Kenya’s elections are a key test for devolution

Raila Odinga, the opposition candidate in Kenya's upcoming presidential election, wants to increase the amount of funds local governments have to work with. (AP Photo/Sayyid Abdul Azim)

NAIROBI, Kenya — When Kenyans go to the polls on Tuesday (8 August), the usual political pageantry will also be fraught with tension.

This election marks the ten-year anniversary of horrific ethnic violence that marred the results of 2007 voting, leaving 1,100 dead and many more displaced. In the wake of that tragedy, Kenya has embarked on an experiment in local governance in an effort to defuse future tensions.

A new constitution in 2010 broke up eight unwieldy provinces into 47 more manageable counties. The central government made a commitment to invest significant money and responsibility in these new local governments, which would be ruled by a governor and a county assembly. First elected in 2013, these new players in Kenyan politics are now up for reelection for the first time.

Devolution has also been a hot topic in the contest for president. The main challenger to incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta is making a major campaign pledge to increase the amount of revenue that the national government gives to counties.

While it’s too early to tout Kenya’s counties as a model, its experience with devolution does appear to be a promising approach with lessons for the region. While the change impacts cities, its most remarkable results have come in more rural areas, where public services are improving.

“All of a sudden, development is happening everywhere,” said Naison Mutziwa-Mangiza, the Nairobi-based head of UN-Habitat’s Regional Office for Africa. “In remote parts of Kenya where facilities such as X-ray machines and cancer treatment facilities that you could not even think being available, they’re now there.”

As Africa urbanizes, innovative approaches to local governance will be key — not only to managing urban growth but also to making sure those who continue to live in smaller towns and villages aren’t left behind. Improving the strength of rural areas is the flip side of keeping growth in cities from spiraling out of control.

Kenya’s foray, meanwhile, is impressively bold for a process that could be ploddingly bureaucratic. The World Bank has called it “among the most rapid and ambitious devolution processes going on in the world.” Kenya’s election will serve as an important test for the new system.

History of centralized power

Like many former European colonies, Kenya’s borders were drawn somewhat arbitrarily, and include the ancestral lands of 42 tribes. Those boundaries largely held together without incident thanks to the strong-arm rule of anti-colonial leader Jomo Kenyatta, who served as head of state from independence in 1963 until his death in 1978. (Jomo is the father of the current president.) Later, Kenyatta’s successor, Daniel arap Moi, officially declared Kenya a one-party state. As Kenyatta and Moi concentrated power in the hands of the presidency, provincial legislatures were abolished and local government lost its functions.

The end of the Cold War and the blossoming of democratic movements elsewhere in Africa sparked opposition to one-party rule. In 1992, Kenya held multi-party elections, although Moi won two more terms in office. In 2002, the country experienced its first peaceful transition of presidential power between opposing parties.

All along, democratic activists had been calling for governance reforms. One of their demands was for some form of devolution, in part to wrest some power away from Kenya’s largest tribe, the Kikuyu, who many perceived as beneficiaries of one-party rule. A 2005 draft constitution went to a national referendum, but failed to pass.

Then came December 27, 2007. Moi’s former vice-president, a Kikuyu, was declared the winner of a disputed election. In retaliation, 50 Kikuyu were killed by other tribes. That sparked a two-month killing spree that consumed small villages and urban slums alike. At one point, hardware stores stopped selling machetes, the weapon of choice.

In 2010, a national plebiscite approved the new constitution, which among its reforms created the county system. The election violence was the “catalyst” that “accelerated the process” of devolution, according to Kinuthia Wamwangi, a government official who was responsible for putting the new system in place.

New responsibilities

Under Kenya’s new constitution, the central government is responsible for foreign affairs, defence, education, and what are deemed “national” roads. Counties get the rest, with an emphasis on service delivery: health care, sanitation, power generation, agriculture, municipal utilities, social services, early childhood education, hospitals and local “county” roads. The average county size is around one million people. 

