Society & Success

The architectural ‘rebellion’ that gave rise to Parliament Building

Parliament Building today; it was recently renovated at Sh920 million. file photo | nmg
Parliament Building today; it was recently renovated at Sh920 million. file photo | nmg 

“The history of Parliament in Kenya is an example of steady progress from colonial autocracy to a true modern democracy.” (Slade, 1967).

While Kenya was still a protectorate, the British government, under pressure from a small group of settlers, created a Legislative Council (Legco) in 1907 with limited powers to enact ordinances subject to the veto of the Governor and the consent of the King in Britain. The Legco was a unicameral body under a unitary form of government.

The first meeting of the Legco was held in an iron sheets building on Whitehouse Road (now Haile Selassie Avenue) attended by six handpicked officials and three unofficial members.

From 1924, the sittings of the Legco were held in Memorial Hall. It is in this building that the highlands were reserved for the exclusive occupation of the European, later becoming the politically charged “White Highlands”. It is also from this building that the idea of Native Reserves emerged.

In 1924, the Secretary of State issued an amendment to the 1919 royal instructions thus enabling the Legco to enact the Legislative Council (Amendment) Ordinance, 1924. The amended ordinance made provision for the election of five Indians to represent the Indian community and one Arab to represent the Arab community. At the same time provision was made for a white clergyman to represent African interests since, in the opinion of the lawmakers, the African was incapable of representing himself. Accordingly, Reverend J.W. Arthur was nominated.

The elected Indian members took their seats in April 1934; and further provision was made for nomination of one more clergyman- Reverend L.J. Beecher, to represent African interests, and one more Arab to join the one elected Arab member. Thus, the Legco comprised both elected and nominated European, Indian and Arab members while African interests continued to be looked after by white clergymen. These changes were introduced to make the Legco look more representative and acceptable to all, but they were still far from being equitable.

In October 1944, the government nominated Eliud Wambu Mathu to represent African interests in the Legco. Fanwell Walter Odede acted briefly from January 1946 in place of Canon Beecher until 1947, when the latter retired and was replaced by Benaiah Appolo Ohanga. By 1948, the number of nominated African representatives had been increased to four. Governors of the colony served as presiding officers of these councils until the appointment of the first speaker in 1948.

The members of the Legco were increased by eight in 1952 viz; three more for Europeans, one slot for Asians, two slots for Africans and two more slots for Arabs- one elected and the other nominated.

Whereas a systematic change in the composition of the Legco can be observed, where the interests of Asians, Africans and Arabs are recognised and catered for, the representation of Africans remained far from satisfactory. It is noteworthy that the African nominees were not drawn from amongst the more vocal brigade, but from those who were considered “responsible” by the Europeans and therefore suitable for the programme of gradual admission in the Legco. Notwithstanding, the nominated African members did try to give voice to the increasing demand for enfraschisement and self-determination.

Designed by “rebel” British architect Amyas Douglas Connell in 1951 the new Parliament Building was completed in 1954. The authorities had asked Connell to replicate the design of Westminster, but instead he adopted a modernistic design. As if to appease the authorities, he added a clock and pseudo-belltower resembling Big Ben in London.

The first wing was opened in 1954 and at that time, it was the tallest structure in Nairobi. For some time before completion of the new building, sessions of the Legco were held in Kaloleni Social Hall. A new Assembly Chamber was added to the south in 1963, reverting to Connell’s interest in Corbusian design.

Refurbishment

With the completion of City Hall in 1957, the centre of imperial authority moved from Delamere Avenue (Kenyatta Avenue) to what became known as Government Square.

Kenya’s 1963 Constitution established a Senate that comprised 41 senators making Parliament a bicameral House for the first time. However, in 1966, the Senate was abolished when its membership was combined with that of the House of Representatives to form the National Assembly, a unicameral legislature.

Following the enactment of the 2010 Constitution, Kenya’s Parliament again became bicameral with National Assembly being the lower house and the Senate the upper house.

Parliament Building was recently refurbished at a cost of Sh920 millon to incorporate modern technology and trappings of the information age while still maintaining the nostalgia of an earlier age.

E-mail dkiereini@gmail.com.