By Kamotho Waiganjo
Like the typical Kenyan political melodrama, the romance between the voter and his Governor is ending rather fast. When we went round the counties last year collecting views on the appropriate accountability structures for the county governments, many citizens were willing to write their Governor an open cheque on all matters of governance. Unlike the hated central government, the incoming county government was going to be a truly altruistic, people centered, development focused administration. Anyone who suggested checks and balances on the Governors’ exercise of power was termed an “enemy of devolution”, a term liberally thrown in Kenya to silence dissenting views on devolution.
Fast forward to the last three weeks. As news came in of lavish budgets, complete with “fuel guzzlers”, and expensive “mansions” and entertainment expenses allocated to the Executive and Assemblies many Kenyans were ready to file for divorce from their Governors. In both regular and social media questions started being asked whether devolution was necessary any way. All it seemed to be doing was “devolving corruption”.
Lost in this discourse was the fact that but for devolution, this wastage, this extravagance, by government, would have gone unnoticed. In Kenya’s long public expenditure history, the central government has routinely wasted money on the very things the Governors and their Assemblies are getting flak about. Even in this year’s budget, wanton and wasteful expenditure at the national level of government continues. It was interesting that on the same day there was outcry about a Sh15 million expense for some Governor’s mansion, the same media routinely carried the story of Sh100 million being budgeted for renovating the newly completed mansion for the Deputy President! It was the height of hypocrisy for the Senate to warn county governments about their spending habits, while Parliament had allocated a whooping Sh19 billion to itself, more than the amount allocated to the Judiciary! As for spending on travel, entertainment, one only need to look at the audit report for the typical ministry and note that the county governments’ spending on these votes pales by comparison.
I say this not to justify the conduct of county governments. In any event the reason Kenyans chose devolution was to avoid the bad habits of the central government. The devolved governments were expected to present a new template, one that prioritised service delivery to the people before personal aggrandisement. What I ask is that we demand the same standards of accountability to institutions at both levels of government.
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But most importantly I discuss this issue to celebrate the public discussion on public expenditure. It is heartening that the demands for openness and sanity in public spending are no longer limited to a few civil society organisations in Nairobi, but are in vibrant in most counties.
Also lost in the public discussion on county government’s expenditure is that the reason why most of these Governors are having to allocate huge budgets to vehicles, offices and housing for the Governors is that the national government hoarded for itself all the assets previously used by the Provincial Administration. Even though Provincial Administrations’ roles have been greatly diminished, it still occupies prime space in each County, including offices and residences, and drives the largest fleet of government vehicles. In a sane world, these assets would have been shared between the two levels of government, based only on necessity.
What we have is an irrational situation where in places like Nyandarua County, the County government is squeezed into some corner office whilst next door there is a huge edifice housing the County Commissioner where little goes on. It must be remembered that these assets were built and purchased by taxpayers not for any level of government but for prudent use by government. If the institution rendering the bulk of services in the County is the county government, why should the national government, serving the same citizens, wastefully hoard assets it does not need? The mind boggles.