the wedding but reduced the number of attendees to five. He also decreed that the ceremony does not last longer than an hour.

The couple's parents were barred from witnessing their children's lifetime commitment. 

The couple’s tribulations resonate with those of Ruth Akinyi in Homa Bay.

Ruth was in the news recently after the chief in her village forced her to bury her son without a coffin.

Just like in the Nyeri case, the chief cited coronavirus as the reason he denied Akinyi the opportunity to accord her son a decent burial. The child died of liver complications. 

Akinyi, a resident of Rachuonyo, explained how, with the help of neighbours, she wrapped 11-year-old Paul Ogwedhi with a blanket and hurriedly interred the body in a shallow grave, as the chief watched.

"The chief ordered me to bury him before 10am. He denied me permission to get a coffin and insisted that I was not allowed to delay further," she recalled. 

Ogwedhi died on April 12 at 2am and neighbours, together with the chief, visited the family at 7am to find out what had happened.

"It is so painful to bury my son in such a crude manner. I cried for his right to get a decent burial but I couldn’t do anything. There were well-wishers who were willing to buy a coffin but he wouldn't let us do," she added.

Enhancing of social distancing, hand washing and use of sanitisers are among the practices the administrators are enforcing, but villagers say that some are abusing the assumed powers to stamp authority.

The pandemic and implementation of the Public Health Act has seen chiefs and their assistants assume power even over basic social activities and any occasion that involves the community had to be approved by the area chief. 

The pandemic has brought back the powers witnessed in the colonial era where a chief had to approve basic activities like spraying your farm or getting an admission to the university. 

The Chief's Act gave the administrators the authority to arrest a person who, by design, commits or plans to commit an offence.

It was also their responsibility to deny permission to cut down a tree if they felt it was an act of deforestation. 

The law also gave them power in the villages that they had to be informed of any stolen item recovered in their location and any stranger had to notify the administrator of their purpose and how long they intended to stay. 

Lawyer John Njomo says even though the enforcement of the Public Health Act is administrative, instances of abuse of power are unlawful and can be challenged in court. 

"If a complaint was to arise and someone is not happy with the way some of the directives are being implemented, one can approach the court and demonstrate how their rights are being infringed," said Mr Njomo. 

The lawyer added that implementation of the directives do not suspend Kenyans' constitutional rights. 

"Our rights are still guaranteed in the Constitution and on the basis of individual cases, one can seek to have their right protected as provided in the constitution," he said. 

Njomo said there had been complaints on chiefs mistreating people, noting that some cases were a matter of being unreasonable.

“Why would someone force a mother to bury her son without a coffin? The ministry guidelines are clear on how to go about such permits. It's not allowed," said Njomo. 

However, all is not gloom, as Joseph Kimani, the chief for Murungaru in Nyandarua County is using his resources to educate locals on importance of hand washing, social distancing and obeying government instructions to keep the virus at by.

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