If there is one major directional reversal the UDA regime must make to correct some errors of the Jubilee administration, it is investment in devolution.
There can be no better bottom-up approach to development than making counties new engines of development and empowerment. The one consistent feature that defined Jubilee government was its discomfort with devolution.
This was most unfortunate because, as the first government elected within a devolved system, it set the tenor for future application of the principles and policies around which devolution would be implemented.
Right from the beginning you could sense unease not just with the new movement from centralism but with the entire 2010 Constitution. I remember the government taking a formal stand that Kenya was a unitary system.
While it looked like a debate on semantics, any student of Kenya’s reform journey understood that these were not idle arguments, they went to very core of the nation that the new Constitution was demanding we re-construct. It was not long before the assault on devolution commenced. First, the government refused to transfer many functions that had been assigned to county governments. Even where it transferred functions, it retained a significant portion of the funds necessary to perform those functions, defeating the constitutional principle of “funds following functions”.
The intergovernmental structures that were supposed to navigate these differences became moribund, with the Summit, the apex intergovernmental body, at times failing to even achieve its statutory two meetings in a year. The sectoral intergovernmental meetings which are essential in managing shared functions, were either not set up or were not functional.
The other assault was on reduction of funding for county governments. Over the Jubilee years it reduced from a high of 23 per cent of revenue to about 16 per cent by 2020. Even more disconcerting, it was the season where even these meagre funds allocated to county governments were not released on time, paralysing these nascent entities’ capacity to deliver in the manner anticipated by the Constitution.
Delays in funds release also created huge pending bills that have crippled many businesses in the regions. Matters got so bad that at some point, the Jubilee government sponsored a law to stop governors from being called “Excellencies”.
Fortunately, better sense prevailed, and this effort died a natural death. To its credit, the Senate, being the constitutional protector of devolution tried hard to call out the National Assembly and the Executive for mishandling devolution but being a structurally weak organ, its efforts failed except where it sought the support of the Supreme Court.
It did not help that the media bought the narrative that corruption was most intense in the counties, losing focus on the goings on at the centre. As UDA forms its government and prepares its first budget, it must reverse this trend. There is a reason that this country devolved. It was firstly, to ensure equity and inclusiveness after years of politically defined development. It was also understood that centralised planning and execution had left citizens at the margins with their priorities being determined at a faraway centre.
But more important, counties were supposed to be the engines of countrywide economic development. Creating vibrant government in the regions would generate a need for economic infrastructure to support these governments thus growing local economies. Funding government at the regions would not only empower locals but would be aligned with local needs and priorities. The role of the national government would increasingly be policy, norms and standard setting leaving actual implementation to local governments. In this way the fascination with Nairobi would diminish.
That dream is still not lost. If the UDA government would commit to only two changes, transferring functions and the funds thereof and then ensuring county allocations got the county in time, they would revolutionalise this country.
Local businesses would thrive, and empowered citizens would do a better job of holding governments accountable. Of course, increased funding must be accompanied by more intense accountability and that we must demand. Bottomline however, unless these matters are handled with a sense of urgency and determination, we will lose the essence of why we devolved, to the detriment of Project Kenya.
-The writer is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya