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Devolution audit: Why our tale has evolved into a hit and miss affair

By Patrick Muinde | Nov 25th 2021 | 4 min read


ODM Leader Raila Odinga at ongoing Devolution Conference in Wote Makueni County on November 24, 2021. [Emmanuel Wanson, Standard]

The ongoing Devolution Conference in Makueni County is unique in many ways. First, it will be the end of an era for the remaining pioneer governors. Second, it will mark the 10th anniversary of devolution in the country.

Psychological evidence demonstrates that it takes a cumulative of 10,000 hours of practice (translating to 10 calendar years when we factor daily activities) to turn any craft or sport into expertise.

Three, the conference is probably the last before the next General Election. This offers a unique opportunity to reflect on what we must discontinue and enhance to make our devolution story better and sweeter.

As indicated before on these pages, I am among the few walking encyclopedias of our devolution story. I have told it in numbers; chronicled the good, bad and ugly; travailed through my own personal experiences, and have been a victim of its excesses as well as enjoyed its fruits.

In today’s piece, I share my reflections over the past 10 years from a bird’s eye view, and offer thoughts of what the next phase must look like to realise the intended goals.

With traces from the United States, South Africa, and Nigeria, the architecture of our devolution diffused too much power and concentration of public resources at the centre. It also provides the constitutional instruments for the devolved units to be able to chart their own developmental path, grow their individual economies, and enjoy a certain level of autonomy in the contact of their affairs.

As expected, those used to monopolisation of power and control of state resources for almost five decades wouldn’t just let go as fast. In many instances, the national government has sought to retain policy control and resources centrally even for fully devolved functions. A good case in point is in the health sector. While the burden of primary healthcare is with the country governments, the accompanying resources don’t seem to have followed the function.

Healthcare workers

The consequences have been manifest in the management of healthcare workers, the opaqueness of Managed Equipment Services, procurement and distribution of drugs and medical supplies, and inconsistencies in handling the Covid-19 pandemic. Many other sectors like agriculture, land and water resource management, transport, and infrastructure have similar complications.

Turf wars have also flared up at the legislative level with fights between the two houses of Parliament, especially on the allocation of resources. Unfortunately, high octane political machinations seem to have been played in the houses either to whip non-conforming county bosses and/or to preserve those close to the sanctums of power.

In other quarters, there have been muted conversations to turn governor positions into non-elective but appointive by the president. All these point to the long struggles ahead to make devolution work.

The beauty of it is that the law and legal foundations have protected devolution, except with the express approval of the people through a referendum.

While it is without doubt that devolution is probably the noblest idea in our six-decade history, the leadership at the counties may not have lived up to the aspirations of the people.

The drafters of the Constitution envisioned that local communities take more control of their own development. To realise this, county leaders are expected to provide the necessary framework and structures for the people to voice their ideas and hold their elected officials to account.

As a key drawback on devolution, the ‘big man’ syndrome was not only devolved but also perfected across majority of the counties. This played out both at the county executive and the legislative arms. This negates the essence of taking the government closer to the people.

Going forward, three things must happen as a matter of priority if our devolution model is to work as envisioned in the Constitution.

One, undertake elaborate civic education, information dissemination, and community-level empowerment. It beats logic to confer power to a populace and leave them completely ignorant of the said power.

I have done several community-level engagements. Folks know their problems and have great ideas of how to solve them, but the majority are ignorant of the power vested in them.

I have been to many forums where highly educated people, groups of professionals, and opinion leaders have no idea of how much money their home county or county of residence receives.

In this campaign season, even folks you would presume to be not only educated but also informed are scampering for political handouts from governor candidates. The media has to play a key role here and provide direction for a constructive dialogue on the power and implications of each of the six electoral positions. Incumbent governors must not be allowed to misinform the electorate about their achievements on media without adducing the supporting evidence.

The County Government Act requires all development projects to be mapped in spatial plans, published, and publicised. Two, the performance metrics of the county bosses must be revised to include economic indicators such as county gross product, county-level employment data, new investments within the county, and county own-source revenue growth. Counties were never meant to be cost centres but rather economic hubs.

Finally, the integrated planning system must be turned into reality and a transparent monitoring and evaluation system put in place. This must involve the establishment of local community accountability frameworks. All projects at the county level regardless of the source of funding were envisioned to be harmonised under a common framework. The National Government Constituency Development Fund, affirmative action programmes, and national government projects at the county level have to be under this community-level accountability system.

I am aware that a single project in many parts of the country gets claimed by different agencies. The funds disappear into the pockets of connected individuals, and this has significantly decelerated the pace of development.

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