Why development is the best way to win elections

A vendor fetches water from a pond for sale in Kano, Kisumu. Some counties, like Kisumu and Mombasa, appear to have earmarked very little money for development. FILE PHOTO |

What you need to know:

  • Providing community development has been one of the most effective ways of winning sub-national polls in Kenya for over 50 years writes Nic Cheeseman.

County governments have been criticised for not doing enough to protect development expenditure.

Many county leaders appear to believe that increasing their personal status and wealth is the best way to securing re-election.

This is a mistake. Providing community development has been one of the most effective ways to win sub-national polls in Kenya for over 50 years.

Devolution and development

Columnist Mutuma Mathiu recently wrote an excellent piece in the Daily Nation titled: “Any governor who fails to spend on development should not be re-elected”.

In it, he noted some of the worrying trends in county expenditure.

It seems that only 10 counties — Wajir, Turkana, Bomet, Machakos, Murang’a, Homa Bay, West Pokot, Trans Nzoia, Kisii and Nyamira — are spending more than 30 per cent of their budgets on development.

Even if some development funds are being spent in other ways, this is a worrying figure.

Worse still, some counties appear to have earmarked very little money for development.

The worst performers include some opposition strongholds: Kisumu and Mombasa.

Again, it may be the case that some of these counties are spending funds on development related activities that do not show up as such in their accounts.

But it is disappointing that some opposition figures who demanded devolution to kick-start development in their regions are not performing better.

Complaints by Cord leaders and governors that the central government is “underdeveloping” their regions may have hit home in the past, but they will fall on deaf ears unless this pattern changes.

The overall figures are also very worrying.

The recent report of the Office of the Controller of Budget found that personal emoluments accounted for 55 per cent of total county level expenditure, while operations and maintenance took up 28 per cent.

Some of this expenditure is necessary — salaries comprise a major part of the expenditure of any government, and maintenance is often necessary.

But some of the other information in the report is less easy to stomach, such as the Sh473 million spent on sitting allowances for Members of County Assemblies, the Sh4.9 billion that went on local and foreign travel, and the Sh241.9 million on conferences and hospitality.

This pattern has not gone unnoticed domestically and internationally.

It was recently reported that the frequency and size of county delegations to other African and European states on “fact finding” missions had led to eight countries, including the United States and Rwanda, taking the unusual step of requesting the Kenyan government to block any further delegations on the basis that they are “not of any value to our bilateral relationship”.

The recent delegation of the IMF, led by African Department assistant director Mauro Mecagni, came to a similar conclusion, questioning the spending priorities of county governments.

It is easy to understand why so many Kenyan politicians have been keen to go on trips and to secure access to resources. Higher salaries and perks enable those in power to reward their supporters and so consolidate their hold on public office.

At the same time, events that increase their status make it easier for county senators and governors to broadcast power, and to create a role for themselves within the national political system.

Both are advantageous when it comes to seeking re-election. But such strategies may be short-sighted.

The number one electoral currency in Kenyan elections over the past 50 years has not been ethnicity, or status, or wealth, but development.

Why not ethnicity? Because in many elections, a number of candidates from the same ethnic group will compete for the same position.

This means that voters have to decide who to vote for on some other criteria, such as their level of performance.

Of course, this does not mean that ethnicity is not important, just that it is not enough.

And why not status or wealth?

Because status and wealth only go so far.

It is true that Kenyan voters have been very keen to line-up behind individuals who appear to have the right background to improve the lives of their peoples.

In the words of scholar Joel Barkan, voters have tended to demand that their representatives perform “linkage” functions, above all else.

“Linkage” here refers to actions that connect the community to sources of political and economic influence in Nairobi.

In a survey conducted in the 1970s, Barkan asked Kenyans what they most wanted their MPs to do.

The three most common answers were: MPs should visit the district frequently (11 per cent), obtain projects and benefits for the district (25 per cent), and tell the government what people in the district want (29 per cent).

Surveys in the past five years have found similar results.

