African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams

Report from Kenya #282 – June 6, 2014

Is Devolution Working in Kenya?


Note: Theoneste Bizimana, the coordinator of HROC-Rwanda, will be taking a peacebuilding course at Columbia University next fall. He will have his weekends open and is willing to do speaking engagements or HROC workshops from Friday evening through Sunday. Email me at dave@aglifpt.org if you are interested. Dave

The concept of “devolution” is so engrained in American political thought that it is difficult for an American to realize the opposite – a completely centralized government. Colonial powers must control everything and it is cheapest and easiest to control from the center. As a result, one of the legacies of colonialism that still continues in many African countries is centralized control. America, on the other hand, has states, counties, cities, local governments, transit authorities, school districts, and on and on. Frequently there is tension between the various levels of government, leading in the US in the 1860’s to the civil war. Control, though, from Washington, DC has been increasing over the generations as communication has speeded up from the pony express to the internet.

With independence in 1963, Kenya inherited a centralized government even as it placated the opposition with something called majimbo which means regionalism; each of the eight provinces in Kenya were to be partly self-governing. But the central government, led by President Jomo Kenyatta, destroyed this system by 1970 and slowly but surely consolidated all power in what came to be known as the imperial presidency. President Kenyatta, and later President Moi, controlled not only the executive branch, but also the legislature, judiciary, the security forces, and, importantly, the electoral commission. Moreover, the Kenyatta government decided early on that Kenyan development would best be served by putting most of its resources into those areas of the country that were already the most developed, namely Nairobi and the Central Province north of Nairobi where the Kikuyu, Kenyatta’s tribe, dominated. The corollary was that most of the rest of the country was neglected. A great example even today, is that people in northwestern region of Turkana call and say “How’s Kenya?” as if they are not part of the country.

I do not wish to cover the history of the fight for devolution except to say that after decades of pressure, in 2010, the new Kenyan constitution divided the country up into forty-seven counties, each with a governor, local legislature, and considerable funding from the central government. With the March 2013 election, the governors and counselors were elected and county governments began to function.

How is this working out after 15 months? Is it a failure or a success or too early to tell? Here is my assessment at this time.

While this was a major governmental change, very little planning occurred before the election so the new governors had no offices, staff, vehicles, policies, or anything that a government needs to function. These were developed “on the fly”, so to speak, with varying results. Governors and the county legislators were quickly criticized for spending too much money on offices, housing, new SUV vehicles, and foreign travel.

Moreover, there is significant opposition to devolution from those who had benefited from the centralized government. Deputy President William Ruto was the leader in the opposition to the 2010 constitution and Uhuru Kenyatta was considered a “watermelon” – this is one of those cute expressions Kenyan love, meaning green (go) for the constitution publicly on the outside, but red (stop) secretly on the inside. Rather than abolish the former centralized provincial administration, against a court ruling saying this is illegal, the Kenyatta government has reappointed the old provincial administrators to each county and they report, not to the elected governor, but the central government in Nairobi. Thus each county has in essence two administrations which are bound to tangle on various issues.

The counterattack on devolution has included large controversies on how much funding the counties should receive and how the responsibilities are divided. For example, counties were given responsibility only for nursery school education; the counties are demanding responsibility for all primary and secondary education. Another controversy is who is responsible for which roads. These controversies are inevitable in a new system which has not been clearly defined. Another method of counterattack has been a move to impeach governors – perhaps five are already in the process of impeachment. Usually these moves are political ones, but taken as a whole they are being used as an attempt to show that devolution is a mistake. Clearly those who had benefited from the centralized government of the past are unwilling to let go of their power and financial control. For Kenya, this is an epic battle.

Yet, even after only fifteen months, there has been major progress. Alfred Mutua, governor of Machakos country, bought second-hand vehicles for his administration and quickly developed a 40 acre park with amphitheater, boating, waterfalls, miniature golf, conference facilities, children’s play area, and other recreational facilities. It is close enough to Nairobi for city folks to come and spend a day at the park. Another interesting endeavor is in Nakuru county which wants to attract more industry. Electrical outages are one of the major problems in Kenya so the Nakuru government is developing a 100 megawatt solar project to ensure that investors obtain regular energy and don’t have to depend on expensive back-up diesel generators.

My observation is that devolution has changed the face of Kenya. Governors and other county officials are focusing on what is needed in their county. Naturally they are promoting projects that benefit people in their county. A whole section of the newspaper is now devoted to the counties and what they are doing. While much of the coverage deals with the various controversies mentioned above, there is also much discussion of the innovative projects that counties are creating. If devolution can succeed, it will spread out development in Kenya — Nairobi city itself currently accounts for 60% of the GNP of Kenya. The more marginal parts of Kenya now have local officials and resources to develop in contrast to their former neglect by the centralized government.

Politically, devolution is so popular that no politician is openly trying to abolish it. As time goes on, some counties are going to be well run and others not so well run. Those that do well now have the possibility of enhancing the well-being of their people and hopefully those governors who do not show progress will be voted out in 2017. The teething problems are serious, but expected. Hopefully, with time, the country/central government relationships will be settled, proper policies will be put in place, and local government will be much closer to the people it represents. After a rocky start and considerable opposition from the center, devolution is occurring and I expect the benefits to become more obvious as time goes on. But perhaps my optimism is due to the fact that I grew up under the devolved American system – I attended excellent locally controlled public schools in Clayton, MO — and am perhaps subconsciously biased.

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