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Don’t let leaders stall reform agenda

By Ken Opalo | October 17th 2020

This coming week, we will likely be treated to the outcome of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI). Reactions to the report will likely focus on intra-elite coalition building and the 2022 presidential election.

However, Kenyans should remain vigilant and focused on things that actually matter for their daily lives. This means ensuring we fully implement the Constitution, that we do not kill devolution, that Chapter Six of the Constitution is protected, and that the government is incentivised to care about the quality of governance and service delivery.

Three factors stand out as deserving attention. The first is the question of gender balance in formal institutions. A few weeks ago, the Chief Justice advised President Kenyatta to dissolve Parliament for consistently refusing to implement the two thirds gender rule. That nearly the entire political class closed ranks in opposition to CJ David Maraga’s directive is a reminder of how far we still have to go to realise gender equality.

If we are to be subjected to a constitutional amendment process, that process better address this important issue. Our county assemblies must be 50 percent female (all elected, not nominated). Similarly, there are multiple ways of ensuring at least one third of the National Assembly and Senate are composed of women. Several jurisdictions around the world have done this. We just have to be willing to learn and adapt those lessons to our context.

Second, we should protect devolution. The plan to turn Nairobi into a special national jurisdiction is misguided. Strong counties strengthen devolution. And there is no stronger county than Nairobi. Readers may recall that one of the reasons we adopted a devolved system was to check the discretionary powers of the presidency. Restoring presidential control over Nairobi would undoubtedly shift the balance of power away from governors and counties to the president.

The last thing we want is devolution to become little more than a glorified county council system – as existed before 2013. Turning Nairobi into a national government jurisdiction would not only be bad politics, but also bad policy making. It would inevitably concentrate resources in the capital, leading to further congestion, and retardation of economic growth in other counties.

While fully appreciating the many benefits of agglomeration, it is also important that we consciously promote broad-based economic development. And one way of doing that is by creating incentives for private businesses to invest in the counties. Weakening devolution by dissolving Nairobi county will likely depress economic performance in the counties. What we should be doing, instead, is increasing the share of budget allocated to the counties.

Another important issue is the matter of civil service reform. It has been a long time since we had a well-designed civil service reform initiative. Ideally, this ought to have been one of the top priorities during the process of implementing the Constitution after 2010. Unfortunately, the last two years of President Kibaki were focused on legacy projects ahead of his retirement, and the Kenyatta administration has since been distracted by graft and squabbles.

Meanwhile, the quality of public service remains far from stellar. From the running of schools to various critical government agencies and departments, to county functions, to policy making, we need far reaching civil service reforms. We are no longer a two-bit economy run on the whims of a few connected men, and whose bureaucracy only spring to action when prodded by politicians. The myriad policy challenges ahead will require a professional public service. And if we are being brutally honest, right now we do not have one.

-The writer is a professor at Georgetown University

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