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Devolution still holds great promise for us

By Irungu Houghton | Published Sun, March 12th 2017 at 00:00, Updated March 11th 2017 at 21:20 GMT +3
From left: Kakamega Governor Wycliffe Oparanya, Controller of Budget Agnes Odhiambo and Asset Recovery Director Muthoni Kimani participate in corruption discussion during the 4th Devolution Conference in Naivasha. (Photo: Beverlyne Musili/Standard)

This week's Devolution Conference in Naivasha left me with a sense of achievement and expectation. The first phase of devolution is coming to an end but the journey to self-governance, public empowerment and universal public services has just started.

Overall, all devolutionaries can be justifiably proud of the significant shift of political and financial power to 47 smaller governance units in line with Article 174 of the Constitution. New oversight mechanisms like the County Assemblies, right to information and public participation laws and county fora, have expanded the space for citizens to influence local governance. Counties now receive substantial flows in revenue from national government and some like Kiambu County have successfully begun to generate domestic taxation to meet the gaps.

The greatest challenge to the next round of county governments is the endemic abuse of office and corruption. Over the last five years, no single county government has escaped the censure of the Office of the Auditor General or the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission. Procurement abuse, bid-rigging and conflict of interest has created overnight village millionaires, a mini helicopter industry and too many frequent-flyers in a time of famine, disease and insecurity.

It is in this context that all Kenyans of sound mind must vigorously support the growing non-partisan campaign to de-list all election aspirants that fall short of the standard of Chapter 6. This initiative realises that impunity is not just the bad behaviour of public leaders, it is primarily the relationship between them and the public. Thieves seeking to be elected stand advised that there is a growing voter opinion that will red-card and lock out roughly half of all current MCAs and governors.

This time, leaders working in the public interest will have the benefit of an emergent informed, vocal and empowered public. Seventy per cent of Kenyans can now distinguish between the different roles of an MCA and an MP. A growing percentage are now using county websites, Facebook pages and ward meetings to exercise their right to inform and critique their county governments decisions. All are now demanding an end to the high cost of living and trading, poor services and wastage.

However, one in three Kenyans still think they must travel to county offices for information and services. Three in five Kenyans have never been to a county meeting and think they are a waste of time. The hudumarisation and extension of information and services must continue. This will make it easier for citizens to indirectly interact with their administrators. In turn, the administration's investment will be better protected and used by citizens.

Devolution doubters can park their skepticism. The quality of public services is slowly transforming this country. It is happening in some of the most unlikely places. The experiences of new mothers Halima Abdullah and Khadijah Mohamed of Mandera County offer a promise that no mother need die while giving birth. Pre-primary school children are now increasingly accessing early childhood services. This week, Naivasha-based trader Esther Nyokabi spoke powerfully of the difference new market sheds and reducing the cost of doing business would make for her life.

Some real uncertainties remain. Too many counties still experience insecurity and a lack of public safety. The protracted health crisis rages without a comprehensive solution. Despite the welcome presence of the President at this week's conference after two previous no-shows, there remains too much tension between the two tiers of government. The next set of 48 governments must seek to transform this.

Considering the above, is devolution still popular among Kenyans after five years? Surveys seem to suggest it is. In any case, it is worth remembering that major political movements in history were unpopular in their time. Most Kenyans in the late 1950s thought the actions of the Mau Mau would hurt the cause of national independence and majority.

Sixty per cent of North Americans in the 1960s thought civic rights sit-ins, mass demonstrations and pickets led by Dr King Jnr and the Freedom Riders would hurt the cause of civil rights. Most Kenyans in the 1990s thought the struggle for democracy and constitutionalism was a fringe issue and hopeless. Today, we all know the value these struggles for change have brought to our lives.

If boldness is not always popular, then it is also true that populism is not always bold. As aspirants court our ward and county votes over the next few months, we need to look carefully at both their proposals and personalities. We can influence their actions and in the process, we can take devolution to the next level.


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