Looming return of the dreaded imperial chief of the Moi era

Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki

Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki during the passing out of 448 assistant county commissioners. 

Photo credit: Pool

The all-powerful ‘chief’ under former President Daniel Moi’s rule is set for a major comeback.

President William Ruto’s government has announced plans to arm the administrators and put under their command at least five police officers, signalling a return to the pre-2010 constitutional dispensation when the chiefs wielded immense power. More than 6,000 chiefs across the country oversee the lowest administrative units, implying that there will be at least 30,000 police officers attached to their offices.

“Every chief will have at least five police officers attached to them. We want to ensure chiefs are enabled to enforce the law and articulate government policy,” said Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki, while on an impromptu visit to the Mtwapa chief’s office in Kilifi.

He said the new measures will be implemented from January. Prof Kindiki also directed officials in the State Department of Interior to start deploying police officers in chiefs’ camps. Currently, all police officers operate from their stations. The plan to empower the National Government Administration Officers (NGAOs) by arming them and authorising them to conduct security field operations signals a return to the Nyayo era when powerful local administrators’ word was law.

CS Kindiki yesterday said all NGAOs will be given arms “to make sure we deal with security threats once and for all”. He, however, issued a stern warning: “The gun and any other weapon that an officer is provided with by the government of Kenya is to be used to protect the lives of Kenyans and their properties from criminals. Use the weapon within the law and according to the Constitution and the government will protect and defend you.”

He told security officers the government “will stand with you, walk with you and make sure we do not abandon you even as you deliver the risky assignment on behalf of the people of Kenya”.

Although chiefs helped reduce crime in their areas during the Moi era, their excesses made the framers of the 2010 Constitution recommend the restructuring of the provincial administration “to accord with and respect the system of devolved government”.

Rights violators

The powerful chiefs were viewed by the citizenry as bullies and abusers of human rights.

They were so powerful some of them were used by the government to crack down on dissidents. Others were accused of grabbing tracts of land but no one dared to publicly question them.

Minority Leader in the National Assembly Opiyo Wandayi yesterday questioned the rationale behind the Kenya Kwanza administration’s plan to arm chiefs and put police officers under their command, arguing the Constitution did not envision such a scenario.

Mr Wandayi, who is the Ugunja MP, said President Ruto’s administration would have to review the National Police Service Act to implement the plan.

“They’re putting the cat before the horse; we are under a new Constitution and laws. The 2010 Constitution came up with the National Police Service Act, clearly defining the command structure of the police and chiefs are nowhere,” he said.

“If chiefs will add value, there is no need for roadside declarations but to review the laws and policies of the land. Align what you are doing with the law.”

On giving chiefs guns to deal with rampant insecurity, Mr Wandayi said the move should be anchored in the law. “Do it legally and procedurally, train them in how to handle it.”

ODM chairman John Mbadi termed the government’s move illegal. “Police Service was made independent under the 2010 Constitution and cannot be directed by anyone or office, and the President has no authority to place the police under any office, the command is by the Inspector General of Police.”

Constitutional lawyer Bobby Mkangi, one of the framers of the 2010 Constitution, told Saturday Nation that arming of chiefs requires public participation, based on what used to happen during the Moi era. He said the government has to be sensitive to the horror Kenyans underwent at the hands of provincial administrators before the new Constitution.

He noted that the chiefs can be empowered to do their job through better pay, a good working environment and regular training.

Mr Mkangi said the chiefs’ history as colonial relics used to subvert human rights and impose the will of the state is what informed the restructuring of the provincial administration. “The government should allow Kenyans to give their views on this matter. Have the chiefs become servants? Which gap has been felt to the extent of arming chiefs?” he asked.

“Chiefs are normally like administrators, advisers, counsellors and giving them a gun will be symbolic and that will take away what they have been doing and this will make them like enforcers and not administrators.”

But United Democratic Alliance (UDA) chairman Johnson Muthama told Saturday Nation that Kenyans should not be apprehensive about the plan, adding that it is not different from what is already in place.

“We have police working with the chiefs currently and they are not reporting to the chiefs. What will be different when they are commanded by chiefs? You cannot separate chiefs and the police. Chiefs cannot work without the police and vice versa. They have to work together,” Mr Muthama said.

Saboti MP Caleb Amisi, a political ally of Azimio boss Raila Odinga, said arming chiefs and making them command police officers in their locations could land the country into “total anarchy”.

“It is tantamount to misuse, abuse and can take the country to total anarchy, especially in ethnically volatile crime areas and cattle rustling counties where local authorities are often accused of biased and skewed defence. Secondly, such a policy pronouncement with monumental security weight must be subjected to public participation and a parliamentary process,” said Mr Amisi.

Nyaribari Chache MP Zaheer Jhanda, however, argued that the current security situation is wanting, hence all means must be used to tame crime. “The Security situation in the country is alarming. Few criminals want to take advantage and kill innocent civilians. The President took the oath to protect lives and property, so if it means the chiefs to be armed, so be it as long as no Kenyan loses his or her life through rogue criminal enterprise.”

Governance expert Javas Bigambo is of the view that before such a radical policy shift is implemented, Kenyans need to be told why such decisions were arrived at as well as the plans in place to protect civilians against improper use. “It is possible that the decision to arm chiefs, who are under the Ministry of Interior, is to galvanise security mechanisms at the locational level. Nonetheless, this should be strictly guided by proper training. Secondly, it would be useful to give a public explanation for such a radical policy shift and decision,” Mr Bigambo said.

Capacity building

Other than the issuance of weapons and the paramilitary training, the government will also be mounting professional courses to ensure the officers are promoted while equipping them with skills for the new ranks and responsibilities. These courses include public administration, senior management and strategic development. The government argues that these empowerment programmes are needed to ensure security is improved and all other challenges arising from the grassroots are firmly tackled.

The state believes that the ever-evolving security threats in different parts of the country require all necessary measures, including the allocation of weapons to the NGAOs.

Prof Karuti Kanyinga believes the colonial-era provincial administration’s powers and responsibilities were to be aligned and realigned with the 2010 Constitution. He believes that the trick lies in balancing the needs of Kenyans while being careful not to let NGAOs misuse their powers and run unfettered as was the case before. 

“People in rural areas identify more with the power of the chiefs and it is to the chief that they take their matters, including those touching on their security, rather than the police. This requires the chiefs to be equipped to deal with the security challenges,” he said.

However, this, he argued, should be done in a way that balances democratic governance and accountability. “The focus should not be on the number of guns or police officers but on the public good that this strategy will deliver. Can we deliver security in a democratic manner without killing people but by arresting and prosecuting lawbreakers as required?” he asked. “Those who abuse their responsibility should be punished. Administrators in the Nyayo-era were not punished and became autocrats.”

But analyst Herman Manyora says the plan points to a return to autocratic rule. This, he says, is because the provincial administration was entrenched to ensure the administrators were available for use and misuse by the presidency. “Everyone agreed that the old system of chiefs had to go. The Constitution put it in a clever way that the system had to ‘conform’, to mean it should be done away with,” he said.

Mr Manyora wondered why the administrators should be given arms when that is the role of the police.

“This is the return of dictatorship and strong man rule. The provincial administration was made by Kenyatta but strengthened by Moi,” he said.