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Devolution Hits and Misses in Kenya

  • Author Gĩthĩnji
  • Updated on:

Devolution as a form of decentralised governance is one of the key pillars that birthed the ‘New’ Constitution promulgated in 2010. It was to be a major pillar leading to the birth of a new Kenya where the power that initially centralised under the national government would now reach the common mwananchi (citizen) in the grassroots (mashinani).

The era leading to the birth of the New Constitution and with it, devolved governance, has been a long and tedious one. Behind its achievements are sacrifices made through blood, sweat and tears! Without democracy, the devolved system of governance would have been a pipe dream!

The journey from centralisation to devolution is shown vividly by the past and present dynamics. The republic of Kenya was under the era of centralised planning and development for nearly 50 years since independence.

Before the new Constitution passed in 2010, and the advent of devolution in Kenya, the country survived a five-decade legacy of under-development where:

  • the powerful presidency and centralisation of power led to bad governance and misuse of power. This wreaked havoc on the people and led to gross violation of human rights. The people wanted an end to all this misuse of power. Principles of good governance, including separation of power and strong checks and balances, arose.
  • there existed systemic marginalisation and exclusion of peoples along ethnic and regional lines.
  • there existed skewed distribution and non-sharing of resources by the centralised government.
  • a legacy of poverty, lack of participation and the infantilisation of citizens took root. It disempowered citizens extensively.

Centralisation of power in Kenya is the problem that led to the capture of the state economic and political power by a few political elites. The allocation of resources and development opportunities to individuals and different parts of the country was skewed. It was done based on political patronage instead of objective criteria and the most important person in this process became the president.

This excluded many people from government services creating a feeling of marginalisation in many parts of the country. A strong feeling of exclusion led to the perception that a person needed one of their own tribespeople in a key political public office for them to access government services and opportunities.

Centralised planning and the concentration of power at the national level of governance were identified as one of the key obstacles to both development and democratisation. Centralisation of power and economic planning and administration denied communities the opportunity to shape or influence their destiny in the matters of both development and democratisation.

The central government officials responsible for planning were far removed from the peculiar circumstances of the various regions or localities of the country. They were therefore often ill-equipped to design optimal solutions to the development problems of these areas.

Moreover, due to the lack of an adequate appreciation of the critical factors that influence development, central planners tended to develop generalised and unrealistic plans that fail to sufficiently address the developmental needs of the local community.

All these problems of centralisation of power and economic planning are what devolution as a system of governance ought to address. This was to be achieved through the objectives of devolution in Article 174 of the Constitution of Kenya:

Article 174 of the Kenyan Constitution says the objectives of the devolved government in Kenya are to:

  • promote the democratic and accountable exercise of power;
  • foster national unity by recognising diversity;
  • give powers of self-governance to the people and enhance the participation of the people in the exercise of the powers of the State and in making decisions affecting them;
  • recognise the right of communities to manage their own affairs and to further their development;
  • protect and promote the interests and rights of minorities and marginalised communities;
  • promote social and economic development and the provision of proximate, easily accessible services throughout Kenya;
  • ensure equitable sharing of national and local resources throughout Kenya;
  • to facilitate the decentralisation of State organs, their functions and services, from the capital of Kenya; and
  • to enhance checks and balances and the separation of powers.

To examine the hits and misses of devolution, or where we have gone right and wrong, we need to see to what extent these objectives have been achieved, underachieved or missed altogether.

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The Hits of Devolution: Where have we gone right?

A central objective of the struggle for the restoration of democracy was the restoration of power to local communities to manage their affairs particularly in matters of local development. This has been facilitated by the advent of decentralisation through devolution.

People now have a say in government, especially at the county level. Their input in governance and decision-making matters is taken into account through the various methods of public participation such as citizens fora, barazas, written memorandums and petitions to Parliament or the County Assemblies.

The budget process in Kenya is one of those citizens fora through which the public gives their views on what priorities they want the national or the county governments to include in their budgets. The budget process takes place in a cycle which begins in August and ends in December of the coming year.

Other ways through which the public can participate in governance are through the procurement and tendering process, the legislative process (through elected representatives) and also the electoral process which shapes the direction of devolved governance in Kenya.

Moreover, devolution is promoting social and economic development and the provision of proximate, easily accessible services throughout Kenya. This was first achieved through the division of functions between the national and the county government. Through the devolution of services up to the county level, citizens now have access to certain services that they did not have before or which were difficult to access.

We have seen (some) success stories, for example, in health, agriculture and early childhood education at the county level. County governments have made extra steps to ensure the successful implementation and devolution of services up to the grassroots level. We have seen counties like those in the northern frontier which had not experienced meaningful development since independence now experiencing the fruits of devolution such as tarmacked roads and improved water sources and health facilities.

Devolution has also made the national and county governments more responsible because the legislature and county assemblies have been empowered to ensure oversight over executive functions. In turn, the Judiciary has also more powers to keep checks and balances between the other arms of government. The people being more involved in decision making also ensures that most of the decisions made and implemented are prudent.

Devolution has also led to diversity in social and economic development. All regions of Kenya now benefit from government services unlike before where concentration of power meant only a few regions benefited at the expense of the others. Devolution has been integral in fighting marginalisation, inequality and ethnic favouritism.

Devolution has also become the cure for concentration of power at the national level. Much of the power that was concentrated around the executive have been taken away and given to the legislature, the county governments and independent commissions and offices. As it is now, devolution has helped the country to avoid the dictatorship of the executive, especially the presidency. This is also a benefit of having a presidential system of government in Kenya.

The misses of devolution: Where have we gone wrong?

While devolution has been a success in some areas, it has also had disadvantages in other areas.

When the Constitution was passed in 2010, there was the discussion that erupted that devolving services happened too soon. After the 2013 general elections that ushered in the county governments and their leaders, it was said that devolution of services was done abruptly and that the counties did not have the resources and capacity to handle the devolved services. Even now, it is still evident in some ways how the counties have a burden in implementing and managing devolved services, for example, through the constant doctors and health workers strikes.

Devolution has also led to exclusion in other areas, especially in ethnic exclusion. In counties where one or several ethnic groups are the majority, they get to occupy majority of the positions in the county government excluding the minority groups from these positions. While laws, such as the County Governments Act, have tried to ensure ethnic balance in county public service, this has not always been honoured. The County Governments Act reserves at least 30% of the county positions for the minority groups in the county.

Another miss that devolution has caused is the duplication of roles at the national and the county governments level. Although Schedule Four of the Constitution states the division of functions between the national and the county governments, they sometimes overlap their functions which leads to duplication. An example is county governments building classrooms for primary schools, which is a national government function, or the national government involving itself in the provision of health services which is a county government function. This duplication of functions often leads to conflicts or diversion of resources that would have been utilised elsewhere.

Although devolution has allowed people to be involved in decision making, this role has not been achieved fully. In fact, public participation in Kenya is seen as tokenism, where the national and county governments announce public participation forums only to seem like they are interested in having the public involved, but when the opposite is the case. There is not even effort made to ensure that the public comments are taken into account and very little or no justification is provided to show the extent to which public input was taken into account, especially in the budget documents.

Devolution has also led to slow decision making at the national and the county level. An example is when making or discussing laws that concern both levels of government by the Senate and the National Assembly where sometimes these discussions drag for months making service delivery at the national and the county governments to be hampered. One of these laws is the Division of Revenue Bill which divides the tax revenue collected nationally between both levels of government. The national and county governments rely on this law to pass their budgets, but it sometimes drags when the Senate and National Assembly cannot agree on its provisions.

Despite all this, devolved governance in Kenya is popular among the people with one survey showing over 70% of the people in agreement with it. Therefore, it requires political goodwill to address the misses and to strengthen the hits so that the public can benefit in the long run.

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