“Patches of Beauty” The Success of Kenya’s Devolution

When Kenya lost its focus on building an inclusive, common and homogeneous society with a common goal after independence, it landed into the marshy waters of tribal divisions (ethnicity) and a divided nation in all aspects of the social spectrum. Its result is “patches of beauty” dotting the generally beautiful country. Unfortunately, these patches were not evenly distributed with a large chunk of the country left behind in development due to uneven distribution of resources.

Devolution salvaged this situation and remains Kenya’s biggest gain from the country’s August 2010 constitution, which ushered in a new political and economic governance system. It is transformative and has promoted greater investments at the grassroots, strengthened accountability and public service delivery at local levels. Today, the mention of certain names is synonymous with devolution success just because of the transformation witnessed since 2013.

During the past Council of Governors Conference, the Council of Governors chairperson and Kakamega governor Wickliffe Oparanya described Devolution in Kenya as a “success story” singling improved health care across all the 47 counties.

Health, one of the fully devolved functions for county governments is a living proof that devolution is transforming Kenya. Another critical area that devolution has impacted is the creation of health man-power through the establishment of training institutions in collaboration with Kenya Medical Training College (KMTC). Currently, the institution has sixty-five campuses spread all over the country. As these institutions continue to offer support for the health facilities within their locality, the counties’ health sector is bright with the situation creating jobs, transforming the local economies as well as continually churning educated populace at the grass root level. Despite containable challenges, the health sector in Kenya has really improved more so by closing the distance one needs to cover to reach an equipped public health facility.

To say the least, the journey of devolution has been long and faced many hurdles. Among them, the ‘aborted’ devolution at the ‘embryonic’ stage soon after Kenya gained independence.

Fifty-six years on, Kenya finds itself on political crossroads as voices of aborting the second conception of devolution start getting louder.

Perhaps Kenyans should refresh her memory before we fall into the trap of making uninformed decisions and gauge the milestones we have achieved as a country in the last seven years of devolution vis-a-vis the over 40 years of centralized power.

The 1963 Constitution provided for a system of devolution now popularly referred to in Kenya as the ‘majimbo’ (regions). It established regions with elected assemblies and executive authority over roughly a third of government functions including health, education, agriculture, part of the police forces and local government.

However, the newly independent government sought to weaken devolution in three ways: by exercising much closer control over regional civil servants than the Constitution envisaged, by delaying implementation of provisions allowing regions to assume full responsibility for their own finances, and by delaying the transfer of functions to the regions.

The system was abolished in 1964 and replaced by provincial and district administrations. While local authorities continued to exist, their powers were assigned administratively rather than under constitutional authority.

Over the following two decades, the powers of local governments were gradually eroded. Although Sessional Paper 12 of 1967 included proposals to strengthen local government, the government reversed course with the Transfer of Functions Act in 1969, transferring many of local governments’ functions back to the center along with their main sources of local revenue, leaving local governments considerably weaker than before.

Following constitutional amendments in 1982 that concentrated power in the central government and president still further, the District Focus for Rural Development Program was introduced; this was a means of involving local people in the development and sharing resources more equitably. Ultimately, the program became a vehicle for presidential political patronage, undermined the role of local governments, and resulted in the little meaningful redistribution of economic development.

(1999-2010) This decade saw the introduction of devolved (geographically earmarked) funds in an attempt to address spatial inequality. The most notable were the Local Authority Transfer Fund, (LATF)-created through the LATF Act No 8 of 1998, the Road Maintenance Levy Fund, (RMLF)created through the Kenya Roads Act, 2007, the Rural Electrification Fund, created through the Energy Act of 2006 and the Constituency Development Fund, created through the CDF Act of 2003. Despite these piecemeal efforts to address inequality in resource distribution, political tensions remained high spilling over into the 2007 election crises and the subsequent unrest, which proved to be the tipping point leading to demands for a new Constitution.

The current era is of equal distribution of resources as set out in the constitution. In this setting, Kenyans have an opportunity to grow their local economies without depending on the national government to allocate them. The key enabler is the provision of public participation as the center of operations in the counties.

Going by public information on the counties that have fully appreciated public participation, it is evident that they have become the faces of devolution as their counties rank high in development performance. This begs the question of why the Political Voices are beginning to crack the airwaves as calls of reducing the counties take shape

Kenyans must understand that merging counties will take us back to where we have come from. It’s the game of power brokers with the agenda to cling into power as the calls require a referendum to haul the current constitutional settings. Just like the aborted devolution soon after independence, we will keep going the cycle and Kenya will remain undeveloped.

Several counties have taken the lead to showcase that devolution is working in the country. As the faces of devolution lead the way, the country is now dotted with new and modern patches of beauty. Every county stands out in a unique way and as the national government projects compliment those by the county governments, Kenya is on the path to a greater future.