As Kenyans continue to debate the 4th item of the national peacemaking agenda – how to resolve historical injustices of the past – we continue to ponder if the devolution of political and economic power to the lowest administrative levels could offer a lasting solution to the exclusion of marginalised communities. The national peacemaking agenda was drawn up to prevent the recurrence of the post-electoral violence that rocked Kenya earlier this year.   In countries where there is constant contestation for state power between the government and the people, genuine devolution of power has in many instances provided a panacea for resolving the conflict. In addition, devolution, as a foundation of good governance has become a reality of global norms and practices.  

House of Mumbi

In any part of the world where democratisation is not in tandem with devolved governance, democracy can only be synonymous with legitimising the elites’ accession to power.Many examples can be cited where perfect harmony  between democratisation and devolution has been registered. In the United States, Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland among others, devolution has been the driving force of social harmony and an engine for development. In Africa, despite the numerous ethnic communities with competing political and economic interests, South Africa, Rwanda and Uganda, among others, have appreciably implemented modern devolved systems of governance with ease. In all of these instances, positive aspects of ethnicity and pragmatic approaches to decentralisation have been recognised to contribute to stability and enhance human development. 

 In Kenya, the fundamental flaws in the devolution debate from those opposing devolved government is essentially two-fold: firstly, anti-devolution groups have deliberately concentrated on the labels of majimbo (Swahili for federalism) rather than the content, because of too much focus on the narrow ethnic interests rather than the interests of the broad masses of Kenyan society. Secondly, the anti-devolution crusaders have not taken cognisance of the fact that the current system of provincial administration was not subjected to the popular mandate but rather, was imposed on Kenyans undemocratically. By maintaining the adopted current centralised form of governance, the people of Kenya abdicated important responsibility to the government. The consequence was a glaring gap in governance, whose remedial measure is long overdue. When the current system of provincial administration was crafted, the overriding interests were those of the ruling elites, with the interests of the people sacrificed in lieu of elites’ control of state power through a tightly controlled administrative structure.

Pragmatic criteria of socio-economic development and vulnerability of the poor and marginalised were never issues for consideration. For instance, it defies logic when one looks at the rationale used to create the Eastern province which stretches all the way from Ethiopia to near the Tanzanian border with its provincial headquarters in Embu, far off from other key areas such as Dasnatch and El Molo -about 800 km away. Likewise the Rift Valley province was made to stretch all the way from Sudan to the Tanzanian border, with the headquarters in Nakuru, about 1000 km away from Toposa and Dongiro in Elemi Triangle. Poor road infrastructure makes it impossible to connect the public in these vast areas.  

The fallacy of the current system of provincial administration is that the administrative officials lack even the basic knowledge of the communities they purport to serve. An example from the pastoral and arid areas of Kenya gives a clear example of why this current system bears high risks to human security. First, most of the administrators are transferred to this harsh environment for disciplinary reasons. This is aggravated further by the standing order and code of ethics of the provincial administration, which bars the local community from participating in the institution charged with local security such as the District Security Committee (DSC) and the Provincial Security Committee (PSC). The locals are prevented from participating in the security meetings ostensibly as a measure to protect the ‘government’s secret’. Further, given the lack of accountability and transparency, these local administrators have often been accused of bias, and at best, incompetence in appreciating local conditions.   

Mt Kenya region

The very nature and structure of governance through the provincial administration is a semblance of colonial institutions. In a number of cases, local elders have drawn parallels between the districts and provincial administrators and the British colonial administrators. It is therefore very clear that the entire governance system in Kenya as currently constituted, has limited the opportunities and impacted on lives, livelihood and human security of the people. In these arid and peripheral zones, devolved governance is inter-alia anticipated to offer a final solution to the myriad of problems that have witnessed intractable conflicts and perennial instability and displacement. And as such, the call for the devolution of power creates hope and aspiration for the disenfranchised groups, which will eventually redress the neglect and unlock human potential.   

Kenya missed an important juncture to mitigate the shortcoming in governance during the advent of the multi-party political system. Both the proponent of political reforms and the regime did not embrace democracy comprehensively, thereby equating electioneering to democracy. Far away from Nairobi, many communities in Kenya often equate the period of general election as the ‘season of democracy’. This is because democracy in this part of the world is equated to a single event in five years whose principles and practice ends with the general election. And what is more disturbing is the perception about the provincial administration as an institution of government that implements democracy through tight administrative controls.

Kenyans have shown great enthusiasm towards greater participation in the government as reflected by the great debate at the Bomas. The spirit at the Bomas clearly indicated that the people of Kenya can articulate their problems and offer practical solutions. What crystallised out of the constitutional review process was the need to design a system that allows for a fine balance of ‘self rule’ at local level as well as ‘shared rule’ at national level. Through this approach, government powers are not only shared horizontally between executive, legislative, and judiciary; but also vertically between various levels of government. This will ultimately guide the spirit of Kenya as a common homeland, and attain the objective of combining unity and diversity.   

In this age of globalisation, therefore, where states have been busy pursuing international and regional interests, proactive decentralisation is actively becoming a norm. The move towards devolved governance is another juncture in Kenya’s political development whose sober approach will contribute to the great historical success. Whereas four decades of unresponsive governance is a lost opportunity in terms of development, the time is ripe for Kenyans to grapple with the unfinished business of allowing the people to choose a popular mode of governance regardless of the label.  

* by Mohamed A Guyo, ISS Research Associate and Dr Annie Barbara Chikwanha, AHSI, ISS Nairobi


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