Is Someone Trying To Kill Devolution?

I am one of those who insist that Kenyans did not choose to adopt a devolved system of government because they had thought it through rationally, weighed all the options at hand, before deciding on it as the most efficient and desirable governance system given our circumstances. Rather, decades of centralised, ethnicised, authoritarian, corrupt, deeply discriminatory and unequal development as a result of the national government policies favouring Nairobi and the elites that dominate it, forced the hand of the majority who voted for it.

The attitude was, “We’ve tried everything else –political pluralism, successful agitation for basic freedoms and rights etc – and those who have controlled the center of power in Nairobi since independence continue to make off with a hugely disproportionate chunk of national cake.” On the ground, this developed into a powerful narrative that has in turn been ethnicised and politicised to the extent that it has helped define the outcome of elections in the multi-party era; the only policy pillar that stood out in ODM’s 2007 campaign, for example, was ugatuzi.

As a slogan, this was read by many Kenyans as essentially a political instrument to correct ethnic discrimination in development, especially as regards access to justice and economic opportunity. Devolution remains, in effect, the biggest rungu in the arsenal of those communities who aren’t, and probably will never be, part of the so-called “tyranny of numbers”.

A similar underlying rationale informed the ‘District Focus for Rural Development’ initiative of the Moi administration that kicked off in October 1982. In essence, this was in actual fact Kenya’s first real attempt at an affirmative action programme to more equitably distribute resources and opportunities to parts of the country that had historically been economically and politically marginalized. However, a mixture of incompetence, graft and the politics of patronage scuttled the potential of the initiative.

Devolution: Development you ca touch and feel
It is thus that devolution – ugatuzi, majimbo, call it what you will – was embraced with such enthusiasm by Kenyans, especially those from historically marginalised areas. Despite its many teething problems as it kicks off, devolution continues to enjoy considerable public support across the country. This is in part because for some counties, the resources being directed at them under our new devolved system constitute the largest investment by Kenya in the development of these regions since independence.

In fact, some governors insist that even one year’s allocation under the devolved system is more than the national government has invested in their regions in all the years since independence put together. So devolution, no matter how imperfectly, is seen by huge constituencies as the policy that has a greater chance than any ever proposed before to address what is actually Kenya’s most explosive crisis: economic inequality that is regionalised, politicised, ethnicised and, sometimes, even militarised.

Secondly, while complaints and accusations of corruption, nepotism, incompetence and profligacy do abound with regard to the roll-out of devolution, many Kenyans can touch, feel and see real ‘development’ starkly and very directly for the first time. ‘Development’, warts and all, has never been more real for them: resources are being spent on the ground where they are, and not in the secluded preserves only benefitting the elite.

Finally, while the media has been replete with stories about abuses on the ground, we now have local county elites winning contracts at the grassroots and comprising a powerful constituency with a very high stake in the continuation and success of the devolution process.

Welcome to the age of oligarchs
The political instincts of the Nairobi elite have always been to centralise. This makes it easier to ‘eat’ and also punish regions that didn’t vote for you by denying them development resources.

The model that we have decentralised away from has created an entire class of what can now be best-described as oligarchs. These are individuals, families or groups of individuals who may not only dominate entire sections of the economy but may also have widely diversified portfolios of a size and a product of relationships with the political class that effectively puts them above the law and can manipulate the economy at the macro level.

Their portfolio must include interests in banking. Importantly as well, they have legally or illicitly bought into mainstream media. For the oligarchs, devolution is an anathema. Economically too, it is far easier to manage a centralised system. Even sympathetic experts on the economic front fear that Kenya has devolved without the on-the-ground capacity to make it work. What is clear, though, is that for wananchi, despite the challenges, the devolution project is one they are ready to give time to settle.

Making the counties look like Bantustans
However, over the past couple of months, it has become clear that there is very possibly a well-orchestrated effort to ‘make devolution look bad’. Much truck is given to the excesses and conspicuous consumption of governors; the clashes between elected officials and the still-in-place provincial administration, and the determined efforts of locally elected officials to extract as many goodies and allowances as they can from a ‘disciplined and reluctant’ centre.

