Devolution, theoretically, means power to the people at the grassroots. In practice, however, I think devolution is taken to simply mean power to autonomous or semi-autonomous local units of government. Does power to semi-autonomous local units of government mean power to the people at the grassroots? This is a debatable issue.
Is devolution in Kenya working? Absolutely, in so far as resources and autonomous decision making power has been granted to local units of government. Devolution is working because places like Bungoma County have a guaranteed national allocation of at least 5.5billion Kshs every financial year. With such like money going to local units of government across the country, definitely there is a change. What kind of change?  Definitely, such money to the extent it is appropriated and used in the local units of government is bound to unlock potential in the local economies. We trust that whoever is accessing and using the resources does spend in the local business enterprises thus unlocking local business potential. We can also hope that those accessing the resources are investment minded and will invest in the local economy. Through investment and direct expenditure on welfare programs, we trust that devolution works for the locals in the counties.
A visit to our counties and it is clear that devolution is working. The only question is, for whom and in what way. Power to the people, I suspect, was interpreted to mean taking central government tyranny and dysfunction to the grassroots. The agitation for devolution was premised on idea that national leaders had consolidated and concentrated power such that developmental processes depended on their whims, preferences, affiliations and desires. It was thus thought that through devolution, the ordinary citizens would be the center and driver of development. In practice, however, it seems we just replicated central government system bureaucracy at the grassroots.
Who has the power?
Devolution in Kenya, as practiced, has nothing to do with power to the people. It has everything to do with power to semi-autonomous local units of government. There are new powerful elites at the grassroots. It now is common to find oneself in a traffic jam in our local towns. Often the cause of the traffic jam is a convoy of vehicles with police escorts and sirens blaring announcing the passing by of the powerful: the governor. These small presidents now wield immense power at the grassroots. Those around them are not left behind. At the grassroots, the number of people owning SUVs has dramatically increased. There are the county executive members, members of county assembly, county chief officers and the many power brokers that are now reeking with enough millions. Considering the level of poverty at the grassroots, these people with newly found wealth enjoy enormous privilege, power and influence.
Devolution was supposed to enhance people participation in governance. Yes, locals are participating more in governance issues. The only questions is, which locals and how? Just like at national level where for power is well guarded by cartels, the same applies to on-goings in the county governments. The well connected and powerbrokers have taken advantage of every participation clause in the constitution. There are all sorts of taskforces formed and all sorts of forums organized for citizens’ participation. However, who participates in such forums? Who is invited to such forums? Who sets the agenda? Who represents whom in such forums? Scrutiny reveals that participatory forums have been reduced to membership clubs. The participation of locals, who are not members of the elite clubs, is nearly non-existent.
The Vision
There is nothing wrong with emergency of local elites. Development in any place is dependent on emergency of local capitalists or a political class that strongly believes in the social transformation agenda. For a developmental county to emerge there is need for the right kind of leadership. Such leaders have to believe in a given vision strongly enough to be ready to die for its realization. The vision has to be compelling enough and realistic enough that when sold to the public, they easily hook in and own it. Local elite is emerging, considering the many young millionaires in our counties, but do they have a vision for the county?
When you ask for the vision of our counties, people will quickly point you to the county integrated development plans (CIDPs). That is great, it is good that our counties have five-year plans that they are following. However, can the holistic social transformation agenda be equated or fully captured in five-year plans? The inclusive growth and social transformation agenda is big, broad and more challenging than a mere five-year blue print. Do the local elites, starting with the governor, Senator, MPs, CECs, MCAs and local power brokers have any clear vision of where they want their counties to be 20years down the line?
All CIDPs are supposed to be aligned to vision 2030. However, when you look at most CIDPs, all they do is allude to the vision 2030. There is no concerted effort to think about local circumstances and chart a developmental path that would lead to socio-economic transformation based on local circumstances. I considered the Bungoma CIDP and wondered, what would Bungoma be in the middle-income economy by the year 2030? In what will Bungoma stand out? Will it be a county of 20% millionaires and 80% slum dwellers considering subdivision of land and increasing poverty levels? Considering the culture of the residents, is there anything the county government could do, anchoring on our people’s life styles that would lead to a better tomorrow.
The Strategies and Projects
In most CIDPs, various projects have been cobbled up in several sectors. It would appear that the crafters of the CIDPs were in a hurry, did not think hard enough about local conditions or just developed the blue prints as part of fulfilling a legal requirement. For a county like Bungoma, several projects were mentioned without considering strategic synergy between the projects and aligning the projects to a comprehensive vision.
For instance, when Bungoma county government talks of reviving Kitinda, Pan Paper, starting a tannery, starting a chicken slaughterhouse etc, one is left wondering whether such propositions were based on conclusive considerations. First, are proposed projects like reviving industries purely county government mandates or are they national projects? Secondly, are the projects demand driven; are they market driven? Then what strategic advantage does the county have engaging in the said project? What is the opportunity cost?
Let me take one example to illustrate my thinking. Bungoma County proposes to start a chicken slaughterhouse. One wonders, what is the state of poultry farming in Bungoma to guarantee success of a chicken slaughterhouse? Where will the slaughtered chicken be sold? Considering transport costs and economies of scale, can such a slaughterhouse compete with supply from farmers in Kiambu or Murang’a in supplying Nairobi? Isn’t such a project best handled by local private sector based on demand? Finally, between investing in slaughterhouses, tanneries, milk coolers etc and investing in infrastructure for BPO harnessing, what would pay off for the county considering its youthful and relatively well-educated population. If agriculture is our mainstay, which agricultural produce would yield us competitively? Does the county have enough milk supply to warrant projects like milk coolers or revival of Kitinda? How does all this fit into the vision for the county? Considering Limited resources, would the county not achieve more through channeling its resources to facilitating private sector investment?
The People
Most counties are off on a wrong start because of lack of capacity or lack of innovation and creativity. The governors did not read much into the clamor for professionals that dictated desire to have non-politicians as Cabinet secretaries at the national level. While county executives are political appointees, governors needed to know that CECs are the people who would define their achievement of their manifestos. In most counties, CECs are silent and somehow seem non-existent because the task before them was enormous but most of them do not know how to step up. The hiring of chief officers, unfortunately, in most counties, was also influenced by political patronage. Coupled by lack of a general compelling vision that drives the CECs and COs in the counties, the governors have to personally step up or find the going rough.
One of the things that most counties complain about is the number of employees inherited from defunct local government units. The wage bill at the county level just like at the national level is humongous. A visit to the county offices and one would be amused. There are so many employees in each office. The fact that there are many people employed by the county government should be a positive as long as they can be put to good use. Do the CECs and Chief Officers have capacity to put the huge numbers of employees under them to good use in production?
Considering the Citizenry, there are many hardworking citizens across the counties. For instance, youths are considered a problem in most counties because of their numbers and lack of employment opportunities for them. This issue takes us back to the strategies, policies and projects. Are projects in the counties reactionary or proactive? Are they copy paste ideas or innovations based on evidence? Proactive strategies or projects are production based. This means, the projects facilitate and incentivize productivity in the production of goods and services. Considering the amount of skilled, semi-skilled and non-skilled labour in the counties, how are county projects utilizing this capacity to enhance production in the county? Do the county officials know where maximum returns can be realized if proper incentives are provided? Should we be creating loans for youths or should we be starting projects that youths can buy into and run away with innovatively? Rather than ask youths to form groups of 15 to access a loan of 50%, knowing very well how running a group business is difficult, why can’t the money be released through projects that individuals can buy into e.g. dairy farming, horticulture farming, Jua Kali centres (established and managed by county government agencies).
The Culture
The relations between the people and the government have been, for long, patronage driven. Consequently, our leaders believe handouts are enough to pacify our people and the people believe the best they can get from government officials is handouts, freebies and favors. County governments have to be at the forefront of a culture debate or dialogue. There is need to engage people in a way that they begin to see government as partner, facilitator and finally as personal responsibility (we are government). For this to happen, there has to be room and deliberate effort to cultivate contestation in public policy making and implementation at the grassroots.
The MCAs are the starting point in the culture shift. How do this leaders view themselves? Do they have a high self-image of entitlement? How do they interpret their role and place in society? County employees equally ought to be facilitating the transformation in relations between government and the public. The culture of master vs. subject that has its roots in colonialism and was perpetuated through provincial administration system of local governance ought to have been addressed through a culture shift.
The unfortunate reality is that our governors did not invest much in getting the right work ethos and cultural orientation in the county government offices. A visit to most county offices would reveal that most county employees only care about money going into their pockets. There is a frenzy in the counties and people are very busy in county offices. A little observation and you realize they are all engaged in either this scheme or that to spend money and none is concerned about production or revenue generation. The man-eat-man culture, which Julius Nyerere decried about the Kenya that was emerging under Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, is now thriving at the county level. Everyone has fangs and claws poised to strike and take a bite. Those who cannot eat from county government coffers eat directly from the public, through corruption.
There is an ‘I do not care’ attitude among county government employees and they seem not to appreciate the honor of serving in a public office. Focus is not on service delivery but rather on self-enrichment and self-gratification. The value system is wanting, as none seems committed to ideals of public service. It is important for governors to crack the whip and firmly show the way.
The Structure
Most county governments find themselves cash strapped because of a bloated structure. Devolution, interpreted as power to the people, is not about having officers all over. It is about strengthening social networks and empowering those social networks to engage in governance issues. There are just too many government officers at the grassroots who have minimal contribution. The MCAs represent a ward and thus the need for a ward administrator and chief is a replication that does not serve anybody. Devolution would have worked better if rather than all the elaborate bureaucratic structures the social networks created by the people were used as contact points between the lean county government and the people.
The Processes/ Project Execution
Given the control over processes by power brokers and local elites, processes in the counties are not people driven. Consequently, the ordinary citizens are mere bystanders in a system where they ought to be the key stakeholder. Tight control of processes by politicians, power brokers and other local elite has led to patronage rather than meritocracy being entrenched in the counties. Tenders are awarded through patronage schemes and unless one breaks into certain circles, they cannot benefit from county governments. In most cases to be part of such inner circles, you have to exhibit sycophancy rather than critical thinking. Exhibiting a critical orientation is interpreted as lack of loyalty or outright opposition to the leader. Sycophancy only works when all you care about is self-interest. It does not matter what happens around you as long as the processes serve your personal selfish interests. Yes, in a capitalist system, individuals need to know how to influence and get their selfish interests met by others. Personal accumulation requires that you take care of your personal interests. However, increasingly, many people realize that unless the neighborhoods develop, riches in such poor neighborhoods are a curse due to conflicts and crime.
The patronage system does not allow for critical consideration and focus on long term social transformation agenda. People are looking for quick fixes and awards. Who is interested in engaging in a long-term project that will pay dividends later? Who among the power brokers want to discuss a deal, where they can build a road or a bridge and be allowed to collect some toll over some period? Who of the entitled wants to be awarded the opportunity to renovate a stadium and regain money through managing the stadium? None is interested in long term deals. They want quick money generated in the most frivolous means possible. Those awarded tenders to provide services do shoddy jobs. Slowly the masses get agitated. In 2015, most governors will be engaged in firefighting. However, with a wrong system, wrong people around them, sick culture, rigid structure and jilted processes, not much may be done.


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