The hazards of devolution in Coast

By Njuguna Mutonya

The last time I met him was ten years ago, when I was bureau chief of a local paper in Coast Province. Even then, he was ranting and raving about how his people had been dispossessed of their ancestral land by migrant communities.

Then he was a scraggly looking type with mismatching second-hand clothes and his passion for his peoples’ interest prompted me to give him scant attention and he occasionally appeared in filler or at best on the Swahili edition pages, which greatly pleased him.

So when I met him on Tuesday, there was that familiarity which I could not place, but which I did immediately he started pouring out his passion to the lady producer whom I had accompanied to Kilifi to do a radio feature on land and devolution.

My friend had acquired a new title — the County Representative for his people — who had acknowledged his perpetual fight for their grabbed lands with their votes.

He had changed slightly, dressed in a sharp grey Kaunda suit and his hair and goatee trimmed.

There was a satisfied glint in his eyes as he ranted and raved about the problem of land in Kilifi and within minutes of listening to him, I realised that he had memorised his lines so well since the last time I had seen him a decade ago that I could almost predict his next line.

Wait a minute; the problem still persisted with most Coastal residents remaining squatters in their own lands while newcomers were able to acquire title deeds, which they normally got from the corruption riddled offices of the Lands Ministry.

However, I was aware that the Constitution had set up the national land policy and most importantly, the National Land Commission, which had been given draconian powers to redress historical injustices and recommend how they could be resolved.

Dr Mohamed Swazuri from the Coast region was the chairman of the commission and it was anticipated that he would provide the magic wand, which would legally cure the region of its past maladies and produce a formula for the future of the relationships, social or commercial in the land sector.

In fact, he was expected at the Kilifi Land Registry the next day.

That is when I interjected and asked the politician to halt his ranting and ravings.

“Bwana County Representative, are you aware that the National Land Commission has a mechanism for resolving all these problems or you do not believe in it,” I posed.

“Ten years ago when you came to my office, you still had this message of protest against the Government, the grabbers, the people and literally everyone else. Are you saying that nothing has changed despite the promulgation of the new Constitution,” I asked him.

He rolled his eyes, sweated a bit and I caught a whiff of stale alcohol on his breath. He then called for time off to rethink his statement.

Are our leaders ready to participate in these new roles, which have been thrust upon them by the new devolved government, or are they assuming that it is business as usual? If the leadership at the county level is not aware of the vast changes that have emerged with the new Constitution, how can we evade the trappings of past mistakes, which have continued to haunt our body politic?

The message emerging from the counties as they struggle to get a foothold on things shortly after assumption of office is one that calls for prayers and many civic education exercises amongst the leadership of the units to ensure that they can provide services that can uplift the standards of their people.

The calls for increased salaries are unnecessary sideshows, which can distract the communities from the erstwhile and onerous responsibilities that they are faced with, which means that every day lost is an opportunity lost. The harsh disparities amongst the living standards of different sectors of the communities living in the same county calls for educated roll-out of programmes that can provide equity without slowing down the developmental objectives of the overall panorama.

A resident of Karima ka Ndege in Ganze (One of the most backward places I have ever seen in the Coast) must be tallied along with the fortunes of the Kikambala residents who are sectorally more proximally positioned to the urban benefits without losing sight of the opportunities that other areas like Mariakani and Malindi offer in the wider international markets.

On Thursday I was surprised to find that the residents of Muhaka village deep inside the Msambweni Division of Kwale County are grappling with a problem that I thought was the preserve of the urban elites — too much video games amongst the primary schools. But I soon understood why!

Muhaka has full electrification, has water and medical facilities as well as advanced educational facilities amongst the squalor of the hinterland, which has over time bred the Kaya Bombo militants and recently the Mombasa Republican Council activists.

The Kwale Governor Salim Mvurya, in drawing out the priorities of his county, will have to contend with all the divergent problems that face the rich yet so marginalised county for his people to maximise on the new development formula that offers so much promise, but could be a bridge too far if not based on the objective situations on the ground.

If the leadership that has been voted in into some of these counties exhibits the colourless complaints of the Kilifi councilor, who has devised a cunning template for wooing votes, the poverty which has been tearing these societies apart for the last 50 years will not be wished away.

I still honestly believe that civil society organisations, which have been at the forefront of agitating for change through a new constitutional order, must re-engage their gears to become engines of mobilising leadership and the people into appreciating the options available within the devolution exercise.

With the push and pull between County governments and representatives of the Central government, they might be the only honest brokers left.