During the “second liberation” crusades in the 1980s and early 1990s, calls for change primarily revolved around the removal of Section 2A which had made Kenya a dejure one-party state.
After President Daniel Moi gave in to the demands and oversaw the removal of this detested blockade to multi-party politics, reformists realised, after the 1992 elections, that changing Kenya required more than conducting multi-party elections. The calls for reform shifted to demands for constitutional change.
These calls were centred on several issues the primary ones being the abolition of the imperial presidency and the introduction of devolution. In the years since independence the Executive generally, and the presidency in particular, had become so powerful that it had weakened other institutions and led to an over-politicisation of development.
The call for devolution was a reaction to the inequitable, politics-led development. It was therefore no surprise that the most significant changes introduced in the Constitution were review of presidential powers to make the office more accountable and the creation of strong devolved units.
By reducing the powers of the president and empowering the devolved units, the framers of the Constitution believed that the clamour for the top national job would be reduced.
Not only would each county have its strong chief executive and its own local leadership, but each would also be constitutionally entitled to a share of national revenue whatever its politics.
Even if a region did not get the presidency in an election, the devolved units were strong enough to respond to regional concerns about exclusion. The reduced powers of the president also meant the “power of the purse” through which the Executive had traditionally determined where resources would be allocated, was transferred to Parliament which had sufficient diversity to ensure diverse development.
Ten years into devolution this dream has become a mirage. While the first years under the Constitution displayed an accountable and less powerful president, the strong presidency has sneaked back.
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Since 2013, the use of informal powers of the presidency has meant that most critical decisions including those relating to the distribution of “development” have over time reverted to the presidency.
As for devolution, all it retains is form, its power is a distant mirage. The first five years of devolution had a great promise with the government regularly allocating and disbursing monies to counties.
Consequently, new economic and political power centres arose. I am convinced that the promise of devolution is what gave us a peaceful 2013 election and reduced the potency of the 2017 post-election unrest.
Since then, the national government has put no stops in weakening the devolved system. Allocation of revenue to counties as a proportion of national revenue has consistently gone down over the years from a high of 23 per cent in 2013 to the current allocation which works out to about 18 per cent.
Even this took President Ruto’s intervention; Treasury had offered 14 per cent! To make matters worse, even when allocated, monies are sporadically released to the counties and never fully.
Most counties can hardly pay for basic development, the implementation of which had been meant for the empowerment of local businesses thus reducing the clamour for the presidency. While this has been going on, the national government powers and resources have increased at the expense of counties.
The natural, and I hope unintended effect, of this scenario, is that Kenyans believe what really matters, is the presidency. County governments, through which they were supposed to partake of the national cake, are an illusion. Consequently, political leaders who lose the presidency can make a believable case to their people that exclusion from the presidency means exclusion from Project Kenya, the very thing devolution was meant to solve.
With all their faults, strong county governments remain the best bet in reducing the clamour for the presidency. As we consider how to ensure future elections do not engender legitimate feelings of exclusion, part of the answer lies in strengthening county governments so that those who lose the presidency are not “losers forgo all”.
Handshakes or such solutions may resolve elite interests but will leave the bulk of the population excluded and easily manipulable by the next ambitious politician.
-The writer is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya