7 Years Later – The Good, The Bad And The Ugly Of Devolution

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The 27th of August 2010 left an indelible print on Kenya’s history. For the first time ever, Kenyan lawmakers had come together to draft a constitution and it was finally promulgated. This was the first constitution drafted by Kenyans, for Kenyans. Previously, we had been following the independence constitution which was largely attributed to the colonialists. As such, there was hope in the air, that maybe, just maybe, this was exactly what we needed as a country. Now, nearly a decade down the line, just how much has this new constitution done for us?

One of the major things that came with the constitution was devolution. It was a turning point in the country’s history as it reconfigured balance of power by devolving power and responsibilities from the national government to 47 elected county governments. The devolution of power was to hold leaders more accountable and responsible within their jurisdictions. By giving leaders more power at county level, it was expected that there would be an exponential growth in the country’s overall development.

According to The Kenya Law Reform Commission, and as per the constitution, devolution was expected to improve this nation in many ways. First, to promote democratic and accountable exercise of power. Devolution is designed to engage citizen participation by bringing government services, elected representation and decision making closer to Kenyans. Ideally, this is supposed to have worked perfectly, as County Assemblies were established to bring development to the country at county level.

An article published on the U.S Embassy in Kenya website puts it this way: For democracy to work, leaders must govern justly on behalf of all citizens. When citizens disagree with the decisions leaders make, they dissent peacefully. Opposition provides a check on governmental power. A free media and civil society keep the public informed and facilitates dialogue, and that dialogue improves the policies and programs that leaders deliver to their citizens.

Allow me to highlight a few words from the excerpt above – justice, able opposition, able leadership, free media, civil society. Just how many of these factors can we comfortably say we have executed and implemented as well as can be? One decade after the promulgation of this constitution, Kenya ranks number 94 out of 167 in the democratic index as compared to position 101 in 2010. There has definitely been improvement, but are we as a nation comfortable at position 94?

The second object of devolution is to foster national unity by recognising diversity. While this cannot be quantified, some of the changes made have to do with the inclusion of other counties in hosting national holidays on rotational basis. By doing things such as these, it is expected that the levels of tribalism and other forms of favouritism will decline. Again, the success of a factor such as this seems immeasurable.

An article published on Open Democracy in 2010, however, puts it this way: There is no point in addressing the ills bedeviling Kenya while ignoring the actual causes, since the major cause of tribalism in Kenya (and in Africa as a whole) today is the competition and confrontation over power and resources. There must be a clear formula of sharing of power and resources via constitutional arrangements. This will ensure that there is no more skewed distribution of state resources. At that point each tribe/community might be fairly represented.

By including marginal rights and implementing favourable policies for equal representation, another object of devolution, we can only hope that this new constitution and devolution at large will benefit Kenyans with regards to their social, political and economic involvement. Wajir is an example of a county classified as a marginalized community. In the county’s development plan, they consider factors such as population growth, climate and literacy levels in their mission to make it a secure, resilient and globally competitive first class county in service delivery for all.

Another main object of devolution is to promote social and economic development and the provision of proximate, easily accessible services throughout Kenya. A classic illustration of this object is visible in Makueni county, where services such as water, sanitation, healthcare and educational have been developed, as a result of devolution. Among the major achievements was in 2019 when it was announced that Makueni county, and especially the youth, is set to reap big from a proposed Konza Digital Media City (DMC) to be established at the Konza Technopolis. The media city will be modelled after the Sangam Digital Media City in Seoul and other similar cities in Korea.

We cannot overlook the fact that devolution has uplifted the youth. Through decentralisation, more jobs have been created at county level thus creating opportunities for them. County governments are required to nominate members to represent special interests including those of the youth. By doing this, the voice of the youth becomes more projected.

However, the concept of devolution has come with its challenges. While one of the objects involves enhancing the checks and balances and the separation of powers, this has not been the case. Theoretically, I would argue that the level of corruption in Kenya has risen significantly between 2010 and today. But without facts, this remains a theory. Between 2010 and 2020, Kenya has moved from position 154 in 2010 to position 137 in 2020, according to The Corruption Perceptions Index that ranks countries and territories based on how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be. A country or territory’s rank indicates its position relative to the other countries and territories in the index.

You may be wondering what the relationship between devolution and corruption is. Decentralization affects patronage and rent seeking. Rent seeking is an economic concept that occurs when an entity seeks to gain added wealth without any reciprocal contribution of productivity. On the other hand, patronage is the appointment or hiring of a person to a government post on the basis of partisan loyalty. While centralization is seen as enabling these practices, many expected decentralization to reduce them. Devolution has not removed these practices but rather brought them down to the local level in response to popular expectations that it is “everyone’s turn to eat,” thereby increasing the levels of corruption.

Some have argued that devolution has in fact increased the levels of tribalism in Kenya. Devolution marginalizes the Kenyan people within tribal lines since some of the counties consists majorly of one community hence no integration with other communities. Most of the people in the reserves of Kenya have limited integration with other communities. Devolution limits any access by these communities with the other people outside the county since everything is readily available in the county for example health and education, which promotes unity, this therefore disintegrates the country further.

There’s no doubt that devolution is expensive to run. Very many roles were increased in the government both at national and at county level. This increases the costs of running the department since a lot of funds are spent on their salaries and allowances with only little left for development in the field. The constant redirection of funds to create a county government might make us lose the chance of building infrastructure that will make us competitive in global market.

Perhaps, the perfect illustration and test for devolution was a few months back, and specifically on April 22nd 2020, when Kenya went into partial lockdown and movement across a few counties was limited. From the onset of the COVID-19 response, governors said that their governments were not equipped to handle the pandemic within their borders. One problem was, and still is, that the country has only two public testing centers: the Kenya Medical Research Institute and National Influenza Center, both centered in Nairobi. This showed clearly that in its seven years of operation, devolution has in fact not worked out perfectly especially in the area of healthcare.

It is almost obvious to me that there is a huge development gap in Kenya, and especially among counties. The levels of infrastructure, healthcare services, education and economic development have a huge disparity across counties. For me, the ideal situation would be seeing this gap become narrow. Then and only then will we say that devolution has worked out for Kenya.

We can no longer say that devolution is new in this country. We’ve been at it for seven years, and it’s time we review the good, the bad and the ugly. Whatever the case, we can only hope that in this case the good will outweigh the bad over time and that Kenyans will start to reap the benefits of devolution fully.

If devolution truly gives citizens more democratic power, then it might just be time to amend some of its aspects that are not working for us.

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