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Rubia: This is how City Hall became City Hole

For many Nairobians, City Hall represents an extortionist organisation. It charges for land rates in exchange for no services. It charges for dustbins that it doesn’t deliver. It charges for vehicle parking fees and leaves the vehicles to street toughs. It issues business licences today and flattens the “illegal” structures tomorrow.

City Hall insatiably – and sometimes viciously – collects money but the citizens in its jurisdiction are on their own.

It has not always been like this. Older Nairobians remember when City Hall delivered services. They remember when they called the Nairobi City Council ambulance and it promptly arrived. They remember when they drank water from the tap without a second thought.

They remember when they went for excursions in City Park without fear of being mugged. They remember when they swam and sailed in Nairobi Dam. And they remember when they had a public bus system that operated on strict timetables; they could time their journey to the minute.

When, how and what caused Nairobi’s calamitous chaos?

Charles Rubia was Nairobi’s first black mayor. He became a councillor of the Nairobi City Council in 1959. By 1962, he was the senior most African at City Hall and this resulted in his election as mayor. He took over from colonial authorities a city that worked. It was an unequal city, with services segregated along racial lines. But it worked.

Poorest suburbs

Even Eastlands’ poorest suburbs, such as Bahati, which was represented by Mr Rubia at City Hall, enjoyed exotic services like puddles being sprayed with insecticides after the rains to forestall mosquito breeding.

The colonial relics of that era are the social halls where people engaged in a variety of activities to shorten the evenings and improve their health. Not a single one has been built since the colonists left.

1962 was a period of historic transition. Delegates used Nairobi as a hub for the conferences at Lancaster House in London that negotiated the constitutional framework of Kenya’s Independence. These conferences resulted in Independence in 1963.

Charles Rubia was in the thick of the transition between the colonial administration and the new Independent Kenya Government. There is scarcely a better person to shed light on the Nairobi that functioned like any modern city and the vicious one they live in today.

For him, it boils down to a systematic disregard for law, rules, and order; in two words, political interference. He gave his views below:

First, I became mayor because I was there when Independence was coming. I didn’t become mayor because I had any special qualities. I became mayor because I was there at the right time.

I was nominated as a councillor in 1959. African councillors were then being nominated by the colonial government and I was one of them.

Come round 1960, Kenyatta was released from prison. Politics was very hot. In 1962, I was vice-chairman of the finance committee at City Hall which was a big committee.

And because of the political developments around the wind of change as it were – the entire nation knew that Uhuru could not be very far – I was the senior most African councillor and I was made mayor in July 1962.

I took over from the last Briton, Harold Travis. Nairobi then was a city with a Charter. Nairobi had a Royal Charter. That means it was above other local authorities.

It was what they call a planning authority. It had its own budgeting system. It could raise money from the public, from the London Stock Exchange. Basically it had its own government dealing with all the civic matters.

In Nairobi then, there was no provincial administration. There was a District Commissioner who was dealing with such matters as taxation.

For example, when you wanted a trading licence you had to buy one from the DC for the central government but for the city council also, you paid for a licence.

But to give you an idea of the significance of the central government’s role in city affairs you only have to look at where the district commissioner’s office was situated. It is the little building at the corner of Kenyatta Avenue and Uhuru Highway.

Raising taxes

The only thing he did was to raise taxes for the central government. But everything else was done by the Nairobi City Council. In fact the District Commissioner was a member of the Nairobi City Council. There was a seat for him but only for the purposes of liaising with the central government.

In the General Purposes Committee, which was the policy formulation organ, we used to have a seat for the Nairobi Area Police Officer as well so that when we were discussing security issues, the police were represented.

Nairobi City Council then was working on a 10 year-development plan. There was nothing haphazard; we always saw the city as it would be 10 years ahead.

The councillors themselves were, by and large, business people. They were not politicians. Africans were very few then but later on after Uhuru, they started spreading. I was a city councillor representing Bahati ward.

It was a fully fledged government. Every year, we did budgeting just like the central government does today. We had to state what we were going to do the following year and so on.

An abstract of our accounts had to go to the Treasury and the Local Government Ministry just for information on what we were doing. But we were also free to go to the London Stock Exchange and raise money. We didn’t have to get permission from central government to do that.

