Kenya’s Democratic Experiment in Devolution

A member of one of Kenya's new county assemblies sets up an office in an open-air market outside of Nairobi. (Photo: VOA News)
A member of one of Kenya’s new county assemblies sets up an office in an open-air market outside of Nairobi. (Photo: VOA News)

One way to improve democratic governance is to devolve more responsibilities to local and regional governments — but only if those governments have the capacity take on such responsibilities and a willingness to listen to input from their constituents. This is the challenge Kenya faces as it implements the devolution outlined in its new constitution.

On April 9th, Chief Executive Officer of CIPE partner in Kenya Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) Kwame Owino gave a presentation at the National Endowment for Democracy on the status of the country’s constitutional reforms. Owino explained the contentious transition that has been occurring in Kenya since the March 2013 elections, which transferred some key powers from the central government to 47 newly-created counties.

Owino cited many roadblocks in the way of quick, successful decentralization, including power struggles between newly-established governors and county senators, a highly centralized government bureaucracy reluctant in some cases to relinquish power after an institutional life of 50 years, and an economy weakened by poor policies and widespread corruption.

To address the uncertainty regarding the strength of the devolution movement, Owino stated that accountability was the answer, arguing that Kenyan civil society organizations had a place as “protectors of devolution,” and that they must put pressure on the government to stay the course of decentralization. For devolution to succeed, the constitution needs to be followed exactly, and not be avoided or ignored as it is in many instances to maintain some of the employment and power institutionalized in the old bureaucracy.  

Owino’s presentation was followed by a regional assessment from Freedom House Director of Programs for Sub-Saharan Africa Vukasin Petrovic, who put Kenya’s devolution in the context of greater Eastern Africa. According to the most recent Freedom House assessment of Africa, East Africa was rated the least free African region, with the most countries experiencing declines in freedom, and not a single country ranking as “Free.”

Kenya found itself ranked “Partly Free” and dead-center among a sea of “Partly Free” and “Not Free” states. Petrovic contended that being a regional trendsetter, Kenya’s success or failure to devolve could have greater implications for democracy, freedom, and economic rights for the region at large. He also maintained that businesses must take an active role in supporting civil society, understand the importance of democracy, and become key players in inter-sector cooperation.

In this vein, CIPE, together with the IEA, has been playing a facilitating role in devolution. Due to the low capacity of local civil society and private sector groups to participate in budget making and monitoring processes, CIPE and IEA are working with several Kenyan civil society coalitions to better enable them to bring transparency and accountability to the table in the decentralization process.

So far, significant strides forward have been made. For instance, as a result of these capacity-building training, civil society coalition Coastal Region and Health Rights Advocacy Forum submitted a presentation to the national government on budget proposals, arguing in favor of increased health sector investment toward the realization of the Abuja Declaration, which calls for African countries to designate 15 percent of their annual national budget toward the health sector.

In addition, following the CIPE-supported capacity-building workshop, one civil society coalition Chemichemi Ya Ukweli from West Kenya held a post-budget analysis forum for county government officials and civil society for the first time, disseminating its analysis and serving to empower the community to participate in parliamentary committee public hearings.

Despite these inspiring achievements, there is a long way left to go in the successful devolution of Kenya. We can only hope that Kenyan civil society organizations can effectively advocate for accountability, and make Kenya’s future a democratic one.

Kurt Hagemann is Program Assistant for Global Programs at CIPE.

Published Date: May 01, 2014