Devolution lights up local politics in Kenya

2 min 53Approximate reading time

There is a story that the governor of Machakos, in southern Kenya, loves to tell:

Since he bought a fleet of ambulances for the county, baby boys are no longer named Mwanzia and girls are no longer named Nzilani. Both mean born "on the side of the road" in the local Kikamba language.

"It was common for women to bleed to death or to give birth by the side of the road. Others would be carried with wheelbarrows or handcarts to hospitals because there were no ambulances," said Alfred Mutua, one of Kenya's 47 governors.

The smartly dressed 46-year-old, who is campaigning for a second term in office in August 8 elections, triumphantly ticks off his achievements: "I have built roads to link markets ... I've dug close to 300 (boreholes) and renovated 100."

Then there are the tractors which plough fields for free, reservoirs to store water in primary schools, renovated health centres, the refurbished Machakos stadium and the creation of a rare public garden in the town southeast of Nairobi.

All this is possible because Mutua now has an annual budget of $100 million (85 million euros) for his county, the result of Kenya devolving power to local government in 2013, after a new constitution was adopted in 2010.

His opponents in the heated local race accuse him of embellishing his record, but Machakos is often held up in the local media as an example of what it looks like when devolution succeeds.

Devolution is "the most significant constitutional change in Kenya since the introduction of multiparty politics (in 1992)," said Murithi Mutiga, a Kenya specialist with the International Crisis Group.


- 'Radical change'-


Before 2013, Kenya had a hyper-centralised system where "the president really determined how the lives of people in every corner of the country were," said Mutiga.

Now central government must give a minimum of 15 percent -- however in reality they give more than 20 percent -- to the 47 counties which have taken charge of secondary roads, healthcare centres, hospitals and local markets.

Whereas some regions had been historically marginalised by Nairobi -- either because they were seen as opposition strongholds or merely not a priority -- now they have all been able to get a slice of the pie and manage their own budgets.

"The radical change is that now decisions are made from Machakos. Decisions are not being made by somebody in Nairobi who doesn't know where Machakos is," said Mutua.

While devolution is quietly transforming certain regions of Kenya, it is also creating a revolution on the political scene, both for better and worse.

What seemed a leap into the unknown for politicians in 2013, when the first governors were elected, has suddenly become very attractive.

"Everybody wants to be a governor this time. If you look at it cynically, you'd see that as maybe explaining the motivations of politicians in Kenya. This is where you have the money, the patronage power," said Mutiga.

In fact for Nicholas Cheeseman, professor of African politics at Birmingham University, one of the main concerns ahead of the elections is "that we are likely to see some of these races at the governorship level become increasingly competitive and there is an opportunity for localised violence."

- From governor to president? -


Decentralisation has also defused the stakes in the presidential election, where traditionally the winning camp made a clean sweep. Now one side can lose the presidential election but still win a significant number of counties. 

It was this winner-takes-all system that is seen as having contributed to an explosion of ethnic violence after disputed 2007 polls, which left more than 1,100 dead.

But devolution increases the stakes locally and can also fuel tensions. Primaries in the ruling Jubilee Party and the NASA opposition coalition in April led to clashes between rival supporters and disputes over results.

"There is of course the danger that lots of little bits of conflict around the country can scale up and become something more national," said Cheeseman.

At the same time, leaders are suddenly closer to the population and are held to account if they perform poorly. Several such local officials found themselves booted off the ballot in primaries.

"So devolution is both a blessing and a curse. To a certain extent, it has been very successful in creating local accountability  ... but it has also devolved quite a few problems, most notably ethnicised competition and corruption," said Mutiga.

There are challenges, but Mutua is optimistic: "In the next few years, presidents will be former governors."

He counts himself among the leaders for whom local government is serving as an incubator for higher office, and has already announced his bid for the presidency in 2022.