Law and devolution experts are calling for the creation of guidelines to regulate the naming of streets and roads.
This comes in the wake of a storm over the naming of a street in Mombasa after the son of Cord leader Raila Odinga.
The experts are wary that this single incident may have opened a Pandora’s box that could end up being a new venue for impunity in the county governments.
Last week, a storm erupted on social media after it emerged that a road in Mombasa County had been named after Fidel Odinga, the son of Mr Odinga who passed away in January last year.
One of the main objections to the move was that Fidel had accomplished nothing significant for the country — or even Mombasa — to earn the honour of having a geographical landmark named after him.
The noise died down as fast as it rose, and now, almost a week after a memorial service was held in honour of Fidel and his grandfather Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Mombasa residents have a new phrase to type into their Google Maps applications.
Before devolution, there was more discretion in how geographical landmarks were named, “but this is no longer the case,” says Nzamba Kitonga, the man who led a committee of experts in midwifing the current Constitution.
“The Constitution has provided that any matter that affects the public requires public participation. These geographical landmarks are going to be used by the public and therefore the least you can do is involve their representatives in making such a decision.”
But Mombasa County finance chairman and nominated MCA Mohamed Hatimy says there are absolutely no checks on the governor’s discretion to name streets and roads in his county.
“Naming and renaming roads is executive power at the disposal of the governor. It does not even need approval from the county assembly,” he told the Nation last week.
Some Jubilee lawmakers have said they are planning to hold a peaceful demonstration to protest the naming of the road after Mr Odinga’s son. Their argument is that Fidel was not a national hero and does not deserve that kind of recognition.
However, there is no law that specifically stipulates that roads should be named after a national hero, and Transition Authority chairman Kinuthia Wamwangi says this legal loophole could easily end up being abused by local government leaders unless something is done about it.
“Even though the decision is made by the governor, it is only prudent that it be a shared decision. Otherwise we may end up with a situation where every new regime wants geographical landmarks named after them,” he says.
“This could lead to future problems where a person wants to have the names of previous regimes replaced with new ones. How will they go about it without any form of standards? It is time we nipped this problem in the bud.”
A majority of the roads in Nairobi and the rest of the country are named after national heroes, most of whom are recognised for their role in the fight for Kenya’s independence. Koinange, Tom Mboya, Kenyatta and Denis Pritt are just a few names that have been immortalised through respective geographical passageways.
Former president Daniel Toroitich arap Moi also has more than a dozen roads, institutions and other geographical landmarks in the country named after him.
The naming of streets and roads was never a controversial issue before the new Constitution was adopted, and it emerged that it is in the sole discretion of a governor.
In 2014, Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero distanced himself from a road named after him near the Bomas of Kenya. He responded to the public uproar by having the sign bearing his name removed and even reportedly laid blame on then Nairobi executive member for roads Evans Ondieki.
Not long afterwards, a road bearing the name “Sonko Road” was spotted in Buru Buru, but the sign was removed shortly after it emerged that supporters of Nairobi Senator Mike Sonko Mbuvi had put it there illegally.
One of the reasons local leaders or their supporters are taking it upon themselves to name the roads is that many roads, including in Nairobi, remain unmarked. Just last year, the Nairobi County Assembly discussed a motion seeking to review the names of some streets in the city.
Karen Ward Representative David Mberia described the naming of roads like Mogadishu, Monrovia, Lagos Road and Kampala roads as “unplanned” and urged his colleagues to revive the tradition of naming streets after local heroes.
Mr Kitonga, the constitutional law expert, suggests the 2014 Kenya Heroes Act as a good place to begin.
“The naming of roads could be included in the drafting of the legislation of heroes. The Heroes Act may be amended to include this new consideration. The National Assembly can also enact the new legislation within the framework of the National Emblems and Names Act,” he says.
“What we have here is a novel scenario that has never been a significant legal problem in the past. But then again, you can never draft laws that will anticipate all possible future problems. That is why we create new laws every day as new scenarios arise.”
Last year, the Nairobi County Assembly approved a motion to rename Limuru Road after Kenyan Nobel laureate and environmentalist Prof Wangari Maathai. But the county government said it would rename Forest Road for her instead, but this is yet to happen.