Devolution has today become more of a burden to Kenyans than the savior it had been presented as at inception.
In many parts of the country, there are sorry stories by ordinary folks regarding the regrets they have about their respective county governments. What was hailed as the panacea to the country’s endemic inequalities and inequities has brought more disappointments than joy.
Kenyans ushered in devolution with a lot of excitement and expectations. Of all its goodness, the new Constitution was celebrated by the ordinary citizens more on account of devolution. They saw in it an opportunity to address the many development ills that had bedeviled the country since Independence. By law, the national government had an obligation to transfer funds for development at the local levels. The funds were to be managed by elected leaders, unlike the previous provincial administration. Instead, the new governance structure has increased taxation levels and depths to finance the ballooning national budget. The national budget has risen from Sh1 trillion in 2012 to current over Sh3 trillion. The county governments have also expanded their revenue sources expedition to crazy levels of (some) levying charges for exhuming bodies required for autopsy.
Correspondingly, the debt burden has increased tenfold with the Treasury CS Henry Rotich, admitting the government has reached its borrowing limits. The citizens bear the burden of these actions by the county and national governments with bitterness. Clearly, the dream of effective public service delivery, as espoused by the architects of devolution led by Prof Odhiambo Mbai, has been betrayed. Devolution in its current form and practice by the majority of governors has become a nightmare to Kenyans.
A combination of factors has conspired to circumvent and derail this novel idea. Chief among them is the recruitment of the county leadership headed by the governor. It is provided for that the governor will be elected at a general election through universal suffrage by the voters of the respective county. Kenya, being a multi-party democracy, relies on political parties to nominate candidates for election. The parties are expected thus to conduct primaries in as open system as possible. However, many of these parties, if not all, lack both the commitment and the institutional capacity to undertake such an important exercise. Their nomination processes are weak, easy to manipulate and subject to wanton abuse.
The parties more often than not succumb to the unbridled appetite of vested interests. The candidates at the nomination employ ethnic and clan balkanization for political mobilisation. The exercise thus become riddled with savage chauvinism, violence, bribery and open mob intimidation. The results are such that the winning candidates are least grounded in the philosophy of devolution. Worse, they are ill prepared for the implementation of the devolution agenda. Many of them outrightly lack the necessary academic qualifications. At the same time, they also have inadequacy in managerial and leadership skills. It is no wonder then that upon assuming their respective offices, the pioneer governors appeared lost. They spent much of their time whining about matters inconsequential to the welfare of the people. They quarreled with the county commissioners on size and position of office, type and size of motorcade and how many flags to be flown. They went on an employment frenzy and recurrent expenditure rampage. Inordinate resources were spent on rewarding cronies through handouts and unwarranted appointments. Where the county assemblies tried to rein in on the wayward tendencies, they were subdued eventually. MCAs were assaulted, bribed or subjected to public humiliation to make them toe the line. Soon enough, the MCAs gave up on their oversight role and sought seats at the table of graft.
Once they were firmly under the control of the county executive, corruption became the modus operandi. In any case, the MCAs were more rudimentary in skills orientation than their respective governors. They operated more like elevated councillors than the roles envisaged in the Constitution. All the characteristics and operations of corruption had been devolved effectively to the counties from the national government in Nairobi.
Graft at the county levels also benefitted from the deployment of inept civil servants from the national government. Many were seconded by the Transition Authority, while others were directly recruited by the county public service boards. These staff brought in their previous experiences in manipulating employment and procurement processes. The experiences became useful to the new county executives, including the governors. Instead of offering public and social services closer and cheaper to the people, they made life unbearable. As the government systems were manipulated to benefit individual pockets, the public sector service all but collapsed. The devolved systems, including the vital healthcare, degenerated. Hospitals lacked medical supplies and doctors shifted to private practice, even as they continued in the public payroll.
Kenyans watched in horror as patients died of curable and preventable diseases in public hospitals. Some of the bodies decomposed on hospital beds as nurses joined the doctors in a year-long strike. Meanwhile, some governors were paying hundreds of millions upfront for road construction to fictitious offshore companies. Ghost stadia and water boreholes were launched by governors gullible to the whims of corrupt civil servants.
The corruption web sucked in the county local business operatives. Together, the cartels formed an unholy trinity of the County Executive, the County Assembly and the County Business Tenderpreneurs. Friday evenings would be the occasion to determine which business enterprise would get which tender; and who in the assembly would protect the executive member awarding the tender. The citizen no longer mattered. As far as the county new kids on the block were concerned, everyone who mattered was on board. By the end of the first term in August last year, corruption was so rampant in the counties that it was a way of life.
It became difficult to discuss the merits of devolution to the people in many counties during the campaigns. The volatile and poisonous electoral environment at the time helped to cover up for the incumbent governors. The citizens could not engage meaningfully in the governorship debates as candidates took full advantage of the sharp political divides. Many sitting governors therefore escaped closer scrutiny and interrogation. They thus won the re-election and hoped to be protected by the political hostilities engulfing the country then.
Then without warning, Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta surprised friend and foe by reaching an agreement to reconcile the nation. The Building Bridges project had the fight against corruption as a key plank. Previously those in power had used the largesse of their offices to compromise the justice system. However, the President appears to have learnt from earlier attempts and conveniently sidestepped the known anti-corruption institutions. Within the law, the President established a multi-agency unit and adopted multi-pronged approach. In the net were big and small fish, all treated equally before the courts, which pledged their unflinching support. Kenyans are happy that the net has reached the counties and already managed some catch. The declaration that the arrest of Busia Governor Sospeter Ojaamong’ is the first among a list of many other county chiefs is reassuring. The protestation of the Council of Governors through chairman Josephat Nanok is a sign of panic.
It is an indication the governors had hitherto enjoyed impunity and are shocked at the turn of events. Chickens are normally worried when one is slaughtered because they know not when the guests will leave. The chickens seem to have come home roost a little earlier than expected for the county executive and assemblies. But for the joy of ordinary citizens and good of the nation, the gravy train of devolution seem to be coming to an abrupt halt!
Kanyadudi is a political and public policy analyst