Ruto, Raila speeches signify an end to babysitting county governments

Azimio leader Raila Odinga arrives at Eldoret International Airport for the Devolution Conference. [Emmanuel Wanson, Standard]

After the eighth devolution conference in Eldoret, Uasin Gishu County, it is time to ask the hard questions. It has been a decade of our devolution experiment that many experts agree is one of the most ambitious decentralisation process ever undertaken anywhere around the world.

The conference has become the biggest extravaganza synonymous with decentralisation in the country. Originally slated to be a biennial event to consolidate the gains of devolution, enhance peer learning and document lessons learned, it is doubtful that it is serving its original purpose. From where I sit, the conference is turning more into a political fest and an opportunity to draw allowances for senior public officials.

While it is good to appreciate the economics that come with the conference, we cannot afford to lose the true essence of the event. The fiesta must also not be used to cover up the failures of our decentralised system or misrepresent its actual achievements.

Take, for instance, the manufacturing prowess implied for Kitui County in the last conference held in Makueni County. Where are the factories and how comes the said manufactured food stuffs are nowhere in our supermarket shelves?

The sustainability of many of the achievements showcased in these events are also very doubtful. From an analytical point of view, many counties would be centres of excellence in specialised areas of production and bastions of employment if we were to go by the lofty achievements presented during each conference.

The outcomes would also be reflected in the individual county statistics as disaggregated from the national key indicators and their Own Source Revenue (OSR) tracking data.

For example, the total locally collected revenues for the 47 counties was about Sh26 billion in 2013, the first year of devolution as per the Controller of Budget (CoB) reports. In the nine months report for the 2022/23 fiscal year, total OSR was still a paltry Sh28.77 billion. The highest ever collected OSR was about Sh.40.3 billion reported in 2018.

Speech Insights

As expected, President William Ruto and Azimio leader Raila Odinga made their pitches at the conference. They independently agreed on certain key elements ailing the decentralised units, but disagreed on others. From both ends, they present fundamental issues that must candidly be addressed if we are to achieve the fruits of devolution. On this article, I explore only three.

For starts, I need to make a full disclosure of the fact that I have been at the heart of capacity development for the counties right from their inception in 2013. There is no single county that I have not interacted with thus far. In many ways, this puts me at a vantage point to render an objective assessment of the facts presented at the conference.

One, the greatest impediment to the realisation of the promise of devolution is devolved graft, incompetence and cronyism which the two leaders agree on. As they say, numbers do not lie. The question we all must ask now is whether we can account for the value for money of the Sh3.3 trillion so far sent to the counties in this past 10 years. Yes, there are pockets of small scale projects all over the country, but do they constitute the true worth of the trillions spent in hard cash?

It is an open secret that each single county without exception has created a few billionaires and millionaires among its top ranks. This is without any other known economic activity other than employment with the county. The few cases where there has been an attempt to prosecute have either dragged on in the corridors of justice or have dithered with affiliations to the ruling coalition or party.

The president offered his strongest message against outright theft, incompetence and cronyism during the conference for his 11 months in office. What is left to be seen is concrete action against this vices both at the devolved units and at the national government that he heads.

On his part, Raila must demonstrate impartiality on his critique to the vices even within counties whose leadership is affiliated to his side of the coalition. There just has been too much rhetoric from both sides without tangible biting. All this happens at the expense of meaningful developmental benefits to ordinary folks.

Two is on the urgent need to re-orient measurement of county performance to the real developmental indicators. We have seen all sorts of theatrics been showcased as performance breakthroughs for various counties. For instance, remember the thousands of water boreholes and water pans supposedly done in Machakos County to the fastest road construction technology? Makueni had a fruit and milk processing project while all the northern frontier counties had lined up abattoirs for meat value additions. How scalable have been these projects? How many jobs can we count and how have the household incomes changed in these counties. Is there anywhere we can trail this data?

While the president talked directly about performance, Raila put out the same concept as county specific innovations. From this desk, it's about time that we started evaluating a governor's performance based on County Gross Products (CGPs), OSR growth rates, direct and indirect jobs outside those given to their cronies, domestic and foreign direct investments and innovations patented at the county level. I do fully agree with Raila's views that there must be a cessation of copy pasting from national government or other counties.

Going forward, each county must seek to build their own competitive edge based on their comparative advantages. The devolution conference peer learning must not be confused for a one shoe fits all. County leadership must provide unique solutions to local issues, advance national development and open the frontiers of economic influence for the county and the country.

That's how the Chinese have managed to dominate the world economy in under three decades.

Three, Ruto and Raila had overlapping views on the question of county functions. While the president implied his desire to fully relinquish devolved functions, Raila had very interesting perspectives that are worthy exploring.

The duplication of health, agriculture, lands and housing, and water services at both levels probably demands a fresh relook. The tragedy is that while the billions of shillings in budgetary allocation have remained at the national level, the burden of service delivery has been left with the counties.

There is no better way of crystalising this than Raila's question as to why the national government is the one implementing the fertiliser subsidy, collecting housing levy and purporting to build open markets within the counties.

Finally, from a rhetorical and contextual point of view, how does the two leaders' divergent views on the Constitution that birthed devolution 13 years ago shape their perspectives today?

Can the students of history and biographers of leadership help us understand this? As a concluding thought, was Raila's aggression towards the American ambassador to Kenya, Meg Whitman, necessary in such a noble forum? Where is leadership decorum among the political elites in the country?