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February 17, 2019

Counties Need To Justify The Need For Devolved Government

If you want to invest in Kenya from now on, you’ll probably need to deal with a county governor and/or the county government at some point of time.

Whether or not this is better or worse than dealing with GoK is still not clear, although, since you won’t be able to escape GoK anyway, it probably doesn’t matter much – I suspect it will, in most cases, just add another layer of complications.

 Devolution is great in principle. Devolution in reality is a lot trickier: even in a properly run country, such a complex, large-scale transition would still be a significant challenge.

In a country with decades of entrenched corruption, there is a very real chance that you mostly end up devolving corruption and shenanigans.

For a while, I thought that maybe competition between counties for investors would actually force some governors to clean up business, but I’m not so sure if I look at the steady stream of both silly and serious news from the counties.

Siaya Governor Cornel Rasanga reportedly told county executives ‘to accompany him to church every Sunday before visiting various development projects after service.’

It’s none of his business what paid professionals get up to on Sunday mornings, and surely he has (or should have) staff in place who manage those development projects. Inspecting on Sundays won’t make projects succeed: having them managed properly will.

 At the moment, overall financial (and, presumably, non-financial) planning capacity on county government level seems very limited.

Way too many county governments have written wildly unrealistic budgets, with massive deficits and intriguing plans how to finance them, and have had them handed back for another try.

 I was also seriously underwhelmed by a similar ‘counties-have-owners’ attitude when Uasin Gishu Deputy Governor Chemnos stormed (are we still not done with storming??) a hotel to drag out a couple of British High Commission staff. If people don’t break the law, leave them alone, for crying out loud.

 But more importantly, I was horrified to read an op-ed by Mohamed Guleid, the deputy governor of Isiolo, who claims that ‘all these oil exploration companies are a hoax, or hiding something we do not know.

Their intentions are to make money from the international stock exchanges and not to drill any oil.’ His piece shows how little understanding he has of the risks, immense capital costs and technical issues in oil exploration.

In the case of Tullow’s exploration site, the GoK thankfully acted quickly, but it was a striking reminder that any investment involving land will be at serious risk of being held hostage by vested local interests, even if you follow all the rules and regulations and fill whatever positions you can with local.

On the positive side: I’m not sure if Dr Alfred Mutua, governor of Machakos, will be able to realise all his grander plans, but he seems to have gotten off to a solid start, with a combination of large, longer term plans and, importantly, some immediate measures that are likely to benefit the lower-income population very tangibly: ambulances, tractors, fertiliser, boreholes. Of course it’s early days (and, remember, Mr Mutua is a PR professional), but I’m curious to see more.

 Another interesting side effect of his recent activity was that citizens in other counties have reportedly asked their governors if they were planning to do anything like Mr Mutua.

One governor pointed out, slightly disgruntled, that Machakos benefitted from the proximity to Nairobi. That’s of course true – but it points at such an important discussion to have: What potential does each county have?

I’m talking about realistic potential here: yes, of course, you could plan to set up a resort city in Isiolo. Except there are a couple of security challenges to resolve, and few tourists will come to Northern Kenya to sit in Spanish coast-type high rises – they will be looking for far smaller facilities to enjoy the stunning nature.


PS: Speaking of governors – I’ve been wondering recently what the Nairobi tax payer actually gets for his/her money: Security? Nope. If you can, you pay for your own. Garbage collection? Nope. If you can, you pay for that, too. Roads? Well. Crumbling and flooded ones, without lights and often pavements.

And even the sleek new roads from Westlands through Kileleshwa have lamp posts, but no lamps (as my lovely friend Kevin said: ‘energy-saving bulbless street lamps’). Water and power are, yet again, been erratic. The newly installed traffic lights (a whole separate story) are off. Public healthcare or public education?

Don’t make me laugh. Anyone who can afford to go private will do so, even with the cheapest services. In an interesting recent twist, the police also appear to have cranked up their activities a notch: I mean, we’re all pretty much used to not expect any actual security from the police , but I’ve seen a bunch of news recently where security forces (Real? Fake? Retired? Is there a difference, Mr Waiganjo?) were involved in pretty serious crimes, robberies, shootouts and murders. So, Mr Governor, what exactly is the state of play in Nairobi?

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