Ideas & Debate

Is devolution one answer to secession?

Devolution will only be as successful as the human rights agenda that supports it. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Devolution will only be as successful as the human rights agenda that supports it. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

In the same week in which our newly elected Governors were sworn into office, mainstream and social media have been inundated with views around economist David Ndii’s no-holds-barred comments in a prime time TV interview around the “s” word – secession.

Interviewer Larry Madowo even drew reference to a map that has been circulating in cyber space that splits Kenya into two republics— the Central Republic of Kenya (CRK) and the Peoples’ Republic of Kenya (PRK).

Whether we like it or not, this discourse is not going away soon. Yet, subconsciously, the image that keeps coming to my mind is the unhappy one of North and South Korea; the one a basket case of a country right out of the stone age, and the other a thriving and modern first world economy.

But what would this look like in Kenya? I tested this with numbers, drawing from 2015 World Bank work on measuring national and sub-national economic growth that combines 2013 estimates of agriculture GDP with a same-year industry and services activity (hence, GDP) approximation using night lights as observed from outer space.

The finding is interesting. The 21 counties that fall under our hypothetical CRK would account for 60 per cent of GDP, with the 26 in our imaginary PRK accounting for 40 per cent. Now you see the North and South Korea reference, but also the skewed distribution of wealth across the country.

This is the perspective within which I view Dr Ndii’s comments; as a statement on the inequality, injustice and impunity that we seem so reluctant to comprehensively address. Some of the feedback I have seen has correctly pointed to devolution as an important counterpoint to the secession discourse.

As I have previously stated, devolution will only be as successful as the human rights agenda that supports it.

This is also where national government comes in to ensure a balance in development across Kenya. Because, as things stand, and as governors might want to start thinking about, our GDP map across Kenya is a little more skewed than CRK/PRK would suggest. Here are some numbers to mull over, again extracting from the above World Bank data.

To begin, three counties (out of 47) account for a third of national GDP – Nairobi, Kiambu and Nakuru. If one adds Nyeri and Murang’a, we are talking 40 per cent of GDP – equal to our hypothetical 26 county PRK.

Nairobi alone has a higher GDP than the combined total for the six coastal counties that have come together under the “Jumuia ya Pwani” economic development initiative.

The Rift (excluding Nakuru) and the entire west of Kenya are smaller than the “Big 3”. Our six “frontier” counties account for a tenth of the GDP of the “Big 3, plus Nyeri and Murang’a”. That’s one starting point for this “ secession vs devolution plus human rights” discourse.

As Governors, especially those newly elected will discover, economic size matters for own revenue collection. While no county pays for all of its expenditure (hence the revenue shares from national government), only five counties are able to cover at least 20 per cent of their costs — Nairobi, Kiambu, Nakuru, Mombasa and Narok.

The average cost coverage from own revenues across all counties was a paltry 13 per cent in the 2015/16 fiscal year. Simply, the lower the cost coverage, the higher the dependence on national government largesse.

And its not huge sums being extracted from citizens. Only Nairobi and Mombasa collect more than Sh200 per capita per month, only Nakuru, Narok and Kiambu collect more than Sh100.

National average collection per capita per month —Sh59, or roughly Sh2 per day. So it’s not just about growing the economy, it’s also about revenue enforcement.

Mapping revenue collection to a rough extrapolation of GDP, the average across counties chimes in at 0.65 per cent (remembering, of course, that county residents also pay national taxes), with only Nairobi, Mombasa, Narok, Samburu and Isiolo collecting more than one per cent of county GDP. Revenue potential anyone?

Which brings us back to the beginning. Is devolution with a human rights agenda one of many answers to secessionist calls? How should we get devolution to spread the wealth more evenly across Kenya? And how do we get counties to pay for themselves, and reduce their reliance on national government? Food for thought.