The Old Nyanza Provincial Headquarters in Kisumu

The Center of British Colonial Power in Nyanza Province, Kenya

This brief story focuses on the beginning of the old headquarters of the colonial administration in Nyanza province, Kenya. It examines the rise of the colonial administration in Nyanza. Other key points in the story include the establishment of the administrative headquarters in Kisumu in the province, and the posting of administrators and support staff to the headquarters. It mentions the names of some of the first and most notable provincial heads and commissioners of the time in Nyanza. It also examines the impact of the colonial administration on the local population in Nyanza.

Nyanza Province is one of the main administrative provinces that were created in Kenya during the colonial period. The others were Coast, Northeastern, Rift Valley, Eastern, and Central provinces. The Nyanza Province is about 12,477 square kilometers [4,817 sq. miles] in size, about the size of the state of Connecticut, and is in the southwestern part of Kenya, on the Winam Gulf of Lake Victoria. It is mainly occupied by the Luo, the Kisii, and the Kuria ethnic groups, but the Luo were and still are the dominant group in the province. Nyanza Province was created by the British during the colonial period, and during that period, the headquarters of the provincial administration was based in Kisumu.

Although there are few details on exactly how the building was constructed or how much its construction cost, one of the plaques on an old wall on the front side of the building shows that the construction of the old Nyanza Provincial headquarters was completed in 1909. The building is located on the Achieng' Oneko Road, opposite the Huduma Centre (built in 1987 as the new Nyanza provincial headquarters).

The Nyanza provincial headquarters was constructed after the British had already conquered and colonized the area. Using both indirect and direct methods of administration, the British then decided to build the headquarters in Kisumu to facilitate the enactment, coordination, and implementation of government policies in the province. This old, unassuming building was the center of power in the province during the colonial period. The head of the administration, the Provincial Commissioner, and his key lieutenants and advisers operated from the building. The provincial government officials in charge of security, finance, agriculture, roads, cultural activities, to mention only a few, coordinated their activities with the Provincial commissioner there. The District Commissioners, District Officers, and the African chiefs received their orders from top government officials in this building.

Some of the most reknown colonial administrations in Nyanza such as S.H. Fazan, and K.L. Hunter operated from this building. Hunter was so well known in Nyanza that many children were named after him. Children known as "Handa" were named after Provincial Commissioner K.L. Hunter. The first provincial commissioner of Nyanza was C.H. Hobley, or "Obilo." During the independent Kenyan period, there were influential administrators like Isaiah Chelugat, who served as Nyanza Provincial Commissioner for many years under President Jomo Kenyatta. These were powerful men. Their word was law in the province, as was in the case of other commissioners in other parts of Kenya. Many careers were made or ended right within the confines of the building.

There were other activities within the headquarters, such as settling and dealing with land disputes between owners and trespassers. All the decisions concerning the province were made at the Nyanza Provincial headquarters and distributed to the rest of the province. Although the headquarters served as the cognate for the management and coordination of government policies in the province, its real raison-d'etre–the impetus for its construction–was the maintenance of law and order in the provinces.

The establishment of law and order in the province was no easy affair. The leading Kenyan historian, B.A. Ogot, observes, for example, that, "the chief problem facing the local agents of the Imperial Power between 1900 and 1914 in Central Nyanza, as in the rest of Kenya, was the establishment of a sound system of administration. This exacting job could not be tackled effectively until law and order had been established in Nyanza." Ogot attributes the problem of law and order, the slow start to the establishment of a proper system of administration, to issues such as the poor quality of government officials that were posted to the country as a whole and to the province more specifically.

Ogot makes this point very clearly when he writes that, "few of the administrators have had any education, and many of them do not pretend to be members of the educated class. One can neither read nor write. This is not surprising when one realizes that no examination is required to enter the local civil service…When such men are given unlimited power over uneducated and simple minded natives it is not extraordinary that they should abuse their powers, suffer from megalomania, and regard themselves as little tin gods.” Indeed, one can observe right away from Ogot’s research and writing that the provincial administration in Nyanza usually faced and experienced problems.

Placing uneducated men in charge of a system that required quick wits and timely communication was a recipe for disaster. Consequently, there were many cases of top government officials abusing and misusing their power in the province. The abuse of power by the colonial administrator usually led to resentment and, in some cases, outright revolt by the local people. It has been argued, for example, that because of high-handed manner of provincial administration, the local Luo people changed their attitude towards the government. From being peaceful, the Luo started becoming very suspicious of the British in the province and the country as a whole.

Nevertheless, the Nyanza provincial administration continued to evolve and take shape. With time, administrative officials also started becoming better educated and more informed about the cultural sensitivities of the local people. Government services also spread into the villages and more and more people started looking up to the government for those services. The Nyanza provincial headquarters in Kisumu became synonymous with life and death in Nyanza Province. It was not unusual for hundreds of people to be found gathered in or outside or around the building waiting for government attention and services.

During the colonial as well as after the colonial period, many people could be found trudging and trekking for miles and miles just to have audience with government officials at the Nyanza provincial headquarters in Kisumu. The Nyanza provincial administration and its headquarters in Kisumu served as the main tool for colonial control and domination of Nyanza. It was through the headquarters that the Britain governed the province. Local chiefs were granted power to promote and protect British interests. Different ethnic communities seeking land and power were pitted against each other and were told that to get the best land grants they had to do what the government required of them. Certain communities like the Luo tried to collaborate with the British in order to have peaceful relations but even these people were eventually subjugated by the provincial system.

Ultimately, this provincial administration left a huge mark on the local people of Nyanza. A good example of this impact can be seen from not just the way it facilitated the subjugation of the Luo, but also how it affected the Luo system of government. The Luo had a very organized and effective system of government prior to the establishment of the colonial administration system in Nyanza Province. They were organized as sub-groups called "ogendini" ranging from ten to seventy thousand people. The "ogendini" were independent. The "ogendini" were government by elders, even there were others governed a chief typically called "ruoth." Under the "ruoth" were the local councils called the "doho." The main principle in this government was the decentralization of power. Whenever one had a grievance, one could bring it first to the local council and then, if necessary, to the chief, where there was one. This was a very effective system of government. Power was decentralized. Nobody exercised power without the consent of the group.

But, with the arrival of the British and the construction of the Nyanza provincial headquarters, power gradually slipped from the "ogendini" and the "doho" and the "ruoth" into the hands of the British. As the British built their own power structures in the province, the traditional Luo system of government was emasculated until it essentially became irrelevant. Power came to be based at the Nyanza provincial headquarters. The head of the province and the headquarters of the province became synonymous with power.

When the British left Kenya in 1963, their place was taken over by the newly elected Kenyan government. Their system of administration was not destroyed but adopted by the new government. Thus, the colonial provincial administrative structures continued to exist under the new government. The provincial commissioners continued to operate from the main colonial provincial administrative headquarters in Nyanza. The district commissioners, divisional officers, and the chiefs continued to operate and receive their orders from the provincial commissioners operating from the building. Indeed, many of the colonial buildings such as the Nyanza provincial headquarters still stand and operate even today.

There is a new constitution in Kenya today. Under the new constitution, the title of the provincial commissioners has been changed to regional coordinators. Nevertheless, the regional coordinators still largely operate from the same buildings as their predecessors, the provincial commissioners, and still exercise virtually the same amount of power as their predecessors. Thus, the legacy of the provincial headquarters continues.



Achieng' Oneko Road, Kisumu ~ The Nyanza Provincial Headquarters is located on the intersection of the Achieng' Oneko-Awuor Otieno Road in Kisumu City