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Make 2022 a devolution referendum

By Ken Opalo | August 15th 2020

The 2022 election should be a referendum, not just on the failures of the Jubilee Administration over the last seven years, but also on devolution.

As we are seeing with the ongoing impasse in the Senate, there is a section of elite who have never accepted the 2010 constitutional settlement. Then, Kenyans voted overwhelmingly for the devolution of resources and policy making to the grassroots.

Yet there are those that want to continue with the old politics of presidential favours and corruption through the budgeting process. For example, Kenyans should be aghast at the idea that the national government’s health budget continues to be bigger than the combined health budget of all the 47 counties. Health is the biggest and most important devolved function. Forget “hustlers vs dynasties”. The mantra for the 2022 election (or a likely referendum before then) ought to be “Money Should Follow Functions.” Kenyans must be made to understand that the use of public money is not a presidential favour, but a decision that is at the hands of legislators in the National Assembly and Senate.

Exploiting the abdication of duty by MPs, the government has proven incapable of handling our money and investing in the right kinds of developmentalist initiatives. Instead of a people-driven approach, our vender/tenderpreneur-driven development planning does little beyond making a few powerful individuals ever richer, saddling us with mounting debt, and producing one expensive white elephant after another.

It is time we collectively broke the backs of the national-level cartels that have captured the budget-making process. And the best way to do that is to starve them of cash. A bigger share of the public budget should go to the counties to pay for healthcare, water, agricultural extension services, early childhood education, urban planning, and vital infrastructure. Senators should exploit the ongoing revenue sharing negotiations to full effect. Giving more money to the counties is a potential vote-getter. Devolution is wildly popular across the country. And if public opinion on the ongoing revenue sharing impasse is anything to go by, Kenyans have a very sophisticated understanding of what is at stake.

They see right through the designs to make the 47 counties fight over crumbs, while the well-heeled cartels at the national level get the lion’s share of our hard-earned tax shillings. Let us be clear. On the matter of resources, the fight of our time is not between Mandera and Murang’a, Kilifi and Kericho. Instead, it is a fight between the centralising tendencies of a cabal in Nairobi, and the actualisation of the spirit of devolution.

Despite the governance weaknesses in our counties, devolution has brought self-government to many neglected parts of the country. The many failures of our county bureaucracies and elected leaders must never be used as an excuse to kill devolution. Learning by doing is the way to improve bureaucratic capacity and electoral accountability. 

William Ruto and Raila Odinga better be alive to the mood in the land. They must realise what Kenyans care the most about is having a public sector that works to improve their living conditions. To that end, they want well-resourced self-government in each of the 47 counties, and not handouts or favours from the central government.

The old games of herding ethnic groups into pens and using them as bargaining chips are out of date and increasingly being seen as criminally cynical and the source of our many problems as a country. Kenyans in Mombasa are finding cause with their counterparts in Busia, Kiambu, Elgeyo Marakwet, and Migori. The side that mobilises around this awakening should win in 2022.

-The writer is a professor at Georgetown University

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