We had something we called Nairobi four and three quarter per cent development fund. This is a fund we raised from the London Stock Exchange for roads, of course, with the backing of the central government because the Government of Kenya was the one offering a guarantee.

The only thing we got from Government was subvention on things like public health and later education. I say later because education came to Nairobi City Council in 1964 when I was mayor.

Things changed when Independence came. I was a very strict mayor. But I also recognised that things could not remain the same as far as Africans were concerned.

For example, residentially, Nairobi was segregated racially which was unacceptable. That applied also to social services. I was really in the middle of the integration process since it was simply impossible to carry on with that arrangement if freedom had come.

And there were by-laws to enforce that segregation. We had to change all that.

Tide turns

Come 1965, things started getting difficult. As mayor I got into trouble with a few ministers. One of them was Samuel Ayodo, the Minister for Local Government. He couldn’t understand why he couldn’t call me to his office for instructions.

I knew him well and I used to tell him: ‘Samuel, you know how things work here. If you need anything in terms of the administration of the city, talk to the Town Clerk, not me. I am only the civic head.’

Ayodo just couldn’t understand this. And even Tom Mboya himself; he really came hard against me. But that was my stand.

I had good friends in Kenyatta’s Cabinet. Joe Murumbi was one of them. Murumbi used to speak for me if there was any fitina in the Cabinet. Kenyatta was more civil; he was a lot more civilised than many of his ministers who became quite difficult to deal with.

The ministers started dealing with city council officers directly. Mboya was especially notorious. I knew Mboya well because before he became a trade unionist, he was a city council employee. He was a health inspector. He used to inspect meat shops.

But when he became a trade unionist and he ceased being an employee, he felt he needed to deal with the chief officers directly.

We had a big protocol problem; who comes before whom. I was from the old school. Since leaving high school in 1940, I trained as a manager with the Post Office in the then Tanganyika for two years. But apart from that I did my own studies in the evenings. We had what we called Nairobi Evening Continuation Classes.

I studied economics, book keeping and accountancy up to advanced level. In 1959, when I was a councillor, I got a study tour of Britain sponsored by the British Council to study local government and central government in Britain.

So when I was mayor, I was very conscious of protocol but because these people were politicians, they thought they were gods on earth and had the right of way whenever and wherever they were. I got into a lot of trouble with many of them because of this.

By 1965, they started watering down the strict structure of the council and interfering with how it was run. I got into a lot of trouble with them. That year in particular, I got into trouble with Ayodo. You see, for mayoral work then, there were no wages; we were all volunteers.

There was no salary for the mayor or councillors. The only thing the councillors voted for was what they called mayoral allowances to cater for the numerous civic receptions we held for local and foreign dignitaries, especially diplomats. That vote was administered by my secretary because it was mainly for coffees.

One day I said: ‘I am fed up with all this.’ I resigned. I called the press and told them: ‘I am not an employee, I am not paid, if I don’t get respect, what am I here for?’ So I quit.

Mzee’s ire

I lived in Kangemi then. When Kenyatta heard this, he said, ‘No, no.’ He sent Charles Njonjo and Njoroge Mungai. They came to my house. They said to me, ‘you know what, you have done a very bad thing. Mzee is very upset with you. Why did you resign without telling him?’

I explained to them but they remained adamant. They insisted I must go back. I told them, ‘I don’t want to annoy Mzee but when you resign, resignation takes effect immediately. The council can now not just reappoint me. They have to have a civic election to elect the mayor.’

So I explained that it couldn’t be done. They said, ‘you’d better go and explain that to him, yourself.’ I did exactly that. I went to State House but Kenyatta could hear none of it. He ordered: ‘kwenda fanya hii meeting yako, kesho rudi!’ (Do that meeting and tomorrow be back on your job!)

So we called an urgent, extraordinary special general meeting of the city council where I was nominated as mayor, elected and installed. But by that time the whole thing had become very political and government interference was just too much. All these buildings you are seeing collapsing, that’s when it started. Professionalism ended then.

The political class, some of them wanted to have their constituents employed in the City Council regardless of their ability for the job.

At the end of every year you had to work out how many engineers, for example, you wanted. Politicians just wanted their people to be employed by the council.

In 1967 I was on a tour of Germany when my five year term – that is, the one beginning 1962 – ended and I refused to return home until the mayoral elections were done with. When my deputy, Isaac Lugonzo, was elected, I returned home.