In colourful ceremonies across the country, 45 diverse governors were sworn in on Thursday. They will lead the third generation of county governments and justifiably, public expectations are high.
Given rising cost of living, concerns with inequalities and state capture, what must we demand of the new county bosses?
Over the last decade, the promise and transformative power of devolved governance has become clearer for many Kenyans. Where county governments have been a match for the 14 functions contained in the fourth schedule of our Constitution, we have seen tremendous victories against the right to health, food, and livelihoods.
Where they have not, sleaze, mismanagement and wastage have triggered repeated cycles of arrests and conversion of county offices into crime scenes. Devolution is central to an open, democratic and prosperous nation. As the lowest unit of governance, respect for human safety and dignity is best experienced here.
It is here citizens enjoy the freedom to think, speak, and hold the state accountable. Being equal under the law does not hover in some national space but in the counties and wards we live, work, and play in.
Unless we can de-clog county governments of corruption, devolution will never drive economic freedom and prosperity for our homes and hustles. Like the last, county governments will remain incapable of transforming economic inequalities and social instability. Watching the ceremonies this week left me present to the age, gender, and professional diversity of our 47 county governors.
Majority ran on economic policy manifestos that emphasised jobs for the youth, reduced taxes and levies, agricultural and livestock development and health.
Some also committed to further devolve services to ward levels (Irungu Kangata in Murang’a), reducing the wage bill to 35 per cent of revenue generated (Amos Nyaribo, Nyamira) and eliminate violence against women and girls (Fatuma Achani, Kilifi).
Meeting these manifesto promises will be critical for re-election. Unlike Governor Erick Mutai of Kericho or Governor Wisley Rotich of Elgeyo Marakwet who secured over 90 per cent of the votes, many incoming governors were elected with a mandate of less than 50 per cent.
These governors will have to do most to translate their right to govern into a second term. Recent advisories must sharpen the focus of the incoming governors.
The 47 county executives and assemblies must first audit and settle Sh140 billion worth of pending bills according to the Public Finance Management Act (2015).
Some 70 per cent of these bills may be ineligible for settlement as they were incurred irregularly or without clear documents. Among the counties with the highest debts are Nairobi, Kiambu and Mombasa.
In this context, the attention paid to the price tags of the ceremonies this week was justified. Initial budgets ranged from Sh20 million to Sh12 million to Sh5 million for Nairobi, Siaya and Nyeri respectively. Kudos to Migori Governor Ochilo Ayacko who slashed his costs from Sh57 million to Sh3 million as well as Kirinyaga Governor Anne Waiguru and Meru Governor Kawira Mwangaza who requested only Sh250,000.
Given the limited public finances available, citizens must immediately engage their governors on their priorities and spending patterns.
Left alone, some governors may be tempted to strip public taxes to pay off county assemblies, media, civic and business organisations, the criminal justice system and eat the rest.
In less than one month, the public has an opportunity to participate in budget-making. By law, county governments must release draft County Development Plans for public consultation by 1 September.
By September 30th, the county governments must prepare the County Budget Review and Outlook Paper as the first step towards the Fiscal Strategy Paper in February.
Citizens, civic organisations, and state officers need to become more familiar with the County Government Act, Public Finance Management Act and the Urban Areas and Cities Act among others.
We also need to put forward citizens to serve on the county boards. State capture was not just a campaign slur to throw at opponents. It remains the biggest threat to our economy and dual layered state.