Devolution could be poisoned chalice in August elections

NATION AGENDA: Parties must show how they want to make devolution work

Devolution has unravelled hurdles to development. The question wananchi ask is: Where was all this money going to before devolution?

Devolution was received with excitement in August 2010. At the referendum on the new constitution, those who supported the constitution did so because of devolution. They were tired with “Nairobi”. Nairobi had become synonymous with an insensitive centralised government. Decisions would be made in Nairobi without reference to the districts where people live.

“Nairobi” was also politicised. The powerful executive would use “Nairobi resources” to decide on who to punish and who to reward with development resources. The bureaucrats would step in with the correct language to justify the flow of resources the favoured areas.

Those who voted in favour of the Constitution were protesting against “Nairobi-based” development. They were protesting against how “Nairobi” directed development and politics from independence in 1963. They saw devolution of resources to the county governments as evolving into a game changer. They perceived devolution as an initiative that would lead to improved development in all parts of the country.

Devolution only came into being after the 2013 elections. Then it was not a campaign issue, only talk of implementing it. This time round, it will be dominant subject of debate. Experiences of the past four years will have to be reviewed and the onus on the political parties is to explain how they want to strengthen county system and make it work for the citizens.

After four years of devolution, opinion is divided on its sustainability. ‘Status quo’ sceptics say it is not sustainable. Such sceptics are found among senior bureaucrats who colonised “Nairobi-based” development.

These misgivings about devolution are not new. They stem from one simple argument and logic: that the power base of any government determines whether the government would support devolution or not. 

Specifically, if a government draws the bulk of political support from an economically endowed region, the government would not want devolution.

The government and such regions would agree to support devolution only if devolution guarantees them enormous political and economic power.


On the other hand, governments whose power base is in poor regions begin by supporting devolution. To them and the people in poor areas, devolution is the only guarantee to secure some form of development for their regions.

This is what makes it difficult for devolution to work in many countries. In Uganda, the government has consistently fought off attempts to introduce federalism. There is fear that the Baganda will grow “horns” and be difficult. Nigeria began with only three regions around independence. But the Ibo grew politically strong. More regions or states had to be established to reduce their influence.

Here in Kenya, the death of the Majimbo project in the 1960s can be traced to the tensions between the poor and the rich regions.

The numerically smaller and poorer regions (marginalised) argued for devolution of power and resources. They wanted Majimbo. The KANU government, supported largely by the Luo and the Kikuyu communities, preferred a centralised government. Once Kanu got into power, it systematically dismantled Majimbo. 

But this did not mean the end of the attempts to “think Majimbo”. President Daniel Moi came to power in 1978. He belonged to the group that preferred Majimbo and therefore began by embarking on the District Focus for Rural Development, probably with Majimbo ideas in mind. He failed.

Throughout the history of Kenya, those who supported a radical form of devolution include many in the marginalised areas. The rich regions have always been opposed to unchecked devolution. These tensions undermined the drafting a new constitution for many years.

The devolution in the current Constitution reflects these tensions. We got devolution because the Coalition Government balanced the interests of the rich and the poor regions. None of these groups wanted to get less than the other. The two groups had to meet mid-way: two levels of government with distinct and interdependent responsibilities.


The Constitution did not give the county governments “raw political power”. They are not autonomous units. They are different from the national government but not independent of it. They are also different from one another. All they have are powers and resources to develop their respective areas. 
Kenya’s devolution is meant to correct past wrongs in development. It guarantees resources to all the counties irrespective of political affiliation. At least 15 per cent of sharable revenue is given to the counties to share equitably.

Another 0.5 per cent is meant for marginalised counties. These include counties in the Northern region such as Wajir, Garissa, Mandera, Turkana, West Pokot, and Samburu. Others are at the Coast: Taita Taveta, Tana River, Lamu, Kilifi and Kwale. Isiolo, Narok, and Marsabit.

These counties lag behind in many respects. For instance, the Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey, 2005-06, shows that 94 per cent of adult women in Northern Kenya had no education. Some 94 per cent of women in Central Kenya had been to school.

It also shows that less than 35 per cent of residents of Northern Kenya had access to clean water. More than 65 per cent in Central and parts of Eastern had access to clean water. Poverty is also widespread in these areas. Life expectancy is lower than elsewhere in the country.

Devolution has impacted on development in varying ways. Some county government have developed more than others and done better in recent times compared to the past. Many have put up infrastructure and improved health care.

Although the level of development may differ, there is no county that has not showed the residents that the county government is “doing” roads, or “doing” health facilities or building pre-primary classrooms.


There are some numbers to show this interest in health and roads. In the period between 2013 and 2015, the number of health facilities in the country grew by about 20 per cent. The number of dispensaries alone increased by 22 per cent during the period; from 1,585 in 2013 to 1,925 in 2015. 

