How Kenyans are benefiting from certain unintended consequences of devolution

The devolved system of government in Kenya will be one year old in about two months’ time.

There are several lessons to be learnt from the last 10 months from its inception that enable one to discuss its future.

One of these lessons is that support for devolution is growing even in areas that initially opposed the 2010 Constitution. Even those who preferred a centralised government and fought devolution throughout 2012 have now recognised and embraced the fact that devolution is here to stay.

However, devolution has travelled a tortuous journey. From the early 1990s to the constitutional referendum of 2005, public leaders increasingly associated devolution with majimbo.

This term polarised Kenyans and aroused animosity between communities supportive of majimbo and those opposed to it. Political leaders and even religious leaders often issued misleading and generally alarming statements about devolution. Critics and supporters, however, agreed that a centralised system was not accountable.

People were generally opposed to the centre because they had seen how the central government made policies that did not reflect the reality on the ground. They had seen the central government victimise and discriminate against people who did not support the regime in power.

Communities would be denied access to basic services because their leaders had fallen out of favour or because they did not support the regime. There was a particular by-election in the 1990s in which the government ordered electricity poles to be erected in an entire constituency to entice voters to support a ruling party candidate.

When the people voted against the candidate, government workers began carrying away the poles before the vote count had even been completed.

There has been a belief that the central government tended to favour those from the President’s community while others are discriminated. These concerns crystallised into demands for devolution.
The demand for devolution came from below.

A significant milestone can be traced from the days of the Yash Pal Ghai-led Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC), where people used to ask for devolution because they wanted equitable distribution of resources. They wanted to feel “included” whether they came from the community of the President or from outside.

Devolution of government is meant to address the grievances of marginalisation and exclusion. The objects of devolution of government indeed include promoting accountable exercise of power; and recognising the right of communities to manage their own affairs and to further their own development.

The communities, organised into counties, have themselves to blame if they do not further their own development.

Devolution of government is simply meant to correct historical wrongs and injustices that have contributed to imbalances in development as well as weakened the sense of nationalism. Indeed, the unconditional grants of 15 per cent of the national revenue together with equalisation fund are aimed at addressing this aspect of politics of development.

First, it is slowly de-ethnicising development

A close view of what is happening reveals that devolution is having certain important unintended consequences. First, it is slowly de-ethnicising development. Attention to development is shifting away from the national government to the county governments.

People are increasingly concerned about what their governors and their county governments are doing. Discussions are no longer about whether the communities from which the President and his Deputy come from are getting more development than others.

The people concerned about ethnic and regional politics are elites in Nairobi. They are concerned about who has eaten from which contract or who has got what job because of being connected to whom. Ordinary Kenyans are debating the challenges of development and whether the governor is able to deliver.

They are debating whether the projects initiated are good or not in relation to their development challenges.

Secondly, devolution of government is creating opportunities for balanced development. Counties are creating local opportunities for redistribution within the counties. In addition, urban centres in the different counties are attracting local investments of one kind or another.

Thirdly and most important, devolution is promoting a new sense of nationalism. While imbalances and inequities in development weakened the sense of nationalism, especially among those neglected by the centre, the devolved system of government is giving such communities a new sense of hope in belonging to Kenya.

Prof Kanyinga teaches at the Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi [email protected]

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