Urban Wire What Will "Our Turn to Eat" Mean the Day After the Kenyan Elections?
Charles Cadwell
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All eyes are on Kenya today as some 14 million citizens are expected to vote for an array of candidates for president and other offices. The world hopes to avoid a repeat of the post-election violence in late 2007 and early 2008 that killed some 1,500 people and created as many as 600,000 refugees, a trauma that lingers even five years later. Indeed, one candidate and his running mate are under indictment at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for their role in the 2008 violence. Nonetheless, at a rally last weekend, six presidential candidates held hands and committed to accept the results of the vote. While there are reports of scattered pre-election violence, most observers do not expect a repeat of the last cycle’s mayhem.

In this circumstance, it’s easy to lose sight of the dramatic changes in Kenya’s political and governmental structure that take place tomorrow. These elections launch an entirely new constitutional arrangement for Kenya:

  • Forty-seven new subnational political units—called counties—come into existence March 5. They assume responsibility for a wide range of government functions, from health care to roads and water to agriculture. Over 280 existing districts have been organized into these new state entities.
  • Forty-seven new, directly elected governors for these counties will take office March 5.
  • Forty-seven new County Assemblies are being elected, to serve as checks and balances on the county Governors.
  • Also elected for the first time are members of a new Senate, elected from the counties to represent them in the national legislature.

These dramatic changes stem from constitutional reforms agreed by the parties after the 2007 election violence, but also in response to long-standing concerns about the legitimacy and effectiveness of the top-down national government. The slogan that accompanied the changes was “Our turn to eat.”

Ready or Not…

Hopes are high for the newly restructured government. Candidates for the governorships are promising dramatic improvements in health care, economic circumstances, and more.

But will the hundreds of newly elected officials perform any better than their predecessors? Will decentralization and constitutional reform produce better outcomes for the average Kenyan citizen?

The answer is a big unknown. There are a host of technical issues inherent in setting up new government entities, including the smooth transfer of responsibility and authority, and the equitable assignment of resources. A November 2012 World Bank survey of the situation analyzes masterfully the challenges facing Kenya’s new regional leaders, describing the fiscal and administrative tasks required to implement the constitutional changes. Its title, “Devolution without Disruption,” may have been a road map when the report was issued; but on election day, given the slow pace of actual preparation for the transfer of functions and funding streams, its title may be more a prayer than a road map.

Kenya’s Transitional Authority is charged with seeing this transformation through over the next two years, but its preparations have lacked much detail. Hundreds of questions remain. In many counties there is no physical place for the new governors to sit tomorrow. It’s not clear whether a governor can hire new staff. What happens to old staff who sat in provincial and district offices? What budget does the new governor operate with? What budget must be planned before the next fiscal year starts in July? By whom? Will decentralization improve services? Or will the disruption inherent in the administrative changes lead to a decline in health services, water reliability, road safety, and more? Given the incomplete preparation for the transformation, it is hard to see how services can be maintained at even their current levels.

But there are even greater political unknowns. Will the new County Governors become mini-presidents acting with impunity in their counties, disinclined to reduce the corruption that pervades all levels of government? Or will the new County Assemblies truly be able to act as a check on business-as-usual in the administration of the public’s business in Kenya?

One possible explanation that political skeptics offer for the low level of preparation is that a failure of decentralization will give national stakeholders an excuse to reclaim the powers they are losing, undoing the 2010 reforms. Regardless, Kenyans and those who care about Kenya’s success have a huge stake in the effective implementation of the devolution that starts at midnight. This involves two challenges: establishing the capability and effectiveness of the new government entities—assuring that they can function and perform their new responsibilities; and establishing constraints that will keep new leaders focused on their own performance and assure citizens that the new order is serving all.

Moving Forward?

The seeming paradox that the new government entities need to be supported in developing their capacity to govern, and at the same time need to be constrained to not abuse that capacity, is the essential challenge in the new era. There are experts aplenty to help with the capacity-building agenda, both in Kenya and outside. However, the success of the transformation requires more. The legitimacy of the new government units and the devolution effort require immediate work on democratic constraints as well. Here are some steps that Kenyan experts and outsiders, such as the donor community, can support right away, even as they assist the new administrative units in their basic functionality:

  • Support the new county assemblies with basic operating rules, processes, and templates for budget preparation and approval, and oversight functions.
  • Support an inter-county information exchange so the new county assemblies can learn from each other—about budgeting, about oversight, about performance metrics. This exchange needs to be current and publicly accessible, so all Kenyans can consider the evolving forms of democratic accountability.
  • Support an independent research institute or university center to track county performance and prepare reports and analyses for the public. The 1968 establishment of the Urban Institute in the United States is an example of a similar effort at a time of crisis here.
  • Support passage of a national Freedom of Information law so the principle of transparent functioning of government is established and implemented.

Kenyans voting today participate in an important experiment in devolved, more accountable government. If violence is restrained and the results are honored by the candidates and their parties, then the much harder job begins. Standing up new government bodies is essential, but so too is assuring their public legitimacy—so that all Kenyans, not just the new county executives, have “our turn to eat.”

Photo by Ben Curtis/ AP

Research Areas Global issues
Tags International public administration and local government International civil society and democratic institutions International development and governance