In their search for representatives that could “obtain projects and benefits for the district”, Kenyan voters began to choose businessmen and senior civil servants over teachers and traditional leaders.

As a result, the complexion of the National Assembly changed radically in the first 10 years of independence.

But those elected to parliament soon came to realise that their wealth and status was not enough to keep them in power.

Instead, those MPs who failed to meet the demands of their constituencies and visit their home area were frequently rejected at the ballot box.

Although the one-party state restricted competition at the national level, polls at the constituency level remained competitive, with around 50 per cent of MPs losing office every election.

One of the political realities that MPs quickly came to terms with was that the worst thing an aspiring political leader could do was to fail to meet local expectations.

But this was problematic, because expectations were often unfeasibly high. This meant that wealth and status could be a burden.

Take assistant ministers. Those appointed to this position were often thrilled to have moved up the legislative pecking order.

But many soon came to see their new roles as a poisoned chalice, because it increased the expectations of their constituents, while giving them no new powers to be able to deliver development.

As a result, assistant ministers were particularly vulnerable to defeat, with over 60 per cent losing office in polls.

The development dividend

The one thing that MPs could typically rely on to get re-elected was, therefore, not simply ethnicity, wealth, or status, but development.

Providing a school or a hospital, and helping to coordinate development activities in a particular area, often carried much more weight than handing out small amounts of money around election time.

For one thing, it represented a much larger and more durable contribution to the people. For another, it demonstrated that the MP had not just gone to Nairobi and “eaten”.

But where does the obsession with development come from? The connection was made even before the end of colonial rule, with Jomo Kenyatta’s call to “harambee”.

Kenyatta wanted citizens to pull together to build a state, and people to build local services.

Shortly after independence, he made it clear how development was to be achieved: it was not to be the responsibility of the local state but of people themselves.

Under the harambee system, if people got together to build schools or clinics, the government committed itself to provide teachers and nurses.

However, people were not simply left to their own devices. Kenyatta made it very clear that MPs were the agents of local development, and that people who were frustrated with the rate of progress should complain not to him, but to their own representatives.

This was a very smart move, because it deflected pressure for provision of services away from the central government.

In turn, the connection between development, MPs and elections rapidly captured public imagination.

Early studies on one-party elections in Kenya and Tanzania came to the conclusion that competition between MPs did not revolve around their position on national issues but was inherently localised.

By the 1970s, the centrality of development to local political competition was so great that it became common to speak of elections as referenda on development.

The implications of this trend were not lost on Kenyan politicians. Figures such as J.M Kariuki built strong followings by making large harambee contributions across the country, and demonstrating a willingness to promote development.

When Daniel arap Moi was attempting to hold onto power in the early 1990s, the ruling party spent a considerable amount of money on various strategies such as vote buying, but far more on making contributions to harambee projects.

This was one of the reasons Kanu did not lose more seats in the 1992 polls, when Moi garnered just 36 per cent of the vote.

Winning and holding on to power

The connection between development activities and popular support for political leaders is as strong today as it was in the 1980s.

A number of the country’s more effective political operators are well aware of this, and have responded accordingly.

It is this knowledge that underpins the strategy that Governor Alfred Mutua has followed in Machakos County, and it is the reason that Senator Mike Sonko sought to get one over Governor Evans Kidero by launching the Sonko Rescue Team of breakdown trucks and ambulances in Nairobi.

Mutua and Sonko have both realised that it is far easier to win power than it is to hold on to power.

When running for senator or governor in 2013, candidates could make great promises of what they would accomplish, safe in the knowledge that they had no record in office that their constituents could evaluate them against.

It will be very different at the next election, when the development performance of the winners in 2013 will be clear for all to see.

We are likely to see a high number of incumbents losing their seats: 50 per cent if we go by history.

Governors who fail to provide development are in for a rude awakening come 2017.

Dr Nic Cheeseman teaches African politics at Oxford University and is the founder of www.democracyinafrica.org