The good, bad and the ugly of our devolution experiment

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Governors, from left,  Mwangi Wa Iria (Murang'a), Wycliffe Oparanya (Kakamega) and Anne Waiguru (Kirinyaga) at Kutus Town, February 2019. [Kibata Kihu, Standard]

Allow me to detour from my tradition of arguing my views and policy opinions using numbers. I want to tell a story, share an amazing experience, opine on the good and the ugly of Kenya’s devolution experiment. One may wonder who am I or where do I get the moral authority from to warrant this precious space to tell my story. 

So let me start with a confession: yes, it is true, I may not have been on the cameras or all over blowing my trumpet on where am ‘checking in’ on popular social media platforms. I may have never tweeted on my escapades, but I have been there in the thick of it all right from the onset of county governments in April 2013. I have been to the mountains and the valleys, I have been to the skies and on land, I have been out on ungodly hours and into dangerous territories in the name of devolution.

Trust me, I want to believe there would be extremely very few livings souls if any, on this side of the Sahara that understand and can objectively speak about Kenya’s devolution better than I do. At the technical level, you would find my footprints across all 47 counties.  I have been a trainer, a consultant, a promoter and a goodwill messenger for devolution on print media and radio, especially on my local ethnic language.

Based on this, I should have earned the bragging rights to opine on the good and the ugly of devolution. I will highlight three points that are considered most important and/or strategic on either side of this coin.

The good

One of the greatest achievements of devolution nine years on has been to open business opportunities and drive property values in many of the traditionally remote areas across the country. Some good cases in point include Mandera, Wajir, Kathwana in Tharaka Nithi, Naivasha township, Embu and Machakos.

In 2013/14 when I first visited Tharaka Nithi, Mandera and Wajir, Kathwana was a barren land while accessing basic accommodation in the two other townships was a nightmare. Naivasha, Embu and Machakos have been big beneficiaries from demand for conferencing and other hospitality services due to devolution of services.

Devolution Cabinet Secretay Eugene Wamalwa. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Many government agencies and private sector entities have also moved to the regions further boosting demand for properties and other amenities.

The second major achievement has been opening the democratic space in the country. While it may never be obvious to many people, the hoi polloi have become much aware and informed about the role of government in their ordinary lives.

They understand electoral positions are meant to serve them and are willing to wield the power of the ballot to call into order those they deem to be self-serving.

Nothing demonstrates this more than the fact that almost half of the pioneer governors were voted out in 2017. Some counties like Makueni, Machakos and Wajir whipped out almost all the Members of the County Assembly (MCA) save for one or two in each case. We expect the attrition rate to be higher in August 2022. It should also not surprise anybody that sooner than later, we will start having one term presidents in this country. 

Deflate political power

The third achievement has been to deflate too much political and economic power from the centre. After the historic annulment of the presidential results in 2017, lives moved on for the county governments. This proves beyond any reasonable doubt the presidency is no longer a matter of life and death for majority of the Kenyans.

After all, the president cannot singularly control developmental activities across the country as it used to be. I hypothesize that by 2032 national elections, future presidents will emanate from the pool of governors, unless they screw it up like they did in this past nine years.

The ugly

On the negative side, it is a pity that the devolved governance system has also come with its fair share of baggage. Key among them is wanton plunder of public resources, raw abuse of power and perpetuation of the big man syndrome just like at the national level.

In my devolution voyage, I have met and engaged few humble, focused and amiable county bosses. But I also know for a fact that many a county bosses lack personal foresight outside their party’s parochial agenda.

Others are vindictive to their staff with contra opinions and lack the wherewithal to inspire their teams and communities into a broad and long term developmental agenda. Nothing personifies this more than the kind of developmental projects many counties have engaged in.

Construction works at Ronald Ngala Utalii Collage in Vipingo, Kilifi County. [Robert Menza, Standard]

One would really struggle to delineate county projects from the mainly unsustainable constituency development ones done by the Members of parliament. This is despite county governments presiding over several billions compared to the average of about Sh130 million allocated to constituencies. 

Not paying up

The second disastrous habit common among the counties has been none payment of validly contracted goods and services. I have not only heard of the tales of anguish from suppliers but am also a witness and victim of this uncouth practice among the county governments.

While they will pamper you with hope, the moment the job is done or the supplies delivered you are on your own. In many cases, ghost suppliers get paid while the real and genuine suppliers perpetually wait.

For instance, in my case, I remember working late into the night for over three weeks to deliver on a consultancy for a County Integrated Development Plan.

The said county had been denied access to their funds from County Revenue Funds by the Controller of Budget without an approved plan. 

As soon as the plan was accepted and funds released, not a single penny was ever paid to me over six years later. Yet I know my burden is lighter for I hadn’t contracted a loan to like many other suppliers have to deliver on their orders.

The third miss in our devolution agenda is a misinterpretation of our devolved framework. The devolved governments were never meant to be fully and eternally dependent on the equitable share from the national government.

They were meant to evolve into semi-autonomous economic units capable of championing their own developmental drivers and indicators. Unfortunately, almost 10 years of devolution, only Nairobi County can ably meet their salary expenditure without the exchequer from the national government.

As a concluding thought, it is my considered few that the electorates must raise above political party shenanigans and only vote for capable candidates at least within the counties. Otherwise, the true promise of devolution will remain a distant target for many parts of the country.

Furthermore, before we can even debate on the proposed hefty retirement package for the county bosses, can we subject them to credible and objective evaluation of their performance where it matters most? That is, the County Gross Product and improvement of the welfare of folks within their respective counties?   

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