Resolving the different interpretations and expectations of devolution is one of the main challenges facing Uhuru Kenyatta. Will he seek to strangle the new system like his father or support decentralisation, which represents opportunity to integrate communities that have long felt excluded from the political system? Nic Cheeseman and Daniel Branch explore
At a rally held 50 years ago today (20/10/63), Jomo Kenyatta’s exasperation with devolution was apparent.
“For more than 40 years now, I have been telling the imperialist that we must rule ourselves, but he refuses,” Kenyatta complained. “We have been struggling with him like a man fighting a lion and, just when we have overpowered him, would you like somebody else to tell us to split our country to pieces?”
Kenyatta was dismayed with the Constitution bequeathed to his government by the departing British. The colonial administration feared that a Kanu dominated central government would undermine Britain’s continuing interests in Kenya and so set out to weaken it by creating powerful regional assemblies.
The story of Jomo Kenyatta’s fight against devolution is well-known and commonly told in terms of ethnicity: Kalenjin, Maasai and other pastoralist groups in the Rift Valley are said to have wanted to prevent the settlement of Kenyatta’s Kikuyu supporters, and to have supported Kadu and “regionalist” government as part of their campaign. But as so often is the case, this concentration on ethnicity hides more than it reveals.
Ethnic politics is not just about chauvinism and conflict. Whether under Ronald Ngala at the Coast or Daniel arap Moi in the Rift Valley, supporters of devolution were motivated by much more than a simple desire to prevent Kikuyu settlement.
They were also trying to think about different possible futures for Kenya that were not just about the nation-state with a strong, centralised government. Ideas of majimboism bore fruit at exactly the same time that Somalis in north eastern Kenya fought for unification with Somalia, Arabs in Mombasa debated the resurrection of the Sultanate of Zanzibar, and people across the region imagined a new East African federation.
The debate about majimboism was not just about ethnicity but also a manifestation of the tremendous space that temporarily opened up for democracy with the achievement of independence. But it was, furthermore, about development.
If one thing united Kenyans at independence it was the demand for development. Tom Mboya never tired of reminding his audiences that the challenge of nationhood was the challenge of development. How to deliver better education, improved healthcare and more and better-paid jobs dominated the discussions of politicians across the country.
There was, however, little agreement about how development was to be achieved.
Kadu’s vision of majimboism was about a decentralised idea of development; development policies would be formulated at the local level in order to respond to local needs. By contrast, Kanu’s leaders thought that development was best managed and delivered by central government.
These ideas about development had political implications. Local control of policy required strong local institutions, like the regional assemblies. Central control of development needed institutions that reported directly to central government, like the provincial administration.
Despite his opposition to majimboism, Jomo Kenyatta was not deaf to the demands for development driven by the grassroots of Kenyan society. He believed firmly that people thrived when free from government control of their resources.
“I would not like to feel that my shamba or house belongs to the Government,” he said in 1961. The fruits of development “can only be appreciated by human skill and sweat,” he argued seven years later.
This blend of individualism and support for centralised government pushed Kenyatta into opposition with Kadu and then Oginga Odinga, no less an implacable opponent of majimboism. The coalition of Kanu’s conservative and radical factions collapsed as a result. But Kenyatta’s ideas about development also gave rise to the idea of Harambee, whereby development was enabled but not controlled by central government.
Although Harambee schools and health facilities did much to benefit Kenyans and sustain support for the government, they never quite resolved the tension between Kenyatta’s individualist instincts and his desire to maintain close political control of the country. Harambee institutions struggled for funding and the quality of the services delivered rarely matched the ambition that marked their foundation.
Despite the shortcomings of harambee and the catastrophe of Nyayo, Jomo Kenyatta’s vision of development aligned to a strong central government remained intact until relatively recently. Indeed, it is striking how much agreement there was in the 1990s about the need for a strong, legitimate central government to counter the violence of a new generation of majimboists. Archbishop Manasses Kuria spoke for many Kenyans when he denounced the renewed call for majimboism in October 1991.
“This is a system that Kenyans rejected almost 30 years ago,” he told a journalist. Unity was essential, Kuria thought, and “anything that is likely to cause disharmony, strife and chaos is evil; it is satanic”.
Attitudes towards devolution have clearly changed over the course of the past two decades. The failure of the State to deliver economic growth or security in the 1980s undermined popular support for centralisation. At the same time, the reintroduction of multi-party elections in the early 1990s exacerbated inter-communal tensions, which encouraged a range of different communities to demand self-government. As Kenyans clamoured to escape the control of a violent and arbitrary state, the lure of devolution became increasingly appealing.
It was, therefore, no surprise that the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) based its election campaign in 2007 around the promise to introduce a system of devolved government. This message proved to be particularly effective among communities that felt historically marginalised.
But the incorporation of devolution in the 2010 Constitution was not simply a victory of the old Kadu alliance. Devolution drew support across the board. Central and Nyanza provinces voted in favour of the new Constitution at higher levels than Rift Valley and the Coast.
But the strength of feeling in favour of the creation of 47 new counties masked considerable areas of disagreement and confusion. Was the idea that each county would operate as a “mini Kenya” or that devolution would allow the majority group in each county to take control of its own affairs, marginalising minorities in the process? Did the creation of the new counties mean the end of the disliked provincial administration? And would it just be funds that were transferred to the local level, or real decision making?
Resolving these different interpretations and expectations of devolution is one of the main challenges facing Uhuru Kenyatta. Will he seek to strangle the new system at birth, like his father, or look to support decentralisation, recognising that it represents a new opportunity to integrate communities that have long felt excluded from the political system?
So far, the President has been at pains to state his commitment to the new Constitution, but many still expect him to weaken the system during his time in office. This would be a mistake. Undermining devolution would not just change the way that services are delivered. It would rip apart the very social contract that has helped to maintain political stability in Kenya over the last three years.
Many Kenyans who did not vote for the Jubilee Alliance nonetheless feel that the political system has something to offer them because their candidates for governor and senator won. In other words, devolution is another, more subtle, form of power sharing. This is why it offers a real opportunity to manage the tensions that have marked Kenyan politics since independence. It would be dangerous to undermine this arrangement, especially in the wake of two highly controversial elections.
But it would also be a mistake to allow devolution to go further, transferring more resources and power away from the centre. Jomo Kenyatta was right to fear the fragmentation of the Kenyan state and to argue that Kenyans are stronger together than they are apart. It is time for the central government to prove that it can promote a unified national identity and to inspire development, not to wither away.