Getting Devolution Right

Michael Onsando
30 April ,2019

If there was ever a silver bullet that was supposed to save Kenya from wallowing in whatever the news decides we will wallow in every week it is devolution. Having suffered under the thumb of extreme centralization of resources (one big pot to steal from) we hoped that devolution would ensure two things. First, it would spread the resources and opportunities – reducing the incentive for rural to urban migration. Second, it would bring accountability closer to the people, effectively giving them a voice in a situation where they didn’t have much say as to how their money is used.

I’m not going to go into whether or not devolution is working – it’s been about over a decade of the stuff and it was brought in to solve problems that have been entrenched for over 50 years at least. Take rural to urban migration it’s hard to know what the numbers are. We would know if the government had focused their energies on a general census (like they are SUPPOSED TO this year) instead of the hudumizer number. However, according to this report  from the British Council, we know that the youth continue her around urban centres with Nairobi and Mombasa alone accounting for over 45% of the total youth population. As to accountability 25 of 47 governors were sent home after the 2017/2018 elections and a whopping 179 of 290 MP’s lost their job in the same election. So, even if only psychological, it is clear that there has been some impact on the space (something that Uhuruto have continued to shout about  – how well everything is going).

Of course it was a chicken and egg situation as many people who argued against devolution said. Imposing this idea on our current political patronage system would only lead to more of the same. Take this report from the international crisis group:

Patronage politics that marked the former centralised system has been replicated in the new counties, making government even more inefficient and expensive. Though political leadership is now local, power is closely held, and leaders are suspicious of both national and local rivals. Certain regions, communities and many youth still feel marginalised. Political devolution has deflected but not resolved grievances that fuel militancy, which continues to be met by hard security measures driven from Nairobi. Greater inclusion and cooperation within and between county governments, as well as national-county dialogue, is needed to maximise devolution’s potential and ensure militant groups, like Al-Shabaab, have fewer grievances to exploit.

Contrary to popular belief not all ideas are good. Knowing this it is easy to understand why the control of resources that exist for the public good is limited to a select few individuals who (hopefully) are qualified by experience or (preferably) some form of institution in the art of understanding and balancing. The system of political patronage does not allow for this to happen. Rather it rushes people through systems that can give them “indicators of qualification” that they may pass the bare minimum required to appease the public. Once they pass the minimum the assumption is a good PR effort will allow their status as “close to resources” to elevate them to the office they need (who needs to know if you actually know anything). And so power continues to be handed down almost monarchically.  It is these little monarchies that that begin the organization that becomes the larger power replay that is the Kenyan government. Understanding the existence of these little monarchies allows us to understand how billions end up going missing. Like an accountant dealing with thousands of offices you realize just how much money the company looses due to pens being stolen (or how airlines charge for trivial things to keep costs down).

This is why the silver bullet that is devolution was supposed to be so powerful. It was supposed to wrestle the power away from these little monarchies rather than further establish them. It was supposed to allow the people to reject patronage. And, while it might still be too early to tell, it seems like a good time to ask the question – is there any environmental labour is being done to ensure that devolution survives? Or are we waiting for it to create a hybrid monster that we cannot stop?

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