Tanzania is in the middle of an ambitious constitution reform. Kenya did its thing in 2010. Uganda got there a little earlier, with a new constitution in 1995. Rwanda has its constitutional party in 2003.
All these constitutions, and Tanzania’s draft, all have one thing in common — they all devolved power away from the capital to the districts, regions, or counties as in Kenya’s case.
Not surprisingly, Kenya’s has been the most noisy and colourful. There are many quarrelsome and combative governors. We have some very flamboyant ones who drive cars that President Kenyatta cannot dream of, and those who show up for public functions surrounded by more beefy bodyguards than Deputy President William Ruto.
Some governors have done wonderful things with their budgets. Others have blown it away at the political gambler’s table.
But it is the laws that are memorable: forbidding women in minis to sit astride boda boda motorcycles; giving 10 per cent of county budgets to God (churches and mosques); and levying a “death tax” on cats, dogs, and humans.
Strange and absurd, but these new county laws give us some new insights into what devolution all over Africa is all about.
In some countries devolution was part of the democratisation process — bringing power closer to the people. In others, it was a bid to manufacture elite consensus by spreading the opportunities for corruption to more members of the political class.
Other countries also used it to deradicalise the contest for power at the centre by creating self-satisfied ethnic barons in the countryside.
But devolution can also entrench ruling parties. The Tanzanian draft, for example, proposes that there will be an elected president of Zanzibar islands, then one for the mainland, and then a supreme president who is lord of both.
Such arrangements put pressure on opposition parties to be better organised, have more sophisticated structures, and to have more money to compete against the ruling party of the day.
What we hadn’t seen so far is the kind of hyper- localism being witnessed in Kenya. At the rate they are going, soon there could be more differences between Kenyan counties in terms of laws and political culture, than there is between Kenya and Ghana, for example.
This is happening because, it would seem, the devolution to the regions and counties was only the first stage. Once we get to the regions, we are having further devolution to accommodate local peculiarities. We are witnessing the rise of what we might call assertive micro-societies and states, and a fundamental remake of the African state.
This did not start in the last 15 years. We have to go back to independence to find the root. Nationalism brought all Africans within their borders together against an external enemy, the colonialist. Once the colonialist went, we looked inside to sort out our contests — ethnicity, religion, district, regions, and so on.
Those have in some ways been confronted, so we have gone further down and are looking to accommodate clans, and even families.
However, there is an element of the micro-society that is modern and inclusive — the rise of the chama (a small savings club), burial societies, church groups, work gangs, local defence groups, village environmental clubs, and even carpools in suburbs.
We can’t say for sure where all this is taking us. I think most of this will end well, but it will be a headache for those who work at the macro-level. Making national policies that meet the needs of all these myriad micro societies will get more difficult.
Presidential campaigns (in countries where elections are generally free) will become more complicated and require spaghetti-like alliances. We could see the revival of reactionary localism, and thus more things like forced circumcision of women.
And national media will find it a nightmare chasing readers, listeners, and viewers in their new havens. On the other hand, we could see a new burst of innovation to deal with the opportunities and challenges presented by these micro societies.
Also, while, like the rest of the world we have to worry about Big Brother, my sense is that in Africa in years to come, we shall also have to contend with Small Brother in the villages.
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