When governors across the 47 counties mooted the idea of regional blocs, they touted them as the silver bullet that would change the fortunes of their regions.
Optimism surrounding the idea was evident, as the county chiefs fell over each other to establish economic partnerships, promising residents a turnaround in their lives.
The seven regional economic blocs that came into being were the Lake Region Economic Bloc (14 members), the North Rift Economic Bloc (seven members), the Central Kenya Economic Bloc (10 members), the Jumuiya ya Kaunti za Pwani (six members), the South Eastern Kenya Economic Bloc (three members), the Frontier Counties Development Council (seven members), and Narok-Kajiado Economic Bloc (Nakaeb).
Within no time, however, the blocs became talking shops, as grandiose plans fell apart due to lack of money, competition for influence and a sudden realisation that without a legal framework, the blocs were built on quicksand.
Among the first to run into headwinds was the North Rift Economic Bloc (Noreb) comprising Uasin Gishu, Nandi, Elgeyo Marakwet, West Pokot, Turkana, Baringo and Samburu.
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The bloc had promised an end to incessant challenges ranging from deadly cattle rustling, border conflicts, and unexploited potential in agriculture among others.
The governors also agreed to come up with inter-county tariffs that would make it conducive to partner in trade and investment.
They promised a regional bank, an idea that ran into headwinds as soon as it was mooted.
Even before the ink had dried on the agreement signed at a breakfast meeting by the governors, Nandi and Trans Nzoia counties walked away from the bloc, and joined the Lake Region Economic Bloc (LREB), arguing the new bloc served their interest better.
“We told our partners that priority for us was to expand trade within the region. We eyed exploiting economic opportunities within the 14 members LREB… It has not been easy to form a banking institution by the member counties which fronted the proposal. Member counties have been confronted by a lot of issues and have since faced headwinds,” Nandi Governor Stephen Sang told Sunday Standard this week.
The Noreb promise has been stuck in a warp, with two county assembly speakers who spoke to Sunday Standard saying it is starved of cash to execute its goals since assemblies in the region have not had a common stand to legalise it and enable the devolved units to allocate cash for its operations.
“Unless the county assemblies in the eight devolved units pass a Bill that will ratify a legal framework and policies of Noreb, no funds will be released to fund the regional body to operate fully,” said Joshua Kiptoo, Nandi County Speaker.
“Governors are more preoccupied with activities within their counties and have not given much attention to the regional bloc. Norem has good ideas that could boost economic progress in the region,” added Mr Kiptoo.
Noreb’s story has been replicated in Mt Kenya where on November 3, 2017, eight governors answered the call to attend a meeting convened by then Nyeri Governor Wahome Gakuru to discuss the region’s future.
At this meeting the idea of the Central Kenya Economic Bloc was mooted.
Their first agenda was revival of the 240-kilometre railway to boost horticulture, coffee, rice and dairy farming, which are the key sectors.
County governments of Nairobi, Kiambu, Murang’a, Kirinyaga, Nyeri, Laikipia, Nyandarua and Isiolo were willing to set aside Sh100 million towards the project but no agreement was signed to that effect.
Soon after, Governor Gakuru, who was viewed as the engine of the bloc, died in a road accident, and the bloc never recovered.
Chief Executive Officer Ndirangu Gachunia said as long as the economic blocs are not recognised in law, the counties cannot fund activities of the bloc.
“We have no funds to set up a proper secretariat and all the staff for Cereb have been seconded by their county governments, and counties cannot fund the bloc without a legal framework,” he noted.
He explained that without human resources such as economists, researchers and programme officers, the economic bloc was relegated to carrying out only basic functions such as networking and lobbying for resources from the national government and donors.
“Cereb has not yet had tangible results that can be highlighted. I believe the leadership of the bloc should be business people because business will drive the economic agenda of the bloc and will not change,” said Martin Ndirangu, CEO of Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry Nyeri Chapter.
In the lake region, the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have jerked governors from slumber, with suggestions of a joint approach in the fight against virus.
The proposal, however, came at a time a number of the bloc’s legacy projects have failed to kick off five years since its formation.
The bloc comprises Kisii, Nyamira, Migori, Homa Bay, Kisumu, Siaya, Bomet, Nandi, Kericho, Vihiga, Kakamega, Bungoma, Busia and Trans Nzoia.
In January, five of the 14 regional governors failed to show up for a summit to discuss key issues facing the bloc.
The summit was also snubbed by local senators, speakers and MCAs, despite having been formally invited, according to LREB officials.
The poor attendance stalled the agenda of the much-hyped conference, at some stages frustrating efforts to discuss some of the key issues and challenges facing the bloc.
According to bloc CEO Abala Wanga, lack of policy to operationalise the entity has become its biggest undoing, a situation which makes it difficult to source for funds.
“Currently, eight LREB members have pledged their contributions to the regional bloc, but they were held back by the Controller of Budget who could not approve the transfer of the moneys to the regional bloc account due to lack of legal framework,” said Wanga.
The bloc had lined up the formation of a regional bank, revival of the maritime transport, and the sugar sector, which have all stalled due to lack of funds.
[Titus Too, Lydiah Nyawira and Kevine Omollo]