Devolution at 10: Counting the major hits and misses

Kiambu County officials celebrate after emerging position three in the presentation and documentaries category during the Devolution Conference in Eldoret on August 18, 8, 2023. [Peter Ochieng, Standard]

Under the 2010 Constitution, devolution was seen as the silver bullet. Resources, it was argued, would devolve to the grassroots, read counties. And unconditionally.

Jobs would be created and Nairobi would get competitors. Kenyans would start boasting of their counties, more like Americans and their states or Germans and their landers. 

There was a popular belief that some regions of the country disproportionally benefited from the previous political dispensation. It was payback time. Yet today, there are sections of Central Kenya without water and tarmac roads despite having produced three presidents. 

It was assumed that resources withheld from regions would now flow unhindered. It was not clear who would generate those resources. We know the cow’s milker in devolution. What of the feeder? 

Others argue that by looking at examples from elsewhere, mostly the United States and Nigeria, counties and their elected leaders would serve as seedbeds of future leaders. But as we all know, the flow has been the other way round, with national leaders devolving themselves to the counties. 

MPs, woman reps and senators all want to be governors. This was not happening in the first five years of devolution. If you recall then, most governors were “nobody”. Until someone looked at the Constitution and noted that governors have got lots of power and money, and the rush started. Fuata nyuki ule asali. Mimicking the national government makes it hard for counties to be seedbeds of leadership. Add the fact that most counties are beholden to the national government for their funding. That denies them the flexibility to experiment. 

The devolved units wanted their freedom, but in whispers without responsibility. They can always blame the national government for services not rendered. Their popular cry is we do not have the money or it’s sent late. Do they ask what their contribution to national coffers is? 

Let’s admit that lots of services and money that should have been devolved are still with the national government, leading to duplication.

Devolving them would mean job losses at the centre and muted influence. The soft underbelly of devolution is employment. With such a high level of unemployment, counties thought devolution would create local jobs, just as in national government. 

Recurrent expenditure

Employment has made devolution popular with leaders who now can give “something” to their people, read those who campaigned for them. 

The jobs include nominated Members of the County Assembly. The political games previously played at the national level easily got devolved. That has killed the idea of devolution. Money that should have improved services is used for recurrent expenditure. Paying salaries and wages. Little is left to improve the investment climate and create more jobs. Add corruption. President William Ruto during the recent Devolution Conference in Eldoret, noted boldly that some counties are centres of corruption. Not so surprisingly, they get resources they never worked for.

And voters leave their county leaders “alone” till the next polls. Most voters are not sure what their MCA or governors are supposed to do for them beyond murraming roads. 

Counties have another problem which is just whispered. Nairobi, the capital attracts the best brains.

Think of all your top classmates, they ended up in Nairobi. It does not matter the county they came from. What of other counties?

They suffer from brain drain. Devolution did not devolve talents. Can counties confirm? 

As devolution took place, the old national structures like provincial administration remained. We can talk of over-governing today and its cost. 

This contradicts the digitisation of government services. We copied devolution from US and Nigeria and thought it was the solution to our political and economic problems.

Politically, it stabilised the regions with each owning an H.E. (His/ Her Excellency) but economically, we are yet to see great leaps. It’s simple to explain. We forgot or ignored the fact that economic growth is driven by the private sector, not the government. Get to the top floor of one of the tallest buildings in Nairobi and report to us how many government-owned buildings you can see! Failure to devolve the private sector, read entrepreneurs, was the other soft underbelly. Which county has attracted investors like Nairobi does with your tribe, colour or race irrelevant? 

Noted how Nairobi withstands shocks such as Covid-19? Money is always coming in, some from the counties! The success of devolution should be gauged on the number of investors the counties have attracted and the number of non-government jobs created. Using the per cent of the budget going to counties is a biased measure. 

Even Chinese growth was driven by investors - both local and foreign. Just visit China. Curiously our leaders prefer to visit the West, but the East is probably another model for economic growth to think about. Will the next phase of Devolution 2.0 be driven by the private sector? 

Investor friendly

The political part of devolution is easy, just voting and some haggling between the two levels of government.

It’s time we confronted the economic part boldly. What will Devolution 2.0 need? Some laws and regulations need to be made investor-friendly. Let counties compete for some national resources based on verified criteria such as job creation or county GDP growth. For Devolution 2.0 to take root, we must learn from the mother hen, it kicks away chicks and forces them to grow up.

Can the national government boldly kick the counties away? Unfortunately, that is where most voters reside...

Two, the counties must start cooperating, they can create synergy among themselves. The idea of regional blocs made a lot of economic sense. Three, counties must think of how to integrate themselves into national, regional and global economic systems. How do our counties fit into EAC, Africa’s free trade area and global markets? Outward thinking should be part of devolution 2.0.

Finally, devolution should be part of a wider discussion on the success of the 2010 Constitution?