Francis Atwoli is a man of the medium. The combative 72-year-old is incredibly rich and has headed the Central Organization of Trade Unions for two decades, ironically representing more than 2.5 million low-paid workers in Kenya. Under his supervision, the labor movement has been completely castrated as a political force, and he is better known for his annual pleadings to the government to raise the minimum wage every day of work than for actually working to improve their lot as he does does own. His Wikipedia page describes him walking through the political landscape “like a colossus” and says his “main achievement was that a street was named after him in May 2021”.
However, this “achievement” has put him and his well-heeled neighbors at the center of a controversy over the memory and ownership of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, which has raged since it was founded well over a century ago. The decision of incumbent Governor Anne Kananu to name the street after her “good friend and brother … in recognition of his selfless contribution and commitment to the rights of Kenyan workers over the past 54 years” sparked outrage and a mini-war a signpost.
In the past few weeks, the sign posted by your government to mark Francis Atwoli Road (formerly Dik Dik Road) has been destroyed several times and always replaced a few days later. Internationally renowned activist Boniface Mwangi has vowed to withdraw him and has been represented by prominent high-ranking lawyers should he be prosecuted.
For his part, Atwoli was defiant, condemning the vandals and bragging on Twitter that his name would “live in posterity.” He said authorities would install a CCTV camera to protect the sign and now a group of young men have upgraded the sign and stated that they will put 24 hour security on the sign.
Nairobians are no stranger to the fact that their streets are named after the great and powerful. And the names have always indicated which groups are in power and which are excluded. While in the early years the city’s streets bore numerical names, by the mid-1920s these were increasingly replaced by British and Indian names, the top groups in the racist hierarchy that the British had created.
The streets were nicknamed British settlers and colonial officials, as well as prominent Indian businessmen and religious leaders. As Melissa Wanjiru-Mwita and Kosuke Matsubara state in their paper on the history of Nairobi’s street toponymy in 1936, “the marginalization of Africans was evident in the street naming, as no street in the center was given an African name”.
This underlined that Nairobi was not intended for Africans. The colonial government gave them little housing or public services. Although Africans were the largest population in the segregated city, Wanjiru-Mwita later states that “the ‘African’ [considered] a temporary resident of the city. Africans could only live in the city as registered workers. “
With independence in 1963, the “Africanization” of the city and the inherited colonial apparatus was in the foreground. The streets of Nairobi would again be the stage on which dominance would be asserted. Initially arbitrary, it was not until 1972 that a guideline for renaming streets was established.
Across the city, the new naming regime not only signified the marginalization of whites and Indians, it also reflected the ethnicized politics of the time and the dominance of the Kikuyu ethnic group, and celebrated the new African elite across the continent. With the exception of heads of state, death was usually a prerequisite for a street to be named after them.
In general, everything seems to go smoothly when the rules are followed. For example, there was little controversy when Mugumo Road was renamed to honor President Uhuru Kenyatta’s older sister Margaret Wambui Kenyatta, who was mayor of Nairobi from 1970 to 1976 after her death in 2017, what Kenya’s elephants on the edge of the Brought extinction.
In 2014, Nairobi’s first governor, Evans Kidero, was forced to retire and tear down his own street sign after suffering the same setback as Atwoli for naming a street after himself. An attempt by politicians in Nairobi County Council the following year to pass a law to put their names on the streets also appears to have been tacitly dropped.
Despite the claim to Africanization, Nairobi is still a colonial city at heart that deeply detests the influx of poor Africans into its center. The city’s DNA remains anti-poor and anti-African.
The riot around Atwolis Street coincided with another chaotic attempt by city authorities to “relieve” the city by removing public transport, commonly known as matatus, on which many Nairobians rely. A similar proposal to ban private vehicles from the central business district, a reserve owned by a small wealthy elite, was launched a few years ago, but was briefly abandoned.
Just as the British ruled the city, the vast majority of Nairobi’s population still lives in slums with few public services. While most people walk to work, the authorities prefer to build roads for the rich than sidewalks.
The battle over street naming can be seen as part of the ongoing struggle to truly transform Nairobi into an African city. That is, a city that works for the majority of its residents, not just a few of them; one that reflects the aspirations of many rather than serving as a laundry for the reputation of the elite.
Even if it leads to perverse results, like poachers getting their names on the streets, it’s still about forcing the city fathers to adhere to a rules-based system of taming the arbitrary exercise of power to decide who and who it is off.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own views and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.