• Irungu Houghton

Nairobians choose carefully and speak up loudly



The February 25 political deal to transfer four core functions of the Nairobi County Government to the National Government is a significant game-changer. As the six powerful men met in State House to kickstart a leaderless city, they left the ghosts of past misdeeds and expediencies largely undisturbed. Predictably, the drivers for the current crisis remain tragically untransformed.


The Transfer Deed Agreement declares an intention to shift the four most important functions of health, garbage collection, sewage and roads to the National Government for the next two years from March 15. Five days after the agreement was signed, the Devolution Ministry announced four days for public feedback through seventeen sub-county consultations and one county-wide consultation.


There is no official update yet on how well the seventeen consultations and the Kenya School of Government forum were attended last Wednesday. There is no report either on what Nairobian residents support the transfer proposal. Informal feedback from eight consultations suggest outright opposition to the transfer from Westlands, Mathare, Lang’ata and Embakasi East.


Reactions from Kibra, Dagoretti North, Makadara and the Kenya School of Government were more mixed. Some called for a referendum while others dissatisfied with the County Government supported the transfer in the hope that services would improve. Competent lawyers have now challenged the validity of using Article 187 as a constitutional basis for the transfer. Citizens and civic organisations have also moved to court to block the initiative.


Like all audacious back-door political gambles, the Uhuru-Sonko deal was destined to be controversial. Too much water flows under this bridge and Kenyans have the memory of elephants. We remember a similar State House deal that gave Sonko-Igathe team the Jubilee ticket and pushed them through the IEBC despite Chapter 6 public concerns. We have not forgotten how until recently, the former Governor was shielded from allegations of mismanagement and graft that have now landed him in court. It is not yet ninety days since the High Court barred him from exercising the powers of his office and a possible impeachment by the County Assembly still looms. Yet, there he was with the highest political and legal offices of the land giving away County 047 to the National Government.


By the Devolution Ministry’s own standards, this week’s consultations were shallow. In 2016, the Ministry developed and published one of the best Public Participation guidelines this country has ever seen. The guidelines define eleven conditions for meaningful public participation. They include clear and transparent rules guiding the entire process, strategies to ensure as many people and especially, marginalised groups, have the information and capacity to engage and feedback and validation loops. Public participation must be “real, not illusory and ought not to be treated as a mere formality,” the policy states.


Calling for public participation after a legal agreement has been signed is the first sign that public participation may be tokenistic. The second sign was the last-minute invitations and the rush to tick the public participation box in five days. Neither generate the belief that the Ministry sincerely understands the value of public input.


The recent census informs us that Nairobi’s 3.9 million citizens are not a vague or shapeless population. One third of us are unemployed, half of us do not have regular access to piped water and only ten per cent of us rely on the county government for solid waste management. NGOs and private companies provide over sixty per cent of these services. Six thousand live on the streets and forty-two thousand of us are persons with disabilities. One in two of us have smartphones and regularly access the internet. Even a basic sense of who are Nairobians were missing in the design of this week's consultations.


Ultimately, these stark needs, political class expediency and state disinterest in investing in the political maturity of citizens has brought us to this point. Our election campaigns were an exercise in procurement. Sadly, t-shirts, flour, sugar, petty denomination banknotes and wild promises were all some candidates needed to assume public office in 2017.


After years of abuse, the decision what to do with the County of Nairobi is a fundamental one. Short-circuiting and under-investing in this deliberative process does not allow the people of Nairobi to learn from their electoral mistake or take responsibility for what happens next.


Having placed themselves in a box, it remains to be seen whether the leadership will have the honesty to publish and act on the consultations findings, if the transfer does not have the blessing of the people? How they continue to handle this moment should not squander an important opportunity or jeopardise the next big decision moment in 2022.


Nairobians must choose carefully and speak up loudly.


First published Saturday Standard, March 6, 2020. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group


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