Devolution good for Kenya but it might brew violence in 2017

Sunday March 13 2016

Devolution Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri joins Maasai morans who were graduating to junior elders at Kimanjo in Laikipia County on March 5, 2016. PHOTO | MUCHIRI GITONGA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Devolution Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri joins Maasai morans who were graduating to junior elders at Kimanjo in Laikipia County on March 5, 2016. PHOTO | MUCHIRI GITONGA | NATION MEDIA GROUP  

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It is apparent that devolution is making a difference not only in the villages but also at the national level. There are few villages, if any, where there is “nothing going on”. There are water projects, road improvement project, dispensaries, and pre-primary school projects dotting villages everywhere.

Of course there are villages and wards where Members of the County Assembly (MCAs) have colluded with governors to ignore their oversight and representation role so as to focus on implementing projects on their own. Some have nothing to show for this. If they “ate” the money at the budgeting and planning stage then there is nothing to show. The greed of MCAs and how the governors have compromised them to avoid impeachment is a story for another day.

Many counties are showcasing development projects that residents have never seen before. Mandera has never had an effectively functioning healthcare system outside the town. They now have several sub-county health centres. Recently, the county recorded the first caesarean birth courtesy of improved health infrastructure.

Samburu significantly reduced maternal child mortality — by more than 70 per cent because of improved access to healthcare services. Here, healthcare workers are reaching manyattas with ease to attend to mothers and children in need.

Development of roads appears a common feature everywhere. Village roads that only cows and goats could access are now well improved to lead to local markets and other service delivery points in the counties. Collapsed bridges have been repaired and new ones constructed.

The story of devolution is simply a good story everywhere. But you also hear bad stories where some MCAs have given up on re-election. They have nothing to show other than private homes built courtesy of devolution funds and huge allowances.

The bad news is that Nairobi is not changing or is taking too long for people to see anything new. And because the middle-class, which is adept in changing popular opinion, lives in Nairobi, they force a story that nothing is changing or that there is a lot of “eating” of the budget going on at the counties with little left for development.


True, “eating the budget” is a big thing in the counties but there are results to show. Nairobi does not show good results on devolution because those running the city approached it as if it was a rural county. They did not recognise that the city’s challenges differ from place to place.

Runda, Karen and Muthaiga care less about certain services. They provide for themselves. But they care about street lighting because, ironically, they are fearful of those whom they employ to guard them. They care less about water because they buy it anyway.

Poorer regions of Nairobi prefer water in their taps, garbage collected, functioning public or county dispensaries and health centre. They want good schools for their children. The wants are, therefore, different for the large city and other large urban areas such as Mombasa and Kisumu.

Poor planning on how to deliver differentiated services in these areas has meant nothing in some area three years on.

The examples of how the countryside is changing because of devolution leaves no doubt that devolution is slowly filling the holes of our dark past. In the past, marginalisation of some communities by the central government often aroused cycles of violent conflicts around election time.

Those aggrieved often pointed accusing fingers at the central government for distributing resources to “favoured” regions. The favoured regions certainly included areas where presidents and powerful ministers came from. Elections would then be a “do or die” contest. Each of the numerically large communities expected to advance itself only if one of their own got into office. Imagined or real, grievances of development became the fuel for cycles of violence. Our post-2007 election violence was the tipping point in this regard.

Devolution has simply flipped the argument on marginalisation. Large amounts of resources are leaving the centre for the county governments.

This shift of resources has also meant a shift of attention away from the centre that many Kenyans have been looking to for development. They are now focusing attention on their immediate county headquarters and specifically the governors’ offices.

It is not resources alone that have shifted to the county and to the governor’s office. People’s emotions have also shifted to the local level.

Emotions would rise every time people discussed regimes and development because there were those who felt advantaged and those who felt aggrieved.

Interestingly, this is now changing. Previous silent discussions in local pubs about how the centre was biased in favour or against certain regions have been replaced by how the governor is doing, well or bad, in terms of development.

Emotive discussions on the role of the government have been replaced by the role of MCAs in plundering resources or how the governor lacks ideas for development. The fixation with the centre is gradually disappearing.

In fact, people appear not interested in the goings-on at the national government any more; they are relatively more concerned about their own counties than they are about national development issues. Although their eyes sometimes trade on the national government, they are more fixated on the county governments.


This has two important consequences: One, it limits the public grip on accountability. The pressure to hold the national government and its institutions appears relatively less than what used to happen in the past.

The groups that can mobilise to hold the national government and public institutions accountable are also decentralising their efforts and by that spreading themselves thin.

The second consequence is ominous dark clouds gathering ahead. Devolution is rapidly turning into a theatre for violent local conflicts in the counties.

In both counties with different ethnic groups and those with a single ethnic community, politicians are emerging to compete over the control of devolution. There are now many politicians serving as MPs, senators, and woman representatives who have decided to run for the post of governor.

There are clear parallels between what used to happen with regard to competition to get the seat of the President and what is happening with regard to the seat of governor. In multi-ethnic counties, the communities where the governors come from are keen to retain the seat while others are keen to wrestle it from them on argument that the governor is marginalising them.

As was the case at the national level, some groups in the same county are citing marginalisation; that the county government is neglecting their areas.

Devolution has also evolved new divisions in almost all counties. In addition to divisions between large and small groups, there are divisions along clan lines, sub-ethnic lines and many others. There are divisions between cereal farmers and those who grow tea or coffee; there are divisions between upper and lower zones, and others.

Political leaders represent each of these divisions. They are all readying themselves to capture or retain the governor’s seat. How they are mobilising their sub-groups, or their divisions to counter others resembles the type of mobilisation that precedes a violent storm as groups and leaders outcompete each other for the presidency.

Going by the past, one can only say that in 2017 we shall have violent storms spread across several counties. They will be localised and they will be more about how the counties have spread development internally rather than how the national government has distributed national resources.

Prof Karuti Kanyinga is based at the Institute for Development Studies (IDS), University of Nairobi; [email protected]