For devolution skeptics, a trip to the northern part of Kenya is a must do. Every time I have travelled to the former “North Frontier Districts,” I have come back to “Down Kenya,” as it is so aptly called, hopeful for devolution and for Kenya generally. Since its introduction in Kenya in 2010, the devolution stories that have tended to grace front pages is wasteful “bench marking trips” by MCAs and the numerous reports of graft in what is now named the “devolution of corruption.” Little is ever told of the many success stories, particularly of places once forgotten which have got a new lease of life, of hopeful people who no longer have to traverse miles for a hospital bed. Little is shared of increased transparency in counties where citizens can demand accountability from a government that lives in their neighbourhood.
This other story of devolution came to me afresh as I travelled to Wajir County last week. Having overflown the place when it was godforsaken desert town, I came back enthused and ready to do my part in ensuring the success of devolution. The first thing that hits you about travelling to Wajir is the busyness of the airport transporting people to the north. In the morning I flew out, there were hundreds of people excitedly taking flights to such places as El Wak and Mandera in fairly new and good quality aircraft. The flight to Wajir is itself only an hour from Nairobi and is no different from a flight to the Coast, only smoother! What you note you as you fly into Wajir town, apart from the desert-like dryness, is the number of new developments coming up. It tells you a story of the reawakening of a sleeping giant.
The airport, currently under refurbishment to convert it to full international status, is quite busy, currently handling about 40 flights daily, many of them transiting to and from Somalia. Jambojet has started daily flights to Wajir! As soon as you leave the airport, you notice first signs of change; tarmac and street lights; the first time people of Wajir have seen any tarmac and street lights in 53 years of independence. The people of Wajir have been quick to invest in their county, and there are several hotels just next to the airport. In the Palace hotel where I stayed, the hospitality was excellent and the food was to die for. Amazingly, the hotel proprietor has managed to grow a “forest of trees” despite the desert environment and nothing beats a hot meal of local mbuzi in the hotel’s cool shade. A warning to imbiber visitors. You will struggle; this is one town where alcohol is as rare as a Kenyan coin. A visit to the town and one is amazed at its vibrancy and the expansive businesses therein. I kept asking my hosts who the customers in these well stocked shops were. The roads are wide and well-kept and many of the shops are new or newly renovated, which tells a story of hope and promise. The government of former Governor Ahmed Abdullahi must be commended for it’s work, quite visible, particularly in roads, health and early childhood education. The signs of the works done are evident in the state of government service facilities including the ultramodern county headquarters. While appreciating that I am a fairly uninformed observer of local dynamics, I still wish that this humble gentleman had been allowed a final five-year term. But then that’s democracy, warts and all.
Obviously Wajir has a long way to go; after 50 years of neglect change comes slowly especially in a place with numerous natural barriers to development including crippling insecurity and an unforgiving climate. Significant funds are for example needed to finance investments in water and sanitation, a great challenge in that part of the world. But as I left hot Wajir, with its friendly, exuberant but cautious people, I felt upbeat, knowing that there is so much to Kenya than spoilt Nairobi. Kudos, the great people of Wajir.
- The writer is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya