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Devolution, a poisoned chalice?


While devolution has been heralded as a panacea, in its current iteration and given the prevailing political realities, as well as hard wired ethnic politics, devolution could end up triggering violence. 

Devolution of power and resources is arguably one of the most transformative aspects of the 2010 constitution. However, the debate about devolution is not new. In post-independence Kenya, the concept has evolved through three broad phases, and in each the debate was driven by prevailing political expediency rather than better service delivery to the citizens in the peripheries.

 The first phase of the devolution debates was during negotiations over self-rule and later independence, when KANU and KADU worked together. After independence cooperation ended because of ideological competition over how state power was organised; KANU which represented the interests of large ethnic groups, desired a strong central state, while KADU favoured a devolved system where power and resources were transferred to local institutions.

KANU’s argument was that devolution will lead to balkanisation. KADU on the other hand argued that centralisations of power and resources in Nairobi will lead to an authoritarian state. Majimboism (devolution in Swahili) was also advocated by outgoing European administrators who supported KADU as colonial loyalists who opposed the Mau Mau rebellion. The alliance with KADU and majimboism allowed the outgoing British government to “cloak the protection of European political interests behind the ‘legitimate’ fears of African minorities”. In the end KANU and Kenyatta got their way, and Kenya became a unitary centralised state. After that Kenyatta moved with speed to consolidate power, and end the devolution debate, and in effect concentrated all resources in Nairobi at the expense of other parts of the country.

The second devolution debate started during the struggle to introduce multi party politics. The most visible groups advocating for majimboism were MPs and leaders closer to the ruling party KANU, who vociferously opposed multiparty – and incidentally most had started their political careers in KADU. They were afraid multi party politics would cost them lose their seats, in that regard majimbo was an easy route to whipping up ethnic support against the opposition candidates, largely supported by “foreigners” especially in Rift Valley and coast province. To them majimbo would help establish ethnic constituencies, and their main message was everyone should go back to their historic homelands. These sentiments resonated with the people living at the coast and the Rift Valley, who complained that their districts and constituencies had been invaded by people from elsewhere, mostly Kikuyus and Luo’s.  This whipping up of ethnic animosity using historic grievances inaugurated the era of a state engineered ethnic political violence, especially in the Rift Valley and Coast province, which has since then become a permanent feature of Kenya’s electoral cycle

The third and the final phase began with the establishment of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC). The CKRC’s primary mandate was a comprehensive review of the constitution. It was also mandated to provide civic education, seek public input and prepare a draft constitution for consideration by an enlarged National Constitutional Conference (NCC). The NCC, referred to as the Bomas, comprised all parliamentarians, 42 political party representatives, 3 delegates from each district, as well as 125 representatives of religious groups, women’s groups, youth groups, the disabled, trade unions and NGOs. The process was derailed by deep politicization and disagreements among the stakeholders, resulting in the rejection of the Commission’s draft constitution in the constitutional referendum of 2005. The draft however, deeply entrenched the principles and values of devolution.

The 2009 constitutional process was a sequel to the 2000-2004 process. The rejection of the draft constitution in 2005 meant that the 1963 constitution (as amended) remained the basic law. The Kofi Annan-brokered power sharing deal that ended the 2007-8 political violence also provided for constitutional reforms. The 2008 Constitution of Kenya Review Act  established a Committee of Experts  that produced a highly devolved draft constitution.

Traditionally, most districts were largely formed along ethnic lines, and one ethnic group traditionally holds most elected posts by virtue of their numbers. However, this ethnic homogeneity has been altered by the establishment of larger counties. This raised a storm from citizens and their representative who felt that they were given a raw deal, by joining them with districts and constituencies that they have nothing in common or separating them from traditional communities, and illustrates the emotional attachment that communities had to their “homeland”. Newly minority communities will not easily accept their new status and the likely loss of political power. This has happened in many counties, and some recent studies have classified as many as 27 of 47 counties as at risk of conflict.

With presidential candidates required to win in at least half of all counties, they will become focal points of the national election. This means corruption, ethnic violence, patronage, and many other ills that have plagued the national politics will be decentralised to the local level. This will open up new fault lines, heavily influenced by national level ethnic alliances.

 Previously calm regions may now experience violence. For example, violence in Isiolo district in northern Kenya has been attributed to the changing electoral realities, where some communities fear losing political dominance. Even in ethnically homogeneous counties, the clan factor could play a major role in sharing elective posts. Local politicians have historically used tactics such as inciting one clan against each other to facilitate migration of particular ethnic groups to their constituency in order to increase their vote base.

One of the often mentioned benefit of devolution is it will lead to a better service delivery, and economic equality. However, devolution in its current iteration is extremely ambitious in scope and speed, which if not skilfully implemented could disappoint on both fronts. Because of massive inequality, most citizens have placed tremendous hope in devolution to reverse economic equality and lead to proper service delivery, yet ,  paradoxically, the counties that will end up benefiting most from devolution are economically well endowed. Additionally, the equalisation fund is a minuscule 1 % which will not be enough to bridge the gap. Failure to meet citizens’ expectations, which in some cases is inevitable, will led to a massive disappointment. Expectations need to be managed through a better public information, and civic education.

Good relations between the central and local governments will be critical if the true benefits of devolution were to be realised. The struggle between proponents of the central and devolved state continued. Some, largely drawn from the people opposed to the new order, are arguing that regardless of the autonomy accorded to local governments by the constitution, the central government will maintain financial control, because most counties do not have the requisite financial and human capacity. This will negate both the spirit and letter of devolution. They are also arguing to retain the provincial administration. This stand off has seen the delay of the three bills that will operationalise devolution.The outcome of this will determine which form devolution will take.

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3 thoughts on “Devolution, a poisoned chalice?

  1. Pingback: ISIOLO COUNTY ELECTED LEADERS | ciameru

  2. Pingback: Should Political Parties Be Banned In Kenya ? | Letter From Kenya

  3. Pingback: Real Devolution Comes With A Challenge To Perform | RealTalkWithEric

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