A majority of county assemblies are yet to ratify legal instruments to anchor the regional economic blocs in law, threatening to derail the partnerships intended to help drive growth.
This means the more than 40 out of the 47 counties involved in such groupings cannot implement ideas contained in policy documents formulated by members of the regional blocs outside legal and institutional frameworks.
A reading of the Constitution and relevant statutes such as the County Governments Act, the Inter-Governmental Relations Act and the Public Finance Management Act indicate that there is no legislation, or policy framework, to guide and regulate these kinds of relationships.
It is for this reason that the Devolution ministry and Council of Governors (CoG) are jointly developing a common policy to provide for the establishment, composition, management, operations and governance of such blocs.
“Both levels of government will, through a technical committee, develop a policy and legal framework to provide the composition and governance of Regional Economic Blocks (REBs),” said CoG’s Legal and Human Rights committee chairman Kivutha Kibwana.
Additionally, challenges such as financial contributions to bloc activities and projects, conflict resolution and administrative structures will be best served by a policy framework that provides guidelines in the engagement of counties.
According to CoG, there are six economic blocs formed by counties brought together by common interests such as marketing agricultural produce and tourism sites, as well as enacting trade and investment laws that cut across their regions.
They are the North Rift Economic Bloc, Frontier Counties Development Council (FCDC), Lake Region Economic Bloc (LREB), Jumuia ya kaunti za Pwani, Central Economic Bloc and the South Eastern Kenya Economic Bloc.
But the delay by assemblies to enact legal provisions to operationalise such trade blocs has brought about pertinent questions on their success, with devolution experts warning that counties should tread carefully.
While the partnerships will help drive growth plans and speed up economic development, the premise on which these regional economic blocs are founded has been questioned.
Nearly half of Kenya’s 47 counties are involved in a vicious war for cross-border resources — which could run into hundreds of billions of shillings — with one or more neighbours and are moving their mandate to protect what they have.
For instance, Nairobi and Murang’a counties are embroiled in a fight over water from Ndakaini dam. The Murang’a leadership has proposed that Nairobi be taxed a 25 per cent levy for the use of water from the dam.
Kiambu, which borders Nairobi and Machakos counties, as well as Kilifi, which borders Tana-River, Mombasa and Taita-Taveta, early this year passed laws barring Kenyans from other counties from taking more than 30 per cent of the job openings in the two counties.
Meru County is still embroiled in border disputes with its neighbours, Isiolo and Tharaka-Nithi.
County Assemblies Forum secretary-general Eric Mwangi acknowledged the delays but said public participation processes have started.
“The way counties are currently structured, they are too small to leverage on huge economic activities. Therefore, for better coordination, they should form the blocs to attract investments and assemblies have a crucial role in this,” said Mr Thomas Tödtling, the project director of Konrad Adenauer Foundation which monitors devolution issues in Kenya.
But FCDC CEO Simba Guleid argued that while it is good for assemblies to ratify the legislations, it is not a must. “The blocs are an executive creation of governors where like-minded counties sign Memoranda of Agreement signifying how they wish to co-operate and in what specific areas. The passing of Bills recognising the blocs is merely for sustainability and not a legal requirement,” Mr Guleid stated.
However, LREB chief executive officer Abala Wanga says county assemblies are crucial to the bloc’s success. Kakamega assembly is the first to pass a Bill ratifying the formation of LREB.