In other words, the perception is that most of the news coming out of the counties is bad. At the very least, it feeds into the kind of narrative that says, “Kenya wasn’t ready for devolution, it’s too expensive, it’s dividing the nation still further along ethnic lines and so on”. Some argue that the devolved units essentially constitutionalise the tribal Bantustans, the most intellectually dishonest and divisive proponents of majimbo spewed. Furthermore, the counties are painted as ineffective in providing badly needed services to citizens.

Hence, when violence struck Marsabit County last year, the government at one point even threatened to take over the running of its affairs arguing that the local leadership had lost control over security, despite the fact that national security is under the central government’s purview. The conspicuous consumption of county officials and rash of questionable procurements of course has not helped; but then, the national government has scarcely provided a better example.

The Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) has made it clear severally that it shall be looking into the flood of corruption allegations coming out of the counties. Recent media reports indicated that 20 governors are under investigation for corruption.

The wage bill bogey
While corruption investigations will undermine the legitimacy of a host of county officials the issue of whether or not Kenya can afford devolution at all is more existential. In the past weeks, the government has appeared to be in the grip of something akin to hysteria about the wages paid to the country’s roughly 680,000 public servants.

The issue is so serious that for the first time in the country’s history the government held a ‘National Debate on Public Wage Bill Sustainability’ on March 10 that was graced by no less a personage than the President. In the financial year 2012/3 wages and allowances to the public sector stood at 465 billion and in 2013/4 are estimated to reach Sh522 billion. The argument, simply put, is that this wage bill, that continues to grow, risks scuttling the administration’s ambitious development agenda.

The phrases most commonly associated with discussions of it in the public sphere portend doom: ‘impending crisis’, ‘out of control’, ‘looming disaster’ etc. The data the government presented at the conference on March 10 indicated that the crisis was such that in the financial year 2013/4 public sector wages would be equivalent to 13 percent of GDP; 51 percent of government expenditure; 29 percent of all recurrent expenditure; and, 35 percent of total public expenditure.

The wage bill as a percentage of GDP had risen from 11 percent in 2008/9, to 11.4 percent in 2009/10, 11.3 percent in 2010/11 and 13 percent in 2012/13. The sheer size of the national wage bill that is now such a crisis that the President and his cabinet announced a substantial pay cut of their own salaries -and ordered all parastatal bosses to follow suit – or face the sack.

The spike in 2012/2013 – A typographical error?
The jump of our public wage bill from 11.3 percent of GDP in 2010/1 to 13 percent in 2012/3 is most curious and difficult to explain. Indeed, the government’s own figures are contradictory in this regard; they imply a US$800,000,000 jump in the scale of the wage bill while the number of public servants, according to state statistics, rose by only 27,305 between 2012 and 2013.

The number of additional personnel is pretty average given past history; the alleged meteoric wage increase seems an anomaly, even if devolution doubled the figure of personnel hired within the three months following the transition. This spike could be a typographical error, but that would indeed be curious given the attention that has been devoted to it. Put simply, if our public sector wage bill is indeed as reflected by official government statistics, there is no crisis.

So perhaps the cynics who argue that there is more to the story can be forgiven for wondering if the excitement around the wage crisis is part of a well-orchestrated strategy to garner political will to reduce the number of counties to a ‘more manageable’ number. Ours is a low-trust situation where political polarisation is at a premium and the government struggles with perceptions of illegitimacy in large parts of the country, especially where the promises and stated intentions of leaders are concerned.

Perhaps the only situation where the political fall-out would be greater than that caused by the growing perception that the national government is out to kill devolution altogether, is if it turned out that the financial crisis is actually the result of our having to come up with the down payment to finance the Standard Gauge Railway, whose cost, from Nairobi to Mombasa, will cost a whopping 10 percent of our national GDP.

Originally published on The Star

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