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Devolution is changing lives despite numerous setbacks

By Kamotho Waiganjo | April 24th 2016

This was Devolution week, as County Government functionaries took over Governor Peter Munya’s Meru kingdom for their third Devolution Conference. To skeptics and national level politicians it was “Governors week”, a chest-thumping forum for governors to proclaim their achievements while playing down their failures.

Despite the obvious bad blood I really wish the President and the national legislators attended the jamboree; the same way I sometimes wish the governors would be invited for the State of the Nation address. Truth be told, we are all in the Kenyan mess together and the sooner we learn to tolerate each other, the better for this nation.

Away from the theatre, let me suggest that devolution, despite its myriad challenges, has accomplished four critical achievements in its short infancy.

First is reducing exclusion. In 2002 when the Yash Ghai-led Constitution Review Commission went round Kenya, they returned shocked by the level of exclusion Kenyans all-round the country felt.

Majority felt removed from the decisions that the government was making about their lives. Many felt they did not have stake in government, and in light of their demographics, would never have a stake.

The setting up of county governments was intended to resolve this exclusion.

Today, whichever part of Kenya you visit, Kenyans may hate their devolved government, but the old feelings of distance are gone. Most people groups, clans and similar assemblages have representation in the devolved governments, whether in the bureaucracy or in politics. This inclusion is critical for nation building.

The second achievement of devolution is the removal of direct correlation between politics and resources. In days of “siasa mbaya maisha mbaya” resources followed politics. In that dispensation, there were no rules for distribution of resources and actors in this process were bureaucrats holed in the Treasury, informed by political dynamics.

Today, the revenue allocations process is not only rule based but also involves a multiplicity of institutions. Granted the process is not perfect, and there are complaints that counties are not receiving sufficient funds, but there is obviously more equity and no region pays an economic price for its political affiliations. The third benefit of devolution is that it has localised decision-making and priority setting. In the previous framework decisions on development priorities and local resource distribution were made in the centre.


Historically there were attempts at decentralising decision-making with such programmes as the District Focus for Rural Development but ultimately because resource allocation was determined at the centre, District Focus for Rural Development decisions did not count for much.

Currently, critical developmental priority setting is carried out at the devolved governments. Many decisions may be actuated by wrong motives, including self-aggrandisement and opening up procurement opportunities, but they are nevertheless local. And because governors require to undergo elections every so often, they cannot prosecute programmes that the majority of voters are unhappy with.

Finally, devolutions’ impact on corruption. The popular narrative on this question is that corruption has been devolved and that county governments are indeed more evil than their national bigger brothers. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is not because the county officials are necessary more ethical but for two reasons. Firstly the allocations per project in the counties is relatively small so more difficult to hide theft. Secondly the level of formal and informal accountability in the devolved governments is unprecedented.

Officially the MCAs, the Senate the Controller of Budget and the Auditor General monitor the budgets of these governments. Informally, the citizen is more aware that this is their money and so will shout and riot at reports of tinkering. Indeed in my view the heightened narrative about county corruption is more about enhanced awareness than enhanced quantum.

These structures of accountability must continue to be empowered so that even the tinkering that is going on now is eradicated completely. I point out these successes recognising that there have been many disappointments on the performance of these nascent governments.

While I intend to discuss these failures in the future I believe there is enough for us to celebrate especially this week. I also believe the future is bright for Kenya’s most recent governance paradigm.

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