For the second time at a major devolution conference, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga this week restated his belief that a regional level of government was one missing panacea for Kenya’s ailing devolved government system. Anyone who has watched Raila over the years will know that this is not an idle proposal made solely to excite debate. All going to plan, it will be a referendum question.
What makes the proposal more potent and therefore passable is that it will find resonance with many in the political terrain whose political careers are tanking at the next election. Foremost of these are the second term governors who are wondering where to take their political capital once the second term ends.
Initially, it was assumed that other governors would oppose the proposal, the assumption being that the creation of the regional governments would be accompanied by a reduction in the number of counties. It would appear that this is no longer on the table; the counties, Raila indicated, will continue to exist. Why this issue should concern Kenyans is not that the idea of regional governments is bad. Far from it.
Indeed, everyone who has been part of the devolution conversation will know that the initial intention was to have large regional governments and smaller district governments, with the Bomas Draft proposing 14 regions. Even in Naivasha, where the regional government idea was dropped, there was general consensus that we needed larger counties for economic viability and to ensure that counties were strong enough to survive the inevitable centrist onslaught. The Naivasha consensus finally agreed on 47 Counties not out of economic considerations, but due to the complicated politics of tribe, particularly in the Rift Valley.
My concern is that what is a good idea in principle may head to the referendum vote without much of the details of the proposal being known by voters. The lack of serious discourse on the structure, content and implications of the proposed system should be of concern to all Kenyans. In my mind, there are at least three questions that the proposers of the issue need to clarify so that we can have an informed debate. Firstly, what is the mischief we are seeking to cure with this proposal? Knowing what aspects of the current system are not fit for purpose would determine the new system’s design. Is it economic viability? Is it managing regional services and regional projects?
Is it regional coordination and planning? The failure to articulate the problem we are seeking to solve means we may apply the wrong solution. The second question is on the nature of the Regional government. Is it an elected government with its own separate legislature as proposed in Bomas? If the answer is yes, how will this elected governmentrelate to the elected county government, which has already settled in the psyche of Kenyans as the legitimate local government?
In a country where we have endless jurisdictional wars, how do we ensure that we do not create fresh fights over mandate and jurisdiction between regional and county governments as we have witnessed between the national and county governments for the last six years? Related to this is the issue of mandate. One of the defects of the Bomas drafts was that the mandate of the regional governments comprised of supervision and coordination raising the cost-benefit question; was this whole bureaucracy necessary?
Finally, in a country where we are all concerned about the unsustainable cost of government, can we justify the financial cost of another level of government, if we are to also retain all the existing structures, not forgetting that we are also expanding the Executive and strengthening the Opposition office, putting yet another strain on the public purse? Are there cheaper options that may not be perfect, but that can assist us manage the more extreme aspects of our malady, once disclosed, as our economy continues to strengthen? I have no doubt that better minds have considered this matter at great length. They owe us a duty to share the content long before they pop the question.
- The writer is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya