By @kresearcher and Don Pablo
The devolution of governance brought about by the Constitution of Kenya (2010) has witnessed a dramatic first year of implementation. The process has seen a significant shift in the system of government bringing with it new players and new service delivery units that are closer to the people. It has also witnessed turf wars as players adjust to the new rules of engagement.
A year down the line, some assessment is necessary to draw lessons as we move forward. Devolution as we have it was designed to address the excesses of a centralized government through dispersing of power. It envisages greater representation and inclusion in decision-making, equity in resource allocation and utilization and improved service delivery to all parts of the country. Devolution also seeks to have greater accountability and transparency in government.
If well implemented, devolution can ensure each county determines its development agenda and reduce the zero-sum political competition at the national level. It has the potential to solve the social, political and economic problems that have held back this country from fulfilling her immense potential.
Despite the promise it brings, devolution faces various challenges and threats that need to be addressed if the process is to deliver and survive for the long haul. The actions and utterances of key institutions and players threaten the process and have to be checked. There have already been calls by a minority to do away with the process due to the actions of a few. This piece will highlight some of the threats devolution faces as well as the opportunities it presents.
The chance to have government that is close to the people and responds to their needs is something that many Kenyans have been waiting to have since independence. We are witnessing this where County Governments have the mandate and budgets to deliver services relevant to the local population. For instance, Mandera is one of the Counties in Kenya that has perennial problems when it comes to food security. The County recently announced that it had revived 3 irrigation schemes along River Daua and had put in Ksh. 900 million into more irrigation projects to arrest the food problems in the county.This is in addition to the Ksh410 million already allocated to agriculture in the county budget.
Kenyans are now having service delivery units that they can access as opposed to pleading with a Government that is in distant Nairobi. Machakos County has been in the news for all the good reasons since the County government came into place. The investment in rain water harvesting tanks in all 695 primary schools in the county is a welcome move in water provision in the semi-arid county.
Other examples include Counties employing a large numbers of ECD teachers to improve access to Early Childhood Education as well as the purchase of motor bikes for Muranga County Agricultural Extension Officers to ease their movement across the hilly terrain in the County. The important aspect here is government that is close enough to understand the unique needs of people and adequately respond to them.
Access to information is important if the principle of transparency and public participation in government is to be realized. Many counties are making some notable efforts in having running websites which are well updated with timely information. Makueni leads on this front with a website which has everything from a citizen’s budget, to the county plans, GIS data maps and other good pieces of information. Other counties such as Nyandarua , TaitaTaveta and Kisii also have some modestly populated website with quality information for the public.While counties have a long way to go, these steps to open up and increase access to information need to be appreciated as it could lead to a culture of transparency across all levels of government in time.
Use of funds at the County level has also seen adherence to law and accountability that is not as evident at the national level. County Governments adhered to the law when they responded to the Controller of Budgets’ (CoB) recommendations that they revise their budgets before accessing funds. The need to comply with the law explains why more than half the counties did not spend a single dime on development in the first quarter as per the CoB’s report. This was reported out of context by the media with Governors accused of not prioritizing development (more on the media later). The report released by the Auditor General and the subsequent calls for Governors to account for the money spent is also a positive step towards accountable governance.
Despite these positives, devolution has had to face a lot of criticism. The following institutions in one way or another are threatening this process at a crucial stage where it needs nurturing and support from all quarters:
1. Governors: Of all the offices created by the new constitution, Governors arguably play the most important role in ensuring the success of devolution. They have big budgets for service delivery relative to the defunct local government and hold the hopes of millions. Being the inaugural Governors, they have a dual role to play. Not only are they entrusted to respond to the needs of the citizens but they hold the key to how the country will perceive devolution and whether it will survive beyond its initial years. So far, Governors have wasted no chance in shooting themselves in the foot. They greedily agreed to have all functions devolved at once as ordered by the President without considering their capacity to deliver. They’ve also tussled over the right to fly flags – a cheap, unnecessary attempt at exercising power – allegedly engaged in financial impropriety, engaged in petty sideshows and alienated the public with increase in taxes that lacked meaningful public participation. Governors need to take a step back and re-asses their approach to the whole devolution process. Missteps during the first year can be excused but people won’t be patient for long. Vultures are already smelling blood and circling the Governors waiting to feast.
2. Senators: The Senate is facing a serious crisis. It was created to protect devolution but wasn’t given much to do in that regard. What we’ve ended up with is a Senate with experienced politicians who have nothing much to do. As is natural, the Senate has eyed roles performed by other institutions in an attempt to establish relevance in the game. After a war of attrition that bore no fruits with the stubborn National Assembly, the Senate has turned its guns towards the Governors. The attempt to create a County Development Board chaired by the Senator is the Senate’s way of getting a say in development projects at the County. As has been argued before, the Senate cannot be in charge of development projects at the County level and expected to offer oversight on itself. The legality of a legislature implementing projects it is expected to offer oversight on is already being challenged in court with the on goingcase against the CDF fund. Ominously, the Controller of Budget applied the same argument when she indicated that she won’t disburse ward development funds to MCA’s as this contradicts the doctrine of separation of powers. Senate needs to re-think this self-defeatist approach that sees pillars of devolution engaged in attrition that weakens the process as a whole. They need to find a better way to establish their relevance.
