For all its weaknesses, devolution is keeping the country together

This year’s devolution jamboree is in my adopted County. We yet again get the chance to reflect on the gains and challenges of devolution. The focus will naturally be on Governors showcasing their achievements, many of which will be off plan promises that may never be achieved. Who can forget Machakos City complete with electric trains and a Formula One circuit? Away from those kinds of optical illusions, the Devcon gives us an opportunity to sincerely consider whether we have met citizens’ hopes which they expressed when they enthusiastically passed a Constitution whose greatest promise was devolution.

I remember being in Kehancha in Migori County three months before the 2013 elections. Hope was palpable. Kenyans in such forgotten off-roads believed that finally they would share in Kenya’s oft spoken of national cake. The discussions about the kind of people who deserved the office of Chief Executive of the County were vibrant, well informed and full of optimism. This spirit was replicated in every other place one visited, especially those zones that had felt marginalised since Kenya’s independence. Six years later, I sense that the initial hope has ebbed. In its place one finds Orwellian hard-nosed realism or just dismay.

In my visits around the country, I have found three broad perspectives on devolution. The first lot are the few counties that long for days of centralism. These are primarily the former darlings of the central government whose fortunes have gone awry with devolution. Fortunately, these are in the minority and not worth a discussion. The second lot of counties are those that celebrate devolution even if it has not brought much to them. These include the former Northern Frontier (NFD) counties which had been marginalised.

To these counties, the little they get is better than the old nothing. They also see government close to them, a feature unknown in pre-devolution days. These will fight to keep devolution, warts and all. The last lot, which comprises the majority of counties, is a mixed bag. Their attitude to devolution is determined by what devolution has produced, which is a function of the leadership they elected. Some have been fortunate to get progressive leadership and can boast some visible fruits of devolution. They have new markets, new empowerment programmes and an accountable leadership. These will also protect devolution.

Unfortunately, a number of counties continue to wallow in hopelessness as their rudderless leadership waste their resources in personal aggrandizement and white elephants. This is the mixed bag of devolution. Without doubt, many of the challenges of devolution have been caused by leadership at the counties. The thieving habits learnt from centralised government continue. Unplanned and personalised development which has no fundamental impact on people’s fortunes is the order of the day in many places. Senseless jurisdictional wars between Assemblies and Executives stymie development in many counties. But while this is true, the National government also appears determined to make it impossible for devolution to thrive.

The old issue of functional overreach is back with a bang. Just this week the Water Services Regulatory Board converted itself into the High Court, declared some county laws unconstitutional, and proceeded to implement its decree. A few weeks ago, the National Treasury proposed, for the first time since devolution started, the reduction of revenue allocations to counties for the next financial year, even as the budget of the national government continued to balloon.

As if that is not all, nine months into the financial year, many counties have not received even half of their allocations for last year. It’s a marvel that some are still managing to carry out any development projects. That is the state of devolution. But the country must accept one reality. For all itsweaknesses, devolution is the one fundamental thing keepingthe country together. There can be no putting that genie back in the bottle. Better resourced counties will mean a more united and sustainable country. As for the thieving lot out there in the counties, your days are numbered and it is not DPP Haji you should be worried about. It is your agitated citizens.

- The writer is Advocate of the High Court of Kenya