A timely debate on the cultural politics of naming

Sunday February 14 2016

Siaya Governor Cornel Rasanga. He recently said that opposition counties should cease a public display of the president’s portrait in place of that of opposition leader, Raila Odinga.  PHOTO | TOM OTIENO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Siaya Governor Cornel Rasanga. He recently said that opposition counties should cease a public display of the president’s portrait in place of that of opposition leader, Raila Odinga. PHOTO | TOM OTIENO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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President Uhuru Kenyatta has sensibly brought an end to a needless controversy sparked by a call by Siaya Governor, Cornel Rasanga, that opposition counties should cease a public display of the president’s portrait in place of that of opposition leader, Raila Odinga.

Rasanga’s call had been met with a response that pulling down the President’s portrait was an act of treason and that the governor should be arrested and prosecuted.

Through official spokesperson Manoah Esipisu, the President has correctly stated that there is no legal obligation to display the presidential portrait. Logically, therefore, there is also no legal bar to displaying the portrait of a person other than the President, including that of the opposition leader.

The debate about the President’s portrait comes soon after the recent naming, in Mombasa, of a public road after Fidel Odinga, the deceased son of the opposition leader, a development which attracted considerable debate, including some condemnation.

The decision to name a road after Fidel Odinga was criticised on, among other grounds, that the young Odinga had no public position as would have justified a road after his name and that naming a road for him was, therefore, an act of vanity and naked favouritism, and a misuse of public office.

In turn, this criticism was countered with the argument that the public already tolerates the fact that many other streets are named after equally undeserving people, including those named after the spouses or family members of former presidents.

Although they happened in two different places in the country, the street-naming incident and portrait controversy are not unrelated.

They reflect a growing audacity in the opposition-controlled areas which are now feeling confident enough to assert a right to chart a destiny other than one that is dictated by the centre.


In this new endeavour, the personality of the opposition leader is being used for top cover, which is why it was about Odinga both in Siaya and Mombasa.

At one level, the actions by the opposition can be viewed as a culmination of the contested results in the 2013 presidential elections.

Both the IEBC and the Supreme Court declared that Kenyatta had won the elections, a declaration that the opposition disputed but was powerless to change.

Those elections also established the 47 devolved governments which had not existed before. Because county governments are still relatively new, the political boundary between them and the national government is still an evolving matter.

Through these actions, the opposition governors are testing the limits of their borders with the national government, hoping to project as much power for themselves as possible.

Asserting a right to decide which portraits are to be displayed and claiming naming powers over local roads are two ways of flexing their muscles against the national government.

The assertions by the two governors are an indication of how things might turn out in 2017 if, like in 2013, the IEBC declares a presidential election result which the opposition then disputes.

In 2013, with county governments not yet in place, Odinga was on his own in challenging the declared presidential results. County governments have since been formed around the country and, as the actions by the two governors suggest, these are a potential political bulwark for the opposition and can provide their own leverage for any claims of unfairness in the elections.

To be sure, no county government can do without a functioning relationship with the national government and any brinkmanship towards the national government would hurt local residents.

However, a county government as an organised political entity that withholds its recognition of the national president would provide an interesting test for the country’s cohesion and even continuing existence as a unitary state.

This is one more reason why the 2017 elections must be run in a manner that the results will be clear to all.


By claiming the power to name streets and with the particular name that he has chosen, Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho has invited a timely debate about the cultural politics of naming.

American Professor Derek Adelman writes that “naming is not an innocent locational reference or a passive artifact” but is embedded within social power relations and struggles over the identity of places and people.

He discusses the racial politics of naming in the US in the context of the slain civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, whose name more than 800 streets bear across the country.

A vast majority of these, however, are in the south where the majority of black Americans live, or in small neighbourhood roads that the black community feels is demeaning to the stature of Luther.

Jomo Kenyatta, the first President, named for himself important streets, buildings, universities, hospitals, and airports, a favour he also extended to his favourite wife and favourite cabinet ministers like James Gichuru and Mbiyu Koinange, but denied people he disagreed with like the Kapenguria Six – Bildad Kaggia, Kung’u Karumba, Fred Kubai, Paul Ngei, and Achieng’ Oneko.

Also, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who became Vice-President and played a much larger role than, say, Gichuru and Koinange, never got anything named after him other than a street in his hometown Kisumu, where Kenyatta also has a street name.

Joho’s actions are a gauntlet against a cultural and political hegemony which the Kenyattas represent.

Although the choice of Fidel Odinga for a road name divides opinion, it is almost the only name that could draw attention to the fact that something is wrong with how the country has selected its heroes.