It is difficult to confirm how devolution is doing. County governments have provided plenty of diverse theatre since their creation in 2013. The World Bank did the only scientific review of county government performance this year. It looked mainly at money matters of expenditure and revenue.
The central criteria with which devolution should be judged should be the reason for which it was created: to avoid politically instigated conflict and stabilize the country. The political settlement, in Kenya, is based on a consensus between an elite representing ethnic regions. The settlement is unstable when a Presidential candidate representing a large ethnic group loses the election. This situation is inevitable as Kenya has about five large ethnic groups. The 2010 Constitution has, with its Cabinet of technocrats, reduced room for power sharing among ethnic elites.
More pertinently, historically, the ethnic leader who won Presidency shared public resources disproportionately to his fellow ethnics and the related core region that voted for him. The resulting political and economic exclusion grew into major political grievance. There is more to economic marginalization than this description, especially in regard to the old ‘high and low potential areas’ policy. However, this ethnic matrix was the crux of the matter during the elections conflict of 2008.
Devolved government has spread political power and has the potential of countering the sense of ethnic alienation as a result of a Presidential loss. Additionally, devolution and its formula based equity grants, now ensures that all regions of the country are guaranteed a fair share of resources. Theoretically, therefore, devolution should dampen the usefulness of Presidential ethnic Kingpins.
The North Eastern region was the most alienated part of Kenya. Its population is relatively small but the numbers help to get Presidential candidates to the finish line. North Eastern counties like Wajir, Mandera, Garissa and Isiolo appear to know that a good thing has come their way. Wajir leads nationally in percentage of expenditure spent of development. Garissa, though a low spender on development, launched a main road with a jubilant banner reading “tarmac comes to Garissa”. Mandera, while pleading with teachers not to leave the county in the face of terrorism, is, with a sense of urgency, recruiting new ones outside of Teachers Service Commission (TSC) set up. Isiolo was the first county in the country to establish the IFMIS government pay system and its executive team is impressive even by international standards.
Luo Nyanza counties, also previously marginalized, have not stood out for positive recognition. Kisumu inherited a bloated staff from the previous administration and most of its resources are used for salaries. Homabay, is promising and achieved the legal 30% threshold for development expenditure. Siaya and Migori are not distinguished in development spending or innovations. Closer examination is necessary on why this region, that has strongly vocalized its marginalization, is lethargic in its resource management. It is possible that the selection rather than election, during nomination of candidates for Governor in Nyanza, has created poor county management outcomes.
Finally, Coastal counties of Mombasa, Lamu, Kilifi, Kwale and Tana River fare poorly in development expenditure with only moderate success in Taita Taveta. The decline in tourism, due to terrorism, has even further reduced the fortunes of these counties. In this stressed economic environment the disgruntled Coastal poor are likely to continue to feel alienated from the rest of the country.
Overall, if the terror threat is managed in North Eastern, devolution will significantly reduce the sense of economic and political alienation. In Luo Nyanza, the undemocratic nomination of candidates is being challenged but the situation is unlikely to change in the near future. The Coastal county performance is likely to remain unchanged until perhaps the strong cessationist movement transfers its demands to the county governments. Incidentally, national, rather than county, projects such as the Lamu transport corridor and the Mombasa standard guage railway line may help create the sense of economic inclusion at the Coast.
It can be concluded that devolution is succeeding in North Eastern, has some chance in Luo Nyanza but may not stabilize the Coast for some time to come.