The number of all health facilities has generally increased: from 8,466 in 2012 to 10,032 in 2016. This represents about 19 per cent growth.

It is difficult to separate those occasioned by devolution and those built under the Constituency Development Fund (CDF). Both are competing to show their contribution to change. Sometimes they duplicate efforts and waste resources but residents do not mind this competition. The more the competition, the merrier.

These interventions in health have had good results. Counties in the marginalised area demonstrate unprecedented change. There are studies now showing that child mortality figures, nationally, have fallen from 56 per cent in 2012 to 49 per cent in 2015.

Samburu and Turkana have also witnessed dramatic improvement in child mortality. Some of these counties have rehabilitated and built new health centres in remote areas. This is causing unprecedented change that “Nairobi” had failed to give.

The number of kilometres of rural roads has also increased. Some county governments have tarmacked more than 300 kilometres of roads. These include “first” kilometres of tarmacked roads in Samburu, Wajir and Mandera – the first since independence in 1963. The county governments have opened up rural public transport by improving on existing roads or building new ones.


Between 2013 and 2016 some records show that they have about 36,000 kms of murram roads; and another 19,000 kms new roads mostly small feeder roads. These are opening up rural centres especially by linking inner areas to the local markets.

Across the country, boda boda (motor cycle) transport business has intensified through use of these roads. It has made it easy to transport goods and people in rural areas. Local economies are growing even though not well regulated.

These developments are not neutral; they are not value free. Health and infrastructure do not receive more resources than others because of area need. No. They receive attention because ‘Bricks and Mortar’ facilities are what people can see. They give the Governor better visibility. Governors even plant their photos on sites to remind everyone that they are “doing development”.

This approach has led to neglect of the software of development. Training staff and addressing capacity challenges, staffing and human resource issues, among others, are not prioritised.

A point of concern in many counties is corruption. And this is at all levels: the county assemblies and the executive. This is attributed to lack of oversight that was to be provided by MCAs. It is now common knowledge that MCAs and the county executives have been working together. To avoid impeachment, the governors have co-opted the MCAs in the “eating” game.

This demonstrates that the MCAs are a weak link in devolution. Some of them want to implement projects because this is what is visible to voters. In the hurry to show voters what they can deliver, MCAs end up as an obstacle to devolution.

The Senate has introduced a similar challenge too. It is designed to “protect” and “promote” the interests of devolution and in particular the county governments and residents. Unfortunately, the Senate ceded this role to the Council of Governors. The Council of Governors has been relatively more vocal at protecting devolution than the Senate.

Conflicts over mandate are not restricted to this level only. Other institutions have continued to conflict and to quarrel over mandates. This has happened especially because the Sessional Paper to guide devolution is yet to be launched and implemented.


There are other challenges. Suspicions and mistrust have continued to characterise the relations between the county and national governments. The Summits, chaired by the President, that brings together the national and county leaderships together, have held amidst high levels of mistrust. They are hardly productive or result-oriented.

A major problem concerns fiscal responsibilities of the national government and the failure to abide by legal rules. The national government often transfers funds to the counties late and beyond the time frames prescribed in law.

This constrains undertaking of development projects. In fact, there are instances where Counties receive funds for payment of salaries quite late but nothing for development. End of financial year funds are also released late in June yet this is the end of the financial year during which the counties are required to account for the  funds.

The county governments have their own problems too. They lack capacity to collect revenue and depend on subventions from the national government.
Politics is partly responsible for this. Those in marginal areas feel they cannot “punish” their people by raising revenue yet they have been underdeveloped for many years. Elsewhere, political leaders think their voters are burdened with additional taxes.

They dissuade them from paying more taxes to the counties.

These challenges mean that devolution will be a big campaign issue in the 2017 general elections. First, the performance of the governors in their respective counties will be judged by what they have contributed in terms of development. People will be asking: “you were given the money, show us what is worth the money you received?”

This question will be asked of MPs, too. For - in spite of the fact that they are required to oversight, represent, and legislate - they are not helping much
Unfortunately, they have failed to explain to Kenyans the meaning of these new roles. But they also do not know. Many will be voted out because of their own ignorance.
MCAs will experience the highest turn-over. People voted for their MCAs in 2013 without good knowledge about the roles they would play. Now voters want players who can be accountable and those who can demand for better projects from the county government.


Devolution has unravelled the hurdles to local development. The most important question wananchi ask every time is: where was all this money going to before devolution? Who was “eating” this money before devolution?

Because both rich and poor regions can see the benefits of devolution, the demand for more resources to county governments will continue to grow.

And if the national government resists these demands, people in poor and rich regions will put pressure for even more semi-autonomous devolved units. People will escalate their demands to “federalism” or fully empowered devolved units.

They will have limited interest in what goes on at the national level.

Challenges of implementing devolution need to be addressed with greater attention. They may trigger new consequences that the present constitutional arrangement may fail to deal with.