Even with devolution, provincial administration will go nowhere

No structures were developed to integrate or ease out the provincial administration.

Monday March 14 2016

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The recent controversial by-election in Malindi, where men claiming to be sympathetic to the opposition stripped a woman, has resulted in yet another public confrontation between Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho and Coast regional commissioner Nelson Marwa.

The row reveals the conflicted role that the provincial administration continues to play in a legal framework that did not contemplate its existence. Frankly, there was an oversight during the constitution of the committee of experts that drafted the Constitution.

We did not have adequate representation from historians or political scientists, who would have been in a better position to advise on handling the provincial administration. We took it for granted that a juggernaut that was a pillar of British colonial rule and the establishment of the Kenyan state as we know it today would simply disappear in the same way mayors and municipal councils did.

No structures were developed to integrate or ease out the provincial administration. Those Kenyans who say that the provincial administration is not envisaged in our laws are right, but they fail to acknowledge that the Kenyan state was a creation of the provincial administration. It is the most visible political legacy of colonialism today. Colonial rule began with the imposition of local chiefs to communities that had no such political authorities.

Chiefs were the local face of the State in a long line that included the district officers, commissioners, and provincial commissioners, who all answered to the highest authority in the land. Among many things, the provincial administration defined citizenship, rights, and channelled public goods and services.

Its most central function, however, was the ruthless maintenance of the political status quo. The current labels of county commissioners or regional commissioners are mere cosmetic changes to sanitise an institution that has hardly changed since the early 20th century. It is deeply embedded in ancient ways.


The irony of our current set-up is that an elected governor has a budget worth billions of shilling and immense political capital but can hardly make substantive security decisions. A local chief has more sway than the governor on matters security. It is the commissioners who chair county security committees and are responsible for coordinating security.

Can modern Kenya dispense of the provincial administration even if it wished to? Well, not so fast. The provincial administration is a state within the state. It was the heart of the colonial machinery and has been instrumental in state formation in all of Kenya’s four regimes.

Unsurprisingly, the opposition left it out as one of the referendum questions in their Okoa Kenya campaign. They know they will need it if they capture power.

Moreover, despite the touted claims of devolution, the provincial administration is functionally and directly relevant to the 70 per cent of Kenyans who live in rural areas.

With devolution still largely urban, the executive, judicial, administrative, and sometimes legislative powers in rural areas are still dominated by the provincial administration. Also, with vast areas of ungoverned spaces, especially in the frontier counties of northern Kenya, not to mention the ongoing terrorism threats, the provincial administration provides the much-needed intelligence gathering framework.

While governors have occasionally called for the transfer of security functions to their offices, most of them do not exhibit the requisite judgment needed to run such an apparatus.

Some regional commissioners might be overly abrasive but the fact that they are nominally apolitical and not indigene to the areas they serve restrains them from full-blown despotism and entanglement in local politics.

Indeed, in our divisive, competitive yet tribal politics, there is a real danger of services such as security being politicised if they are devolved to partisan and politically entangled county governments.

Dr Omanga is a Fellow at the Centre of African Studies, University of Cambridge, and teaches media studies at Moi University. [email protected]