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Governors must protect devolution

By Dominic Odipo | March 24th 2014

By Dominic Odipo

Kenya: Those familiar with the politics of the Vatican, the tiny city state in the centre of Rome that serves as the world headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, will probably also be familiar with the famous or infamous “five don’ts.”

 “Don’t think. If you think, don’t speak. If you speak, don’t write. If you think, and if you speak, and if you write, don’t sign your name. If you think, and if you speak, and if you write, and if you sign your name, don’t be surprised.”

 This is useful in the current public debate on devolved government. A closer reading of the debate easily reveals that some of the most powerful players in our government don’t actually think, speak or write about devolution. Their names do not appear on any of the crucial devolution circulars or documents.

They made up their minds – or had those minds made up for them ­– that real devolution must be scuttled, at whatever cost because it will  threaten not only their personal interests, but those of their ethnic groups as well. Some even believe that Kenya is really too small to be devolved! It is not as if we were talking about Canada, the United States or Australia!

Tasting the fruits

But if they thought harder they might discover that almost all of our sitting county representatives, MPs, senators and governors actually support the principle and the practice of devolved government, no matter what they say about it in public. They might discover that when the people at the grassroots begin tasting the fruits of real devolution, it could become almost impossible to turn them against it.

To their utter dismay, they might then discover that if you are planning on killing devolution, you have to do so during the first one or two years of its introduction and implementation, otherwise it could grow into such a monster that it could eat up anyone and everyone who stands in its way.

Other than the International Criminal Court, the single biggest challenge facing the Jubilee government is devolution. The more the Jubilee leaders let devolution take its constitutional course, the more alternative political power centres will be created across the country. The more they support and encourage devolution, the more political power at the grassroots will flow away from them. The more they try to scuttle devolution, once the people at the grassroots have discovered just how sweet its fruits are, the more, once again, power at the grassroots will flow away from their own hands. It is a classic Catch 22 situation.

If the 47 governors carry themselves responsibly, and work with MPs, they can push the devolution agenda so far and so fast no one else would be able to reverse it.

But if they soil their hands, push their own personal agendas and generally prove to be both inept and incapable of running their counties, they will give the anti-devolutionists their best opportunity to derail or scuttle this devolution revolution. They must come to the court of public opinion with clean hands.

Let us take Narok County as an example. When the new county government came into power, it found in place a legally binding contractual agreement between a local commercial bank and the former Narok County Council. Under this contract, the bank was to collect entry fees from tourists accessing certain sections of the world-famous Maasai Mara Game Reserve, subtract its service charge and then remit the rest to the council. Last year, the bank collected more than Shs. 1.5 billion under this contract, more than double what the council itself had been collecting annually. But a few months ago, the new county government unilaterally cancelled this contract and the bank, as expected sued it in court.

If the courts should find that the contract was indeed illegally terminated and order the county to pay the bank millions, even billions of shillings in damages and lost revenues, who would be the real loser?

Second, what is the long term effect of such unilateral county government action likely to be on the county’s tourism industry, its economic mainstay?

Binding deal

Third, in how many other counties across the country are existing and binding contractual agreements being unilaterally scrapped by the new county governments?

If devolution is to endure and prosper, the new governors will have to learn to manage and subordinate their personal interests, respect all legal contracts and, above all, vigorously protect all the resources of their counties. They must come to the Kenyan people with clean hands. This extract appeared in this column late last year. A little earlier, we had also written here that, by far, the most important job of our new governors would be to defend and protect the vital interests of their counties against all external forces, including, when necessary, the national government.

In the ongoing public debate between the governors and the senators, the governors appear to be losing if we use newspaper headlines and stories as the test. But this perception is more of a mirage than reality. The governors are “losing” mainly because they have left other parties to determine the battleground. They need to go back to first principles, the most important of which is a clear definition of their jobs. The governor is not the county treasurer. His most important audience is not the Senate but the county electorate. The job of the governor is to fly the flag of the county, to dream big dreams for the county.

Devolution is on trial. Let governors stand on the side of the people, against all the external and internal forces that might be threatening devolution. On that battlefield, they cannot lose. They have a burly pulpit as former American President Theodore Roosevelt used to say.  Every single weekend, the governors have at least three opportunities to address large gatherings in their counties, including funerals. If they use these opportunities to push the devolution agenda, and paint the senators aslackeys of anti-devolutionists, they will have won the battle for the mind of the voter.

They must choose their battleground and the timing of the attack to win, like good generals. In  a democracy it is always safer to side with the powerless majority. The battlefield is the mind of the voter, the courtroom and the public opinion of those who elect them. Governors must also differentiate the wheat from the chaff. Such things as “Your Excellency” appearing before their names are the chaff of this increasingly torrid debate. They can easily let such titles go and domesticate them without any loss of face.

The most important courtroom for the governor is the court of public opinion in the county, where they are already the first among unequals. 

The writer is a lecturer and consultant in Nairobi.

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