- Notwithstanding that the British were aware of this system of governance, they went ahead and appointed chiefs for their own administrative convenience.
- Because the colonial administration was financially strapped, they could not afford to maintain an administration fully staffed by white officers from top to bottom, African chiefs proved to be a cheap option to fill the gap.
- The African chiefs also helped the British to understand the culture of their subjects and acted as a buffer between the ruler and the ruled.
Many ethnic communities in ancient Kenya were led by a council of elders, which made important decisions regarding its people. By the time of arrival of the British in the late 19th century, this was a land and wealth conscious community with ethos that linked wealth to virtue, and virtue to a sense of history that regarded land and goat ownership as a trust for future generations. Leadership was vested in the council not in individuals.
Notwithstanding that the British were aware of this system of governance, they went ahead and appointed chiefs for their own administrative convenience. Because the colonial administration was financially strapped, they could not afford to maintain an administration fully staffed by white officers from top to bottom, African chiefs proved to be a cheap option to fill the gap. The African chiefs also helped the British to understand the culture of their subjects and acted as a buffer between the ruler and the ruled.
The 1902 Native Authority Ordinance mandated the colonial government to appoint African chiefs. There was no shortage of individuals who aspired to the position of chief because of the attractive terms giving them a chance to collaborate with the powers that be and the attendant opportunities the position opened to acquire wealth, prestige, influence, and power.
The British often overlooked the traditional African set-up when appointing chiefs and, thus left out candidates who held some form of customary authority, instead selecting those who demonstrated most loyalty to the colonial authorities. This created a problem of legitimacy for the chiefs amongst their communities which was compounded by the fact that they were to enforce policies which were unpopular.
In many locations, the individuals who were appointed chiefs had no social status and simply secured their official status through the practical test of their loyalty to the government. Many of these nonentities served the British as porters, guides, and soldiers for which they were rewarded by being appointed as chiefs.
The administrative units that were created by the British were artificial sometimes cutting through different clans with the end result that it was difficult for any appointed chief to emerge as the acknowledged leader.
In 1922 the Local Native Council Ordinance was passed and was intended to bring about development in so-called native areas in matters of social services such as health and education, mimicking the traditional council of elders. Members to these native councils were appointed in the same manner as chiefs on the basis of loyalty to the colonial administration.
Because of the self-seeking nature of appointments of chiefs and Local Native Council members, it became the norm for these officials to take bribes in order to make favourable decisions on cases which came before them.
Whereas it is true that in the traditional council of elders, individuals with matters before the council were expected to contribute a goat or similar gift it was considered a fee to facilitate the process and it was not given to an individual or as a bribe.
However, there was one chief who was known to be honest and did not take bribes. Chief Waweru Magugu was the son of Paramount Chief Waweru wa Mahui of Komothai, Githunguri, one of the earliest colonial chiefs. Being the son of a chief meant that he had a received some education himself and he earned a livelihood as a teacher.
He took over as chief of Githunguri after the assassination of Chief Waruhiu in 1952, an event that triggered the Emergency of the same year. Magugu was also chairman of the local Land Control Board and his meetings had a reputation for starting on time.
Chief Magugu was known to be an honourable man. He did not eat in hotels and always carried his flask of black tea and a snack of cooked bananas when he travelled.
One early morning as he was headed to a DO’s meeting in Kiambu, his Land Rover was stopped by a policeman who pointed out that his vehicle had a defect. Reacting with shock, Chief Magugu thanked the police officer profusely for pointing out the defect and possibly saving his life.
He told the police officer that in fact he would not drive the vehicle any further until the fault was rectified. But the policeman advised him that if he could give him some “chai” he could proceed with his journey at which point Magugu produced his thermos flask and offered the policeman some tea.
The police officer politely declined saying that is not the kind of tea he meant. Chief Magugu said he did not have any other type of tea and promptly sought a lift in another vehicle to Kiambu, leaving his Land Rover on the side of the road.
Upon arriving at the DO’s meeting Chief Magugu apologised for being uncharacteristically late and he explained his predicament. The white District Officer (DO) took note and followed up the matter. When it was established who the police officer was, he was promptly relieved of his duties by the DO.
If only we had such men of honour in today’s Kenya.