The introduction of devolution brought a sense of optimism and hope. Kenyans hoped it would cure historical ills and marginalisation. The establishment was perceived to selfishly protect the interests of the educated elite and sadly, devolution seems to be following the same trajectory.
In politics perception matters as well as reality. According to the latest report by the Controller of Budget, county government owe Sh90 billion in pending bills. Governors spent about Sh183.6 billion between July 2017 and March 2018. Out of this, Sh157.6 billion went to recurrent expenditure (of this Sh108 billion went to salaries) and Sh25.9 billion to development. Devolution has become a case study of how an idea can be lost during implementation.
The big challenge devolution faces is the anger simmering at the grassroots. As calls for a referendum gain momentum, county leadership should strive to win over sceptics, especially its former allies in Parliament and civil society; more so in this era of ‘alternative facts.
To begin with, devolved funds have increased gradually but is this translating to any good for the grassroots populace? The public is angry because they feel those tasked with making decisions on their behalf in the county governments are not responding to their needs. And who can blame them. Devolution success is measured through more jobs, lower taxes, building affordable homes and dignity in retirement.
If you peruse through all the referendum proposals by various interest groups, you will definitely agree with me that there is a carefully choreographed anti-devolution campaign going on. Devolution scepticism is on the rise on account of growing anger due to increased corruption and perceived eliteness of policies fronted by the county administrations. The public is quickly losing trust in devolution as it’s currently structured and they are saying let’s ignore the status quo and try something different. This is providing fodder for a fundamental challenge to devolution's continued existence.
One of the key objectives of devolution was to open up the rural economy; sadly, more Kenyans in the counties are feeling left behind now more than ever. Many have become victims of failed policies such as taxation and regulations, especially small and medium businesses. Counties are taxing and regulating SMEs out of businesses to raise finances.
It’s about time county leadership paid attention to the people it serves and position itself to be an integral part of their lives. A referendum would be a huge political gamble, especially for the incumbent governors. Kenyans may just vote against devolution, a blow to citizens who sacrificed so much to bring back the devolved system. A referendum would throw counties into a period of deep political instability and uncertainty.
I’m afraid subjecting devolution to the referendum will go down as the worst self-inflicted political harm, there is absolutely no need for one. As a country, we run the risk of unleashing forces we would have no control over. Politics is a high-risk game and for devolution, this is a battle for survival.
It is not an exaggeration to say that people who believe passionately in devolution really do believe it is under immense threat. The more devolution fails, the angrier people grow, the more the political establishment will lose consensus, the more populist ideas will gain traction and the quicker the idea of dissolving devolution will grow and, unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of time.