How some counties have slept on the job

OPINION |

Kisumu-Nairobi highway. [Phillip Orwa, Standard]

Over the New Year break, I travelled through 17 counties. One thing stood out — devolution has transformed some counties but is a faraway reality in others.   

While growth indicators like infrastructure, trade, production and investments are shaping up in some devolved units, the quality of life for the rural majority in others is still by far pitiable.

From the glitters on the streets, smooth roads and the remodeling of hospitals and schools, Kakamega and Kisumu give an impression that a broad rebirth of the nation is possible.

In the two counties, you would readily track real growth from devolution. On the flipside, counties like Busia and Homa Bay give off the image of places bogged down by age-old challenges, whether relating to funding gaps, inept management, graft, or simply failure by the leadership to appreciate the workings of devolution.

Devolution has improved lives since 2013. The Northern counties will agree. But it is also true that some, if not most counties, have wasted the chance to improve Wanjiku’s life out of the billions they get from the exchequer annually.

The good, the bad, and the ugly of devolution so far mean it is fast resulting in imbalance and inequality of opportunities. Sooner, we will have an exodus of Kenyans from underperforming counties to the more optimistic ones.

Perhaps we need a rule book for governors. This will help ensure every governor gets a basic understanding of their role. Such a guide should include enough safeguards to ensure prudence in project conception and utilization of funds.

Since devolution started in 2013, counties have received an estimated Sh2 trillion worth of equitable share of allocation. In the 2021/2022 period alone, the 47 counties are receiving Sh370 billion from Treasury.

But more and more, we’ve been treated to serious dereliction. In 2020, counties spent Sh12 billion on needless travels despite Covid-19 restrictions.   

Incompetence by some governors has led to an inclination by the national government to want ‘take back’ some devolved functions.  

A conversation on the future of underperforming counties would suffice now. Devolution started with a few baby steps and frantic effort must be made to ensure it doesn’t tumble along the way.

Author Daniel Coyle once said baby steps are the royal road to skill. Counties that have failed to impress should admit it and seek help. The day all the 47 counties will rise to the occasion, there will be even greater sense to increase funding.

Under the BBI, county and national assemblies had passed a constitutional amendment Bill to raise allocation from 15 per cent of total revenue to 35 per cent.

But more funding comes with a greater need for prudence. Kenyans who do business with counties and who are owed billions of shillings continue to suffer as a few millionaires cheer.

Let there be better inter-governmental relations to give devolution the much-needed goodwill. Ugly turf wars, duplicity of roles and graft should not be allowed to jolt the two-tier system.

Let’s spread the benefits of devolution without widening socio-economic inequalities.   

-The writer is an Editor at The Standard. 

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