Devolution is our baby and at 10 years now, we must make it work

Azimio la Umoja leader Raila Odinga adddressing participants during the 2023 edition of the Devolution Conference in Uasin Gishu County on August 17, 2023. [Emmanuel Wanson, Standard]

Devolution is ten years old. Despite its numerous hiccups, this system continues to grow stronger, a fact easily evident if one traverses the countryside, especially hitherto forgotten parts of Kenya. 

Unlike our first trial with the concept after independence, today’s devolved system has percolated into our national psyche, and it would be impossible to put that genie back in the bottle as the first post-independence was able to easily accomplish. I count three major successes of the devolved system and two areas in which it has failed.

Firstly, devolution has reduced the inequities that were a feature of the pre-2010 season. In those days, political alignment meant everything. Those who lost in politics, particularly the all-powerful presidency, lost everything; marginalised in every aspect of development except the few crumbs that came through the Constituency Development Fund.

With a constitutionally mandated allocation of revenue to every county, its politics notwithstanding, even the forgotten areas have started to roar back into life.

One only needs to visit far off places like Wajir or West Pokot to see fruits of inclusion. The second value of devolution has been to bring government to the people. In pre-devolution days, leadership lived in distant Nairobi, holed up in inaccessible multi-storied towers.

Nowadays the Chief Executive of the County lives in the county and while their homes are guarded by menacing Administration Policemen, they must at some point egress from the home and drive to work.

In that process they would have to be grossly hard hearted not to occasionally interact with the county’s holloi polloi. Even more important the Excellency’s offices are in the neighbourhood.

Their ministers and chief officers live and eat in the locals. Members of the County Assembly live and work in the county, unlike MPs many of whom moved to the City once elected only to appear, guerrilla style, before retreating into the safety of the city. The effect of this has been to demystify leadership and thus be able to demand accountability from it. Related to this presence is the economic eco-system that operating in the county creates and its impact on renewal of many local towns.

Go round the countryside and you will interact with up-market private schools, private medical facilities and even top of the range entertainment spots. Many of these exist to serve the county bureaucrats, their families, and networks not to speak of the empowered local honchos. 

Thirdly, devolution has enabled development that respects context. In the days when development programming was determined in the city, it was possible for misalignment of priorities with people’s felt needs.

Many regions got saddled with projects they did not desire, usually because the projects had procurement dividends for some bureaucrats. The much-famed District Development Committees were usually just recipients of directives from the capital, contributing nothing substantive to the conversation on local priorities.

While the process is still not perfect, and the procurement driven budgeting demon is still alive, I know of many counties that have responded to and prioritised real needs of their constituents and fundamentally transformed the societies.

As for failures, the greatest one has been refusal by the government to pay county allocations on time. One must say kudos to the UDA government for being the first, since the initial days of devolution, to pay counties on time. Delayed payments not only stymied development in many counties but also impoverished local businesspeople as counties had no money to pay for products and services.

The other failure has been devolution of theft and wastage in counties. While the level of sleaze is relatively reduced compared to the mega scandals at the national level, it is still unfortunate that for governments that came in with such hope and promise, corruption is still alive.

The Senator Mandago scandal is disastrous, and one trusts it is an outlier. Fortunately, the wheels of justice have been activated. Doubtless, these ten years have not been rosy for devolved governments and there is so much more they could have achieved. But 10 years on, the impact of the system has been felt in many villages and one hopes that the next decade will take it to the greatest of heights!

The writer is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya