Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala’s disparaging comments about Taita Taveta County’s desire to manage the massive Tsavo National Parks were deeply disappointing and insulting. He implied the county was incompetent and was too poor to manage the parks, which are currently managed centrally from Nairobi by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).
He neglected to mention that perhaps one of the reasons the county is so poor is precisely because it derives little income and benefits from parks that cover more than 60 per cent of the county.
Worse, he seemed to imply, as many middle-class Kenyans in Nairobi, that anything from the centre in Nairobi is better and more efficient. Hogwash!
The reality is the centre in Nairobi is the biggest source of our stresses, looting and tensions, as people in power believe they can do whatever they want, whenever they want. The biggest looting scandals since devolution have been from Nairobi, with NYS 1 and 2; Eurobond; Mafya House; SGR over pricing and the Kimwarer and Arror Dams as prime illustrations.
The reality is when counties are managed with some care, they do wonders, as the Makueni miracle consistently shows. And even when the counties are mismanaged—and there are more than a few examples of that—the benefits to the locals, be they indigenes or settlers are far more than before devolution.
To be clear, even before devolution, a few local authorities lucky that their wildlife zones were classified as game reserves, rather than national parks, were managing and running them directly, while KWS had the management of the animals in a unique working arrangement that worked. National parks are run from the centre.
It is not rocket science to manage parks. Narok County has done a decent enough job running Masai Mara game reserve for decades and turning profits consistently. Proceeds from the Mara have educated thousands of Narok youth up to university, provided jobs for residents, and increased access to water.
So too with Samburu game reserve though this one has had more problems on account of insecurity and the use of the surrounding areas for military training by Kenyan and British forces, which at one time drove a lot of wildlife from the area, given all the shooting and blasting that went on.
The point is that if Narok County can manage its own resources, why not Taita Taveta? The idea of centralisation is a colonial one borne of the need to control the majority of natives by a minority.
The advent of devolution was expected to come with different mindsets on governance but this regime has proved particularly adept at frustrating even some of the more simple ideas that can lead to less dependency from Nairobi, thus avoiding the persistent conflicts between the regime and Nairobi and the counties. But I guess Kenya remains the classic example of good laws but inept and unwilling implementation.
One would have expected that once Taita Taveta announced its intentions, other counties with natural resources would have joined in making similar cases. Why are Nakuru and Nyeri counties quiet about the Aberdares national park and having that devolved?
Why are Meru, Laikipia and Nyeri quiet about the Mt Kenya park? Why is Mombasa County deadly silent on the port of Mombasa?
It is so warped that we saw leaders from Turkana County begging for bigger scraps as oil that is under their soil is exported! And this from a county that was not only neglected from the colonial times, but deliberately marginalised until oil was found, in exportable quantities, under its soil. The leaders should have been demanding—not begging--at least 70 per cent of oil proceeds (to make up for historical injustices as well) and using this oil as a magnet to draw people from other parts of Kenya to invest and help develop the county.
I have little doubt that CS Balala’s fear is about losing control of resources if the Tsavo parks were to be devolved. Not that these resources would benefit majority Kenyans, but they do add to the kitty at the Treasury that is constantly being looted to pay for ill-advised and expensive loans.
The centralisation and micro-managing of fiscal resources by the regime is probably the greatest threat to the idea of Kenya.
It not only makes it easier for a few to steal and loot, but it also maintains inequality and poverty making it fertile ground for patronage and thus maintaining power.
If we really want Kenya to succeed, rather go into what will likely be a sham referendum—if conducted by the discredited, incompetent, opaque and unaccountable IEBC—we should be seeking ways to decentralise how we are taxed, policed and governed, so that more of that is done by the counties rather than by this or any other regime in Nairobi.