Popularly elected governors are responsible for the entire county. In addition, voters elect a county legislature that has a check on the governor’s power. In urban areas, a technocratic management team of nine oversees the city — there is no elected mayor. This approach ensures that governors distribute resources evenly over the whole county and don’t favor the big cities. (Nairobi, the nation’s capital and a city of 3.5 million, is technically a county.)

[See: Nairobi governor says devolution is ‘bringing services closer to the people’]

The new layer of bureaucracy comes with additional costs, and the capacity of local governments remains a concern, Mutziwa-Mangiza said. Still, he approves of the arrangement.  “At the end of the day, development happens at the local level,” he told Citiscope. “Counties are closer to the people.”

In many places, the results seem to bear that out. Wamwangi pointed to Kericho County in western Kenya as the star performer. The once underdeveloped area now has more than 700 early-childhood education classrooms, a health centre in every ward and more than 3,000 kilometres of gravel road.

“Before, you couldn’t travel at all in Kericho because you’d get stuck in the mud,” Wamwangi said.

But delivering on all of those new responsibilities would have been impossible without funding. Key to the Kenyan experiment thus far has been the central government’s willingness to write checks along with the mandates. “Kenya is ahead by devolving both responsibility and resources,” Mutziwa-Mangiza noted. “Most countries’ taxation systems are still centralized.”

Currently, 32 percent of national revenue is transferred to the counties, which amounted to USD 2.9 billion last year. The opposition candidate in the presidential election, Raila Odinga, wants that number to go up to 47 percent — a strong indicator that the new arrangement has support.

“Devolution remains by far the most popular constitutional option Kenya has embarked on since independence,” he recently told a conference of county governors.

Challenges remain

Like any major change, there have been setbacks. One governor was impeached by his county assembly, only to be reinstated by the courts. He’s now running for reelection and appears likely to win.

Most trouble has happened in the Senate, a branch of Parliament that Kenyatta disbanded in 1966, but has been revived under the new constitution. Each county sends one senator to the body. However, the other house of Parliament has been reluctant to share power with the new Senate. Members have largely ignored the Senate entirely when preparing bills for the president to sign. Now, many senators are running for governor, a position with clearer power, responsibility and resources.

Corruption is the other major concern. Last year, PriceWaterhouseCoopers ranked Kenya the third most corrupt country in the world. Whether devolution will make fighting public-sector corruption easier or harder is up for debate. On the one hand, when resources were centralized at the national treasury, it was easier to follow the money. Now, the money, and any wrongdoing with it, is dispersed across 47 counties.

[See: The people power behind Mexico City’s new constitution]

On the other hand, the previous central government was opaque about its finances. The funding transfers to counties come with more transparency about what money is going where.

“Prior to devolution, we didn’t really have clear information about how much money was being distributed to different parts of the country for different functions,” said Jason Lakin of Transparency International’s Kenya office. “Now, we have a relatively transparent formula for distributing to counties for specific functions.”

“But we still don’t know as much as we should about many other aspects of distribution,” Lakin continued. “For example, we still don’t really know how much it costs to run regional hospitals or how much we’re spending on them. But compared to pre-devolution, when we had no information about regional hospitals at all, we have a formula: county budgets.”

Lakin also expressed concern that the new constitution, for all of its progressive measures, could be considered “anti-urban.” Some public services have actually been moved to a higher level of government.

“In certain areas like trash, devolution had a counterintuitive effect — it raised rather than lowered the level of government,” Lakin said. “In that sense, county government is slightly further away from informal settlements than local authorities would have been.” Lakin cited other transitional problems, such as a dispute over which roads belong to counties and which ones belong to the national government.

Overall, however, Lakin said the devolution experiment has been a good thing for Kenya. “It’s been quite a bumpy ride … but there have also been some incredible successes and huge changes in learning in a short period of time,” he said. “We have a fairer and more transparent distribution of resources than we did a few years ago.”

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio
Vincent Ng’ethe writes about science, the environment and urban governance in Nairobi. He is a digital editor with the Daily Nation, editor of the Dot9 blog and sub-editor for Newsplex. Full bio

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