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How to make devolution count

Former Presidential c ‘andidate Prof James Ole Kiyiapi talks about the issues that are undermining devolution ‘and what we can do differently.


Six years into a devolved system of governance ‘and Kenya has many boasts- the first being that we actually have executed devolution ‘and have 47 counties up ‘and running. Second is that resources ‘and power have been spread out to other centres across the nation ‘and new economic hubs are evident.

“The new Constitution was trying to address various problems, one of which was dispersing power ‘and creating new centres of power to move away from imperial presidency but more importantly it was a way of correction the marginalisation occasioned by the 1965 policy paper that came up with the philosophy of concentrating resources where you expect higher returns,” says Prof. James Ole Kiyiapi, who is a great proponent of devolution.

Kiyiapi believes Sessional Paper 1965 is one of the biggest eye sore in Kenya’s development history. The country was divided into high potential ‘and low potential areas, defined only in one variable- rainfall.

“If an area was high potential in regards to agriculture, it didn’t matter if it didn’t have anything else, the rest were marginalised ‘and these became the locus of development. This was a classical wrong because the areas we were calling marginalised are the ones that are now producing oil, minerals, they are the centres of tourism, they host the largest population of our wildlife ‘and livestock. The whole concept was wrong ‘and created in real sense marginalization. That’s where the rain begun to beat us,” says the professor.

He says Majimboism might have given Kenya better returns instead of the centralized government we enjoyed post-Independence or the current devolved units which he says are too small.

“The writers of the 2010 Constitution did a good job but when it came to negotiating the units, the politicians were in a hurry; the Naivasha meeting did the country an injustice because the politicians were negotiating power with the point of view of the leaders who wanted to become president. They didn’t look deeply into how best to construct the units,” he says.

The result was a fall back to colonial units that divided Kenya into homogenous tribal groupings instead of creating mixed units, a thing the professor says may continue to undermine devolution. He supports calls for increase in the size of the units to make them viable economically.

Challenges facing good Governance

Besides tribalism ‘and economic viability, Prof Ole Kiyiapi says the other issue that can undermine devolution is the issue of governance in terms of capacity ‘and integrity.

“Integrity deals with issues of corruption, misuse of funds ‘and misdirecting resources, which creates new local elites. You have taken hyenas from the city to the counties. And the economic opportunity in counties is huge as they are the new centres of disbursing resources,” he notes ‘and adds, “Every year the Auditor General is coming up with lists of counties that cannot account for resources but there doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency to correct that. It’s a yearly malice. Nobody is cracking the whip. Corruption is a national challenge. We have not yet accepted that corruption is not acceptable. We talk about it but there is no action. And it goes back to the President. The President of Kenya holds the biggest stick in the nation.”

He also notes that some governors do not have the capacity to hold office. They do not have the conceptual thinking required to think in a structured manner ‘and deliver on tangible development. Capacity is also needed at the MCA level ‘and in staffing as sticking to local enclaves of sometimes unqualified personnel denies counties the best human resource available in the country.

The other serious challenge in counties is the issue of planning. The professor says governors should spend the pioneer years of devolution coming up with good urban plans with help from the national government.

“Development is not just something we do. It’s a mental construct that we agree to as a society. We have to have a certain cultural mindset shift that says no to corruption ‘and thinks about the future.”

This kind of cultural shift would also help deal with transition issues resulting from the high turnover of governors.

“Have county visions underpinned by a proper master plan. Project a county 50 years from now. Have a vision that goes beyond five years. Four governors can come ‘and implement that vision incrementally but the cultural issue is still haunting us. Our counties are driven by people with a mindset of five years. From day one I’m looking at the next election. Leadership is Kenya’s Achilles’ heel. Do we have leaders thinking about the next generation, not the next election?” he poses.

Moving forward

Professor Ole Kiyiapi says that it is only after counties have dealt with corruption ‘and planning ‘and visioning that they can begin to develop county resources like improve agriculture, forestry, water resources or tourism.

He also says the national government should take a more facilitative rather than antagonistic role as the two levels are not in competition. It should be engaging governors on how to deal with challenges. His other call is for professionals to form groups ‘and caucuses that hold forums ‘and ask pertinent questions to governors, keeping them accountable.

“Professionals must stop whining on social media ‘and take an interest in what happens in counties,” he says.

Finally, Prof Ole Kiyiapi calls on the national government to spread out big infrastructure projects, like airports, across the country to attract professionals out of the city.


Kageni Muse is the Subeditor, Management magazine. 

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