The future of devolution is at a crossroads. Dwindling funding, repeated attempts by the national government to take over key functions and now an impending constitutional referendum places the transformative ambition of our 47 county governments at risk. The risks to devolution are also internal as Justice Mumbi Ngugi’s ruling against Samburu County Governor Moses Lenolkulal reminded us this Wednesday.
Article 174 of our constitution frames nine objectives of devolved government. Promoting democratic and accountable local government, people’s participation in self-governance, the rights of minorities and marginalised communities and accessible services are among them. Devolution is a also key pillar in Kenya’s attempt to fulfil the UN Sustainable Development Goal 16 that promises peaceful and inclusive societies, accountable governance at all levels and justice for all.
Crowded out by gross national corruption scandals, overborrowing and reduced revenue collection, treasury allocations to County Governments have reduced every year since 2013. Delayed disbursements have also caused havoc with County procurement and services to citizens. County leaders have spent precious management time and public resources trying to resist attempts by National Government to claw back key services like public health. Barely six years into devolved governance, the country is gripped by a struggle between utwala-ists that prefer a top-down unitary state and kujitawala-ists that stand for bottom up cooperation between national and county governments.
The transformative power of our 47 Governments also faces an internal threat. That threat is corruption and the abuse of public office. Reports from the Office of the Auditor General and Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission routinely demonstrate that most of our devolved governments have presided over the wastage of billions of tax-payers funds while our County Assemblies looked the other way, watched or actively colluded.
No less than 30 Governors and 227 County Assembly Members face criminal charges in our courts. Most of the charges stem from three predictable corruption strategies. They are conflict of interest-based procurement, favouritism in staff recruitment and management and goods and services over-pricing and payment for ghost services.
Recent polls suggest that more than one third of Kenyans believe corruption and abuse of office is the key problem facing devolution. One tenth of Kenyans regard nepotism as the key factor in public employment. Forty-nine per cent feel paying bribes is the only way to receive services and most shockingly, our Governors are second most likely to be asked for bribes after police officers.
Deliberate attempts to keep citizens away from decision-making drives corruption. Less than 8 per cent of citizens know what is in their county budgets and integrated development plans. County Governments risk making the same mistake of the pre-2010 Kenyan unitary state. By over-centralising power and resources at the county headquarters, the centre becomes too small to meet the needs and aspirations of the population. Public confidence and trust drops and the future of devolution can be stopped by a single referendum.
Caught between the scissors of rising public anger and decisive EACC, DCI and DPP investigations and DPP prosecution by the, corrupt county officials must now look for other more ethical ways of managing our resources. This week’s ruling must also demand their attention and discomfort.
On Wednesday, Justice Ngugi declined a request from Samburu Governor Lenolkulal’s lawyers to allow him to continue governing while facing four counts of abuse of office and corruption. Questioning “would it serve the public interest for him to go back to office and preside over the finances of the county that he has been charged with embezzling from?”, her ruling was emphatically no.
The practise of state officials being charged in court and returning to their office and the alleged scene of crime has sadly been a major source of comfort for many. While their lawyers tie down the courts in endless petitions, orders and delays, these officials have continued to enjoy and exercise state power over tremendous resources.
The path to more accountable and ethical governance is not difficult. Leaders can rigorously introduce and enforce staff performance contracts and life-style audits. More counties can follow the lead of Makueni by publishing their procurement contracting data in a user-friendly format so that anyone can provide oversight. All Governments can fund civic organisations to do civic education and robust engagement on the use of public funds. More directly, state officials and their families must stop doing business with our national and county governments. These are better ways of safeguarding our taxes and the careers of those we entrust with our taxes.
First published Saturday Standard, July 27 2019. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group