It is difficult for Americans to understand the significance of decentralization in a country such as Kenya. Since the beginning, the US system has been decentralized. There are 50 states plus the District of Columbia, counties, cities, townships, school districts, and even cross-boundary government entities such as metropolitan transit authorities. We are taught about this in civic education classes in school and deal with its ramifications continuously. It seems to us the normal, correct method of government. It, of course, spreads power out and allows local communities and states to decide local issues on their own. As a result, in the United States, there are widely different ways that various issues –from taxation to abortion — are handled.

A colonial ruler, such as Britain, does not want the messiness of decentralization and needs to control everything from a powerful center in the capital. This usurps any possible contending power bases, particularly in the periphery. One of the main problems with the Democratic Republic of the Congo is that the Belgians installed a centralized system for that country which is as big as the US east of the Mississippi and the center of the country is an impenetrable forest. As a result, the eastern Congo is attached more closely to East Africa than it is to its own capital in Kinshasa — the only method of going from the eastern Congo to Kinshasa is by airplane. It is no wonder that the eastern Congo is misruled.

At independence in 1963, Britain bequeath this centralized system to Kenya, even though the smaller tribes on the periphery wanted a more decentralized system. During Jomo Kenyatta presidency for the first fifteen years of independence, this centralization was increased until the center controlled the total government. This included the security forces, the provincial administration, parliament, the courts, the electoral commission, and so on. All decisions emanated from Nairobi.

This resulted in a strong movement to decentralize. In Kenya, this is called “devolvement” or “devolution.” In 2002 Mwai Kibaki campaigned on a platform of devolution of the centralized government, but as soon as he won the election, he reneged on this pledge as he found total power — now that he had it — to be quite congenial. In 2005 there was an attempt to adopt a new devolved constitution but. When the Kibaki government removed all the aspects of devolution from the proposed constitution, the proponents of devolution united to defeat this constitution. A second successful attempt was made in 2010 – this turned the nine centrally controlled provinces into 47 counties, each with a governor and legislature. In the 2013 election, these governors were elected and devolution began.

When we leave aside all the personalities and political parties in Kenyan politics, the real underlying issue is this fundamental change from a centralized government with total power to a decentralized one with multiple smaller power centers. The next five years before the next election is going to determine if this is successful or a bust. How is it going to date?

As can be expected, the central government does not want to give up its powers. Consequently it is doing what it can to thwart devolution. For example, even though the new constitution disbanded the provincial administration, the government has not abolished these positions, even when a court case ruled against it! Another technique has been to “starve” the counties of the funds that they need to do the work that has been allocated to them. The new senate has a senator from each county and, since the duties and powers of this new senate are not clearly defined, some people already talking of abolishing it since the senators are the force of the counties in the national government.

Yet regardless of this, there is what I consider a healthy development. Those 47 governors have become spokesmen (there are no women governors) for their counties. They are articulating what they feel are the needs of their particular county. The governors are emphasizing economic development, promotion of the appropriate agriculture, better rural roads, and other local concerns. This was not the case in the past. Interestingly enough the governors — regardless if they are from the ruling party or the opposition — are united in working together for their appropriate share of the power including adequate funding.

The future of Kenya depends on how this plays out. Since I am a grassroots kind of person, I am for decentralization. AGLI’s program in western Kenya is working, particularly in Kakamega and Bungoma counties, to see that the devolved government is implemented fairly and equitably.

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