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Kenya’s government 50 years after independence

By Justin Willis


Like many large and diverse countries, Kenya has long debated the value of introducing a form of devolved government. That debate seems to have come full circle. The majimbo, ‘regional’, constitution of 1963 was intended to devolve authority away from the centre. It lasted less than a year. By the time Kenya became a republic, one year after independence, the pattern of a centralized state, closely modelled on the administrative structures of colonialism, had been re-established. It endured, more or less unchanged, until 2013, when elections created the institutions of a new kind of devolved government, the design of which had received clear popular backing in the 2010 constitutional referendum. The major question facing Kenya now is very simple. Will this new system — with its 47 county governments (each with its own assembly and executive governor), bicameral parliament, and a cabinet of technocrats — deliver stable and accountable government?

The short answer will probably be: not straight away. This is partly because of some ambivalence at the very centre of the state. The Deputy President, William Ruto, had campaigned vigorously against the constitution at the time of the referendum. Though the President, Uhuru Kenyatta, has insisted that he is committed to implementing the new constitution fully — and has been very vocal and visible in this — there is evidently still a degree of scepticism among senior civil servants as to the wisdom of devolution, and the ability of county governments to take on the roles allotted to them.

But the new institutions face another, perhaps even more profound, problem. Since the early 1990s, there have been two distinct forces pushing the idea of devolution in Kenya. One has been a belief that local scrutiny will make government more transparent, and will reduce corruption. In short, that devolution might reduce the clientilist politics which had long revolved around the presidency. That in turn would allow a spreading of wealth and reduce the disaffection in marginalized areas which threatened the stability of the state. The other force has been the demand to create new, localized kinds of clientilism, with a strong ethnic and/or regional content. That demand has partly come from aspiring political leaders, who encourage ethnic sentiment, but it has also come partly from the public, doubtful whether the state can ever really be transparent and fair, who hope to benefit from more local patronage. These two forces were compatible in the campaign for devolution, but in the implementation of the constitution, an ethnicized politics of devolved patronage may well conflict with a liberal vision of accountable devolved authority. There is an uncomfortable possibility that some governors will become mini-me presidents, ruling over local fiefdoms, championing the claims of those ‘indigenous’ to their counties to ensure the support of an ethnic constituency.

MC3_2490, Kenya, Nairobi

The very extent of popular enthusiasm for the constitution may encourage this. The extremely high turnout in the March polls was partly a result of intense competition for the presidency. But it also reflected the hope of at least some voters that county governments would reward their local constituents with access to land, or with employment, or other kinds of patronage, and that they would favour ‘their’ people over other Kenyans. Expectations are high — unrealistically so, given the very limited resources which are available to county governments. The newspapers have been full of adverts from county governments hiring new staff and of stories of ambitious investment plans. Some counties have already raised property taxes to pay for these schemes; others have allotted land for ambitious investment schemes; others have instructed private employers to hire only ‘local’ people, though they have no power to enforce such orders. Where there are tensions over the presence of ‘outsiders’ on land — notably on the coast, or in the Rift Valley — county governments will come under pressure to support the interests of those who claim to be indigenous, although their power to do so legally will be very limited.

The demands of patronage politics are already complicating devolution. Many of those elected to the county assemblies in March have been on strike, demanding higher wages and benefits. While voters criticize the avarice of their representatives, they nonetheless expect them to be rich enough to offer financial support to those who seek their help. The strike has slowed down the work of county governments, and the improved terms now offered to assembly members will put additional strain on scarce resources.

None of this means that devolution is doomed, or was a bad idea. But it does mean that the 2010 constitution will not end Kenya’s long debate over where power should lie, and how best to ensure prosperity. County governments and national governments will test one another’s strength and resolve over a number of issues: most importantly, over the exact nature of counties’ power over land, and the control of revenue derived from mineral resources, or from major infrastructure, like Mombasa port. Governors and county assemblies also have yet to work out their relationships, which may be stormy. Most of all, county governments will have to manage the expectations of voters. Balancing the demands of an established political culture of clientilism with the aspiration to a devolved government which offers transparency and accountability will not be easy.

Justin Willis is a Professor of History at Durham University, UK. His work has been largely concerned with identity, authority and social change in eastern Africa over the last two hundred years. His co-authored article with George Gona, “Pwani C Kenya? Memory, documents and secessionist politics in coastal Kenya,” was recently included in the virtual issue on Kenya from African Affairs, and is available to read for free for a limited time.

African Affairs is published on behalf of the Royal African Society and is the top ranked journal in African Studies. It is an inter-disciplinary journal, with a focus on the politics and international relations of sub-Saharan Africa. It also includes sociology, anthropology, economics, and to the extent that articles inform debates on contemporary Africa, history, literature, art, music and more. Like African Affairs on Facebook.

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Image credit: Nairobi, Kenya: neo-classical facade of the City Hall – flags of Kenya and Nairobi – photo by M.Torres. © mtcurado via iStockphoto.

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