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Chiefs still rule the roost 12 years after adoption of devolved system

Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiangi addresses chiefs and Assistants at Nyakach in Kisumu County on December 16, 2021. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

Nearly 12 years after adopting a devolved system of governance, a ghost of the past in form of the Provincial Administration (PA) sits on the path to the complete actualisation of devolution.

Historically, the colonial and post-colonial era governments had the provincial administration system to maintain order, prevent crime, health and environmental protection among other duties the Head of State deemed fit.

With promulgation of the 2010 Constitution, most roles initially domiciled in it were transferred to the devolved units but poor institutional structures that clearly demarcate functions of the different lines of governance have led to a duplication of duties and use of the system as a government serving tool.

“The chiefs have historically been government mobilisers and we witnessed widespread allegations of their involvement in rallying voters in recent by-elections. In that way, the facility of provincial administration can always be used by the government,” said constitutional lawyer Bobby Mkangi.

For critics of the provincial administration like Mr Mkangi, their history as “colonial relics used to subvert human rights and impose the will of the state upon the people” motivate their call for the county governments to take full responsibility for services that were once delivered by PA.

“The PA system in a way goes against the will of the people because it is the Head of State who chooses their leaders. We wish that those services under provincial administration be put under the devolved system,” proposes Mkangi.

According to the Constitution, the government was required, within five years after its promulgation, to restructure the PA system and put in place something that would accord respect to devolved governments.

However, little has been done to bring about a system that would fit with the devolved units.

Governance expert Tom Mboya says although the provincial administration does not necessarily spell havoc for the country, it may be unable to address problems of the day befalling both the government and the people.

“Not everybody has a rosy picture of the provincial administration because of the dark memories it brings. The government was supposed to re-imagine it to a system that would be able to respond to the needs of the people under a very progressive constitution,” says Mboya.

The two proposers of an adoption of a new administrative unit linking the national and country government further argue that the government’s inaction to put in a new system is by design.

Change of titles

The only difference is that unlike the pre-2010 system, the current structure was remodelled by way of changing their titles. 

Provincial commissioners are now known as regional commissioners, district commissioners as county commissioners and district officers as sub-county commissioners.

From there, the setup of senior principal chiefs, senior chiefs, chiefs, assistant chiefs and village elders remains the same.

Another difference is that the new administrators, who in their entirety are known as national government administration officers, were divorced from the Administration Police, which now falls under the National Police Service. 

“The government has always wanted to retain the system. No regime has governed without it thus making it the eye and ears of government in every region,” says Mboya.

“The government was never going to surrender complete control and administration to the devolved structures. It’s a facility that has always been used by the government,” says Mkangi.

During the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) campaign, civil society groups bashed the government for using chiefs to collect signatures for the process.

Although it is illegal for civil servants to engage in partisan politics, county commissioners and governors put pressure on chiefs to meet certain targets in the signature collection drive.

Similarly, friction between county officials and county commissioners has a history of stalling service delivery in counties.

In 2014, former Mombasa county commissioner Nelson Marwa got into a heated spat with the county’s governor Hassan Joho over what Marwa said was Joho’s interference with matters of security.

“What we need to have is a collaborative devolution system with the national government. Instead of counties replicating some of these services, the functions of PA need to be integrated into the devolved structures,” says Mkangi.

Poor staffing 

Despite PA having a long history in the country, critics have faulted the system for failing to execute its mandate due to poor staffing, corruption, and instances of unfair adjudication of their quasi-judicial function.

Similarly, the system is now facing criticism over its emasculation of roles vested on elected representatives such as ward representatives who also operate in the same unit of administration.

Mboya suggests that with a new government coming up after the polls, it will be an opportune moment for the political class to “undertake an evaluation of the system” and come up with something that better serves the electorates.

“Rather than scrapping the entire system, it will be important to undertake an evaluation and see what has worked and what has not worked,” says Mboya.

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