"Return of Moi-era chiefs”, screamed the headline of last week’s Saturday Nation. The headline fronted a report about government’s intention to bring back the all-powerful chiefs who terrorised citizens during colonial rule and the administrations of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi. During the State of Emergency in the 1950s, a chief’s word could send one to a detention camp or to the gallows. Because of these life and death powers, the villages which they controlled became their personal fiefdoms. They forced themselves on women. They sent innocent people to detention so that they could steal their lands or their livestock. They lorded it over terror- stricken impoverished villagers.
Both the Kenyatta and Moi administrations increased their powers. The older generation will remember those unforgiving days. When the president had a harambee meeting, ostensibly in support of some project, the chiefs made rounds of business establishments in the villages, collecting money for the harambee. Because these functions were held every other month, struggling shopkeepers had to dig deeper and deeper into their pockets. And since there was little accounting for harambee money, the millions collected at the presidential harambee and across the villages ended up in private pockets. In similar fashion to ‘Covid billionaires’, we had “harambee billionaires”.
Enforced despotic wishes
Extorting money from villagers was only half of the terror story. The chiefs became not only the “ears and eyes” of the regime at the village level, they also ruthlessly enforced its despotic wishes. Dissidents’ homes were raided at night by chiefs and their askaris, looking for anything seditious, which could be anything that indicated nonconformity with the regime’s political philosophy. These raids on homes were aided by the DOs, the next tier in the hierarchy of the police state. One could not report excesses of chiefs and district officers to the police because they were the police.
This is the kind of tyrannical administrative structure the 2010 Constitution aimed to disband. The Constitution gave police independence from the executive. Grassroots administrative units were envisioned as facilitators and implementers of the all- important constitutional principle of participatory governance. According to the report in the Saturday Nation, the government intends to attach five police officers to each chief - or 30,000 police officers for the 6,000 chiefs. So apart from this move representing a grave attack on the 2010 Constitution, it also means that the regime will have an army of 30,000 armed men under the direct command of the Minister of Interior and, by extension, the president. This has serious implications, not least a potential violent conflict with the regular police. Nothing is wrong with reviewing administrative policy, but it must be done with the aim of strengthening the Constitution, not weakening it.