3. National Assembly: The National Assembly has been the institution most affected by the new order. Having been the main custodian of development and go-to people for all problems their constituents may have had, Members of the National Assembly have not taken kindly to having an alternative source of leadership for the people. They have thus set about to ‘tame Governors’ with all sorts of antics. Most serious of this is the attempt to have the Equalization Fund managed by MP’s. As is the case with CDF, legislators ought to stick to their three functions of legislation, representation and oversight. Implementation of projects is a reserve of the Executive as per the dictum of separation of powers. The National Assembly Members need to perform their roles and wait for the next electoral cycle if they want powers mandated to other Constitutional offices.
4. The Transitional Authority: The Transition Authority is a body created to midwife the process of devolving governance. With such a crucial mandate and the way it has gone about doing its work, the T.A is arguably the institution that has failed devolution most. T.A was to carry out several key activities for a coordinated transition. First, it was to unbundle the functions assigned to each level of government under Schedule Four of Kenya’s constitution. Secondly, T.A was to come up with the cost of delivering the different functions at each level of Government. This would assist in determining how much revenue is devolved and what remains at the national level. The Transitional Authority was also expected to gradually allocate functions to the counties based on their capacity to take up the functions they ask/apply for. Other crucial functions included facilitation in development of County budgets during the first year of devolution and carrying out an audit of existing human resource of the Government and local authorities to advise the deployment of staff at either level of government. Many of these activities have not gone according to plan which explains why there is still a lot of confusion surrounding the devolution process. The transfer of functions was done haphazardly with little attention paid to capacity of counties to perform the functions allocated. The President’s directive to have every function devolved at once didn’t help matters. County Governments were also left to their own devices in coming up with budgets which explains the confusion and reluctance by the CoB in releasing funds to Counties whose budgets didn’t comply with the set legal framework. Delayed release of funds resulted in Counties not spending much on development during the first quarter. On the staff audit, the T.A last month released the ‘Counties Human Resource Report‘, a whole year after devolution started. Only T.A knows how this will be of help when Counties have already hired without much consideration of staff redeployment from the national level. There’s been talk of the Authority deliberately being starved off cash to carry out its mandate and Governors have been openly calling for its dissolution. In general, most of the confusion surrounding devolution is as a result of failure by the Authority to carry out its function, deliberately or otherwise.
5. Media: The media plays a crucial role in informing the people and influencing their decisions. It is a critical component of society that has the potential to build or destroy the society. The media in Kenya have failed in many aspects as highlighted here and they continue to do so where devolution is concerned. The numerous errors and erroneous interpretation of devolution issues by the media goes a long way in threatening devolution by creating mis-informed masses. Majority of Kenyans will learn about devolution from the media and the journalists need to work harder to first understand devolution and then cover it effectively and objectively. So far, the media has thrived on sensationalism portraying the whole devolution process as a tug of war between the national and county governments on one hand and Constitutional office holders on the other. There’s been limited attempt to educate the citizenry on this paradigm shift in governance and what it means for the country. Nor has there been any serious attempt to highlight how devolution is changing the lives of people across the country; people who’ve never known government for 50 years. Instead, we have feature after feature on who is fighting who, who is stealing what (transparency notwithstanding) and hysterical stories of Counties appointing ‘Ambassadors’ and what not. It is telling that one year down the line, no media has an in-house devolution expert or journalists dedicated to covering devolution stories despite this being the most significant political change in the country since independence. If they are not careful, the media will play a role in poisoning the minds of citizens and creating cynicism towards devolution. This will pave the way to do away with the process should a referendum on the same come up.
6. The Citizen: As stated earlier, devolution anticipates greater representation and inclusion in decision-making. Citizens have an important role to play in the system. This includes participation in legislation as well as in development of County Development Plans. Participation ensures the response of the government is relevant to your particular needs. Without meaningful public participation, there’s bound to be a disparity between the needs of the people and solutions provided, hence resistance. A case in point is the Finance Acts passed in many counties that saw protests by citizens. While the County Governments have failed in providing for meaningful public participation, the citizens can’t escape blame as public participation fora have frequently seen poor attendance especially in urban areas. The citizens have an important role to play in the new system and they have to be active in governance and holding the government to account. It is futile to call for government to be brought closer to the people then ignore the process of governance once it has been devolved.
The devolution process is still in its nascent stages and needs to be handled carefully and judged further down the line. The upcoming Devolution Conference in April will provide a forum where all relevant stakeholders will sit down and take stock of the process while ironing out whatever differences they have. When all is said and done, devolution holds great promise for this country and requires the input of all in society if is to be implemented successfully.