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The symbolism of governors bearing their crosses

By Macharia Munene | Published Mon, August 13th 2018 at 00:00, Updated August 12th 2018 at 20:15 GMT +3

Several developments are refocusing Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency to stress three interrelated undertakings. First is reaching out to “unify” contending interests. Second is making the Big 4 agenda a lasting reality. Third is to intensify the fight against corruption. Properly harmonized, the three undertakings can transform national attitude positively. 

Fighting corruption is the most difficult and visible undertaking. It has started with systematic reclaiming of public assets in Kibra, Mau, and Nairobi riversides. This has made turning forests into private farms and road reserves and riparian territories into dwellings and commercial enterprises very costly.

There was also the drama of arraigning governors, Members of Parliament, parastatal chiefs, and other public service elite in court for misuse of public resources and abuse of office. 

The charging of governors has different structural value from that of bureaucrats and parastatal chiefs. It is a new sobering development that helps to bring clarity to the relationship between the Kenyan unitary state and the counties as subordinate organs within that unitary state.

Initially, the public had embraced devolution because it looked like a big Constituency Development Fund, which had succeeded in delivering goods and services at the local level. Although people wanted increased CDF, elected county officials gave devolution a bad name by misunderstanding their roles. Governors ended up imagining themselves as small presidents independent of the national authority. 

Operation budgets

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Though not all governors made that mistake, there were those who ignored the fact that counties rely on the State for legitimacy, policy direction and funding. They are bound by the Constitution, a national election commission validates their election, and they take oath of office before a national judge, not a county one. The security organs in each county belong to the national Government.

They receive salaries and allowances that are established by a national salaries commission. Their development and operation budgets come from the national Treasury and they are supposed to follow specified State guidelines. They are answerable to the national senate and are audited by the State's Auditor General.

Despite such realities, there were governors who gave the impression that they were above the national laws. They became symbols of impunity, adopted defiant postures, and even insulted the presidency to prove their “independence”. Instead of using the money from Treasury for public good, they engaged in grandiose expenditures on land purchases and construction of “residences” befitting the new status of each as His Excellency the “governor.” They bought helicopters, acquired motorcades for entourage, bloated their bureaucracies with relatives and friends, and ensured entertainers were always present in their functions. A few even tried to appoint “ambassadors” to foreign countries to represent their interests. 

The restructuring

Although the charging of three governors and top bureaucrats shows seriousness in stemming grandiosity and cleaning up the State, there are lingering concerns that powerful people have enough clout to damage the three undertakings. Demands for constitutional changes catering for powerful political interests are clever ways of increasing 'untouchability'. Among the suggestions is restructuring of the Executive to accommodate power hungry politicians, lifting the two-term constitutional limit for governors, and giving them immunity from prosecution.

The effect of such disjointed ideas on governance would be to undercut Uhuru’s three undertakings. The insistence from powerful quarters that the task force on building bridges, chaired by Yusuf Haji and his deputy Adams Oloo, will recommend “constitutional” power sharing reforms that must be accepted gives room for belief that term limits and immunity for governors might be part of the package. If so, Uhuru's undertakings one and two will fall victim to manufactured weaknesses in undertaking three on corruption eradication.

Arraigning of top public officials on assorted charges symbolically shows that the State is serious about the third undertaking. Besides curbing theft, it instills sanity in understanding that county organs are subordinate to national organs. The three, however, are under threat from the visible pressure to force constitutional changes that muddle and increase political impunity for governors not to bear their own crosses. 

Prof Munene teaches History and International Relations at USIU. [email protected]


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