Away from the conference tents where the Fifth Annual Devolution Conference is going on in Kakamega County, the jury is still out on whether taking political and economic power to the grassroots has been a success.
While governors will boast of their achievements at the forum and blame their failures on legal and financial constraints, ordinary Kenyans paint a picture of a great idea whose execution has been marred by governance challenges, top among them corruption and nepotism.
The views from a random sample were extreme in some instances, with some Kenyans saying nothing good had come out of devolution yet, and others expecting it to transform the country in a decade.
On the whole, however, the gains and pains of the dispensation brought by the Constitution can be captured in the experiences of ordinary citizens. Those who said the experience has been good so far mentioned development at the grassroots such as better healthcare, roads being maintained regularly and improved agriculture. On the other hand, devolution was blamed for excesses of county government leaders, wrong priorities on projects, health workers’ strikes discrimination in procurement and a huge wage bill.
There were also views on the way forward, with respondents saying devolution should be implemented fully, there should be more transparency in decision making and that county assemblies and the Senate should be more vigilant.
There were other concerns that the country may have bitten more than it can chew, and it should have tried devolution at the regional (former provinces) level first. “I think we took a very big step; maybe we should have tried it in smaller regions first. Not at the county level,” said Mr Charles Ndegwa, a boda boda rider in Nyeri.
For Mr Stan Luchebeleli, a journalist in Nairobi, the wage bill question needs to be addressed for devolution to succeed.
“The number of counties standing at 47 should be reduced to less than 10 as we used to have eight provincial administrations. The national government should also look into ways of scrapping Nairobi as a county and make it a metropolitan city since governors the have failed to run it, especially in ridding the city of garbage,” Mr Luchebeleli said.
Mombasa residents said there was improvement in security, roads and hospitals as well as youth employment. However, they said business was slow.
“There is development but we need to feel the same in our pockets. The garbage issue has been a challenge for long,” said Mr Patrick Nasongo.
Others blamed politics for the challenge facing devolution. “People are polarised between Jubilee and Nasa. People in specific zones get better services compared to others,” said Ms Pauline Odhiambo.
However, she mentioned the Coast General Hospital as one of devolution’s success stories.
Concerns over water shortage were also raised.
Mr Erick Barchock, a civil engineer in Uasin Gishu County, said devolution had brought many early childhood centres to villages. However, he said more could be achieved if leaders are accountable. “The major setback is corruption. I don’t think there are structures to ensure all the taxpayers’ money sent to counties goes into projects to benefit people. The Devolution Ministry should sensitise people on what to expect from county governments,” Mr Barchock said.
Other residents said they were receiving education bursaries unlike before. Mr John Kipkore said the national government should take back the health function from county governments.
Mr Collins Omae, a radiographer from Kisii County, said the system is being implemented by the wrong people because of corruption, while Ms Linet Kababa, trader, said it had promised more than it has delivered so far.
In Kakamega, residents said the devolution conference had opened their eyes to the shortage of accommodation facilities in the town. “Due to the high demand, people should build more facilities,” said Mr Mourice Isiye.
For Ms Jane Waitiki, a businesswoman in Nyahururu town, devolution is on the right track because people are now getting better health services, a view shared by Ms Joseph Wachira in Meru. “We have a dialysis machine at Nanyuki Teaching and Referral Hospital and patients do not have to travel to Kenyatta National Hospital,” he said.
“Another challenge is discrimination on tenders, where people like us who are not originally from this county are denied business opportunities,” said Mr Dennis Omanga, a boda boda in Laikipia.
But Mr Omanga also says that devolution has benefited farmers after the county government sunk boreholes and introduced contract farming, providing a ready market for their produce.