Settler ego as echoed in three grand buildings

Wednesday November 7 2012

Befitting the empire: State House, City Hall and the High Court were constructed by the colonialists with the idea of a Nairobi that would be a regional colonial headquarters. FILE | Nation

Befitting the empire: State House, City Hall and the High Court were constructed by the colonialists with the idea of a Nairobi that would be a regional colonial headquarters. FILE | Nation  

By LYDIA MUTHUMA [email protected]

The Nairobi Municipal Regulations were published in April 1900.

Apart from defining the township boundary, these regulations authorised the sub-commissioner to nominate annually a number of the leading residents or merchants to act with him as a town committee.

Until 1920 this committee had been advisory, with the final responsibility for running Nairobi Township firmly in the hands of the governor.

But in 1920, when the British East Africa Protectorate became Kenya Crown Colony, Nairobi Municipal Council was promoted. The governor announced that, with the change to crown colony, London would support all reasonable plans for improvement in the management of municipal affairs.

He further realised the application, made in 1909 by the town committee, by granting the committee the Corporations Ordinance. The committee could now convert court fines into municipality revenue.

It also received full responsibility for roads and drains, among other chores. The weight of these new responsibilities made it appropriate to improve the council’s premises and image.

In her 1929 to 1930 visit, Margery Perham, an outstanding influence on official and academic thinking on British Colonial rule and decolonisation in Africa during the middle part of the 20th century, found “Nairobi itself a most disappointing town.”

“I had expected something rather smart and well built. It is (instead) one of the shabbiest and shoddiest towns I have seen in my travels, which is saying a great deal. There are hardly any pavements and the roadway itself is most primitive ... most government offices are tumble down tin shacks: the Supreme Court is like an abandoned warehouse,” she wrote.

The newly constituted council must have been of a similar opinion. For when it took its seat in February 1920, one of its proposals was that a more distinctive title be adopted for the chief of the municipality and that his title be mayor. Another was to invest in the production of a special street map.

The grand title of His Worship the Mayor was officially used for the first time in 1923 and a corporation seal was designed in the same year. The motto Consilio, Fide, Vigilantia (by counsel, faith and vigilance — in English and ushauri kwa uaminifu — in Kiswahili) was adopted by the council. And, in the same year, the town council offices were moved from Government Road to Hamilton House on Eliot Street (now Wabera Street).

Supremacy battles in this town could now take place in decent buildings. These battles involved the immigrants — European and Asians alike. But the “clever” 1923 Devonshire White Paper provided — for London — a neat escape from these battles by “re-discovering” the overwhelming majority of Kenya’s population — the native African.

The momentous “re-discovery” revealed that all the noise about paramountcy had come from some 10,000 Europeans and 23,000 Asians in a country of an estimated 2.5 million Africans. In the Devonshire White Paper, London reserved for itself sole trusteeship on behalf of the Africans but without consulting them on their wishes.

The European settlers, with the domineering pioneer, Lord Delamere, playing a major part, expressed the strongest resentment. They called both the Statement on Conclusions as Regards Closer Union in East Africa (Command paper no. 3574) and Memoranda on Native Policy in East Africa (command paper no. 3573) not white, but black papers.

The effect of these, black or white papers, was to check the advance of the Europeans, together with their almost desperate Governor and clamant Asians, towards total political control. But the papers were powerless in settling the perpetual grievances over land and labour.

The European settlers’ answer to the White Paper which they derogatively called the Black Paper, was a renewed bid for minority self-government. In their aspiration to build a white man’s country, they sought a federation of the East African territories, with Nairobi as the grand regional capital.

The then colonial secretary, Leo Amery, and his Nairobi-based Governor Edward Grigg, wished to see the three dependencies (Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika) and even, perhaps, the Rhodesias, drawn into federation with Kenya as a dominant element.

Sir Edward Grigg had high hopes of bringing this about and he expected to become East Africa’s first governor-general. He once observed, “I don’t know what I am to do about these White Papers ... The settlers say, ‘Give us control!’ the other side at home (the Labour Government - UK) says, ‘Give them nothing!’ That gets us nowhere; the situation is unique.”

Grigg’s ambition fuelled his zeal to re-build Government House. He wanted it to be a worthy centre for the newly established Governors of East Africa conferences.

In this he echoed settler leader Delamere who declared that Kenya — and particularly Nairobi — should become the centre of opinion and thought in Eastern Africa — with a “civilising” influence. The Kenya European settlers wanted the lead in political power in eastern Africa; a desire they demonstrated by building up Nairobi accordingly.

In making a “whiteman’s country”, the settlers forgot that one might get immediate economic ends only by mortgaging the future. Good economics and bad politics do not go together in the long run. The governor, as Grigg stated, would plant Britain in Africa, London in Nairobi, (come what may) with the strength and “permanence” that only strong settlement can give.

And it was during Grigg’s governorship that the municipal council requested a loan of £84,000 (Sh11 million today but far much less those days) for new offices to be erected in the town square (called City Square from 1950).

The offices’ foundation stone was laid in July 1934 and by May 1935 the new Town Hall (together with the High Court) were officially opened in honour of King George V’s silver jubilee. This happened at a time when European settlers were still not paying taxes in spite of being granted a legislative assembly (Legco). Notably, Nairobi made this move during the New York financial crash of 1929 to 1931 that caused a near world-wide depression.

These buildings — Government House, the High Court, and City Hall — were outstandingly monumental; as monumental as the settlers’ quest for absolute political power. Let us say they were the settlers’ wishes writ large.

They were designed to showcase Nairobi and declare to all and sundry how able and ready the settlers were for minority self-rule. It is interesting to note that all three buildings are adequate for the needs of today — some 70 years later. So grand were they in 1935 that they still command notice among Nairobi’s forest of modern skyscrapers.

State House is the official residence of the President of Kenya. It was originally known as Government House. This building was built in 1907 in Nairobi to serve as the official residence of the Governor of British East Africa when Kenya was a British Colony.

The governor would conduct his official functions at the old Provincial Commissioner’s office (now a national monument) next to Nyayo House and then retire to Government House for the day.

After independence, Government House was renamed State House. Although it remained the official residence of the Head of State, in practice it became an administrative or operational office occasionally providing accommodation to visiting State guests and receptions on National Days.

This scenario has prevailed to-date with the late Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and President Moi preferring private residence as opposed to living in State House.

State House in Nairobi stands on a 3 square kilometre piece of land. It is a 10 minute drive from the city centre. Other than the Nairobi one, there are other State Houses and Lodges scattered around the country to provide accommodation to the Head of State whenever he is touring various parts of the country.