Fifty years later, is history repeating itself in attempts to kill devolution in Kenya?

By Barack Muluka

NAIROBI,KENYA: If I am confounded, I take solace in knowing that I cannot possibly be alone. Distinguished historians must be just as baffled as I am by the things that astound me in my country.            

In the philosophy of history, they teach us that history never repeats itself. This is despite the common cliché within non-esoteric circles that history repeats itself.

History is itself, therefore, sui generis. It does not repeat itself the way chemistry, for example, repeats itself in the laboratory.  They say that even if you bathe at the same point in the stream as you did yesterday, you can never bathe in the same stream twice. It is a new stream all the time. Maybe that was why Mark Twain remarked, “History does not repeat itself, but it has rhyme.”

GWF Hegel suggested, however, that history repeats itself. The happenings in history are the selfsame things, on a journey towards something much better, Hegel thought. Something more perfect. In the Philosophy of History, Hegel wrote, “The changes that take place in nature only exhibit a perpetually self repeating cycle. In nature there happens nothing new under the sun.” He went on to suggest, “Only in those changes which take place in the region of Spirit does anything new arise.”

Hegel concludes there is only one stable character in history to which all change reverts. This, he says, is “a real capacity for change for the better, an impulse of perfectibility.” Really? Do things change towards the perfect or do they repeat themselves, even for worse?  Let us come back to the world that we think we know.

Kenya got independence from the British in 1963. There was a lot of suspicion and fear among the so-called small tribes that the “big tribes” would dominate them.

To mitigate against this, they negotiated for a devolved Constitution in Lancaster, in the lead up to independence. Independence therefore came with devolution. They called it Majimbo.

Parliament was bicameral. There was the National Assembly and the Senate. One took care of legislation generally while the other looked into the interests of the majimbo. That was not all. There were also regional assemblies, with majimbo. The regional governments had specific roles from those of the central government.

That was in 1963, fifty years ago. Today there is not just ethnic suspicion, but also ethnic fears and hate. In point of fact, we have in our times torn the national fabric, during bloody ethnic warfare. There has been actualisation of the fears that our forebears had in 1963. To address what had gone wrong, we gave ourselves a new Constitution in 2010. And so, today, like in 1963, we have a bicameral Parliament. We have regional assemblies and devolved government.

Again, like in 1963, the centre has begun fighting devolution. In typecast Kenyan brevity of memory, we have forgotten the bloody circumstances that only five years ago drove us to embrace devolution. We, therefore, want to frustrate and do away with devolution. The Senate has been identified as the line of least resistance. It is, therefore, the entry point in the assault against devolution.

So, step one, get rid of the Senate. Sell the notion that there is unnecessary duplication between the Senate and the National Assembly.  When the Senate has gone, revise and amend the Constitution, through and through. For, the Senate is allover the Constitution as it stands. In the process, therefore, restore Kenya to the pre August 2010 condition. Game over.

Is Kenyan history repeating itself in spirit and substance? Daniel Branch has written of Kenya soon after independence, “After taking office following the May 1963 election,” he recalls, “Kanu set about dismantling the devolved Constitution agreed with Kadu.” In the volume titled Kenya: Between Hope & Despair – 1963 to 2011, Branch says, “ Once full independence was achieved, Kenyatta was able to enforce his centralist vision to the Constitution. His strategy to destroy regional assemblies and force the collapse of the Constitution was simple. While waiting for legislation revoking devolution to pass through Parliament, Kenyatta starved the regional assemblies of the revenues they needed to operate.”

Branch concludes, “By July 1964, the bank accounts of the regional assemblies were empty.” The Kadu leadership gave up the fight to save devolution.

By November 1964, Kadu leaders only too gladly accepted to join the brand new Kanu gravy train. The Constitution was amended, killing and burying devolution and making Kenyatta the first unelected President of Kenya.

Is history repeating itself before our very eyes? Fifty years later, is another Kenyatta presiding over the dismantling of devolution? Does the recent ascent to the Revenue Allocation Bill spell assault on devolution and the Constitution?

It would seem that as happened in 1963 – 64, the County Government is likely to be starkly starved of resources. Governors and the people who work with them might very soon become a most frustrated lot. They are likely to be lucky to meet their recurrent and establishment costs. It would seem that history repeats itself not just in spirit, but in substance, too.

For, whatever else it may seem to be, the assault on the Senate has in its binoculars the devolved government and the Constitution of Kenya (2010) as the ultimate targets. As we say at times such as this, watch this space.