Ideas & Debate

Now act on the issues raised at governors forum

Delegates at the conference listen to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s address via video link from State House Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Delegates at the conference listen to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s address via video link from State House Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

In a week in which the 5th Devolution Conference in Kakamega hit social media headlines for the wrong reasons, it is ironical and fitting that this was also the week in which the real media story was about recently departed Kenneth Matiba, and the glowing tributes that have flowed for this successful government technocrat, astute businessman, fearless opposition leader, nationalist go-getter at heart.

Much is made of his brave, and almost successful, bid to be President in 1992. My thoughts this week, on observing the Devolution Conference (through the media, it must be said), is that, if real devolution had happened 40 or 50 years ago, Mr Matiba would have been exactly the Level 6 Governor, and future national leader, we truly need today. And Murang’a County would be on another development plane.

His demise is a reminder that our modern idea of “developmental” Kenya confuses celebrities for heroes, even as we “eat” our best and fete the rest.

Today, “making” money matters more than earning it. Yet, if we’re talking what a national ethos could look like to Kenyans, Mr Matiba’s life story is the place to start.

As a young Kenyan in the late 1980s and the 90s observing the relentless push for multi-party democracy, I was confused by this unusual politician who actually wanted to do the right thing.

Yet, as President Uhuru Kenyatta observed at Mr Matiba’s first memorial service, we don’t have leaders like that anymore.

Devolution, one of the products of that multi-party agitation of a generation ago, is seen as central to Kenya’s development dream. Let’s look at the Devolution Conference through a simple lens, the words, or tone, of its three main speakers.

President Kenyatta’s high-tech opening address suggests that he is seriously taking a leaf out of the Jack Welch playbook.

To quote the iconic former head of US transnational General Electric, “Strategy is very straightforward. You pick a general direction and you implement like hell”. This was very much Mr Kenyatta’s tone as he outlined his “Big Four” agenda and its relevance to counties (or rather, counties’ role in the “Big Four”). The time for action is now. “It’s about results, not recommendations”. A vibrant message, no less.

On the other hand, Opposition Leader Raila Odinga’s address as guest speaker surprised many with his proposed three-tier 62 entity government, that is one national, 14 regional and 47 county governments.

While some (read, Governors) were quick to rubbish this proposal, it is important to recall that, like every fundamental reform that Kenya needs, devolution is political first, and economic next.

In other words, inclusion and ethnic harmony are the prerequisite for county economic viability; for national progress and prosperity. This is the sort of proposal that requires welfare thinking (economics) before “bean counting” (accounting). An interesting message.

Deputy President William Ruto seems to have made a twin address, if immediate media reports are to be believed.

Officially, he spoke to challenges facing counties around budgeting and planning, own source (local) revenue collection, pending bills (expenditure management, procurement and commitment control), financial reporting and audit timeliness, and asset and liability verification, a task that remains incomplete since the advent of county government in 2013.

Unofficially, there were reported swipes against the proposed three-tier government, restructuring of the executive and constitutional change, and governors in their perpetual wars with county assemblies.

My take is that it is the politics that readers purchase in our competitive “breaking news” media space.

Indeed, as Chair of the Intergovernmental Budget and Economic Council (IBEC), a body responsible for national and county government consultations on budgetary and wider economic policy, as well as fiscal and debt matters, Mr Ruto actually “owns” the opportunity to lead a radical reform on the self-same county issues he highlighted in his speech.

Take planning and budgeting. This cannot work for results without transparent costing of programmes (or activities) across both levels of government based on a clear division of labour.

The stalemate we have reflects a national government that “owns” too much of the budget, and counties unproven in “value for money” spending.

Or own source revenue collection. Revenue comes from economic activity. Maybe it’s time to focus on the “E” (economic) in IBEC.

On reporting and auditing, is it not a crying shame that 2018/19 revenue shares to counties will be based on the 2013/14 accounts approved by Parliament? In whose interests are these audits and approvals so badly delayed? Pending bills. A proper IFMIS, anyone?

With smart thinking on these issues, IBEC could be a reform force for good.

Back to the beginning. The passing of a great leader in Kenneth Matiba reminds us of the past struggles that led to the great reform we call devolution, and the need for a forward path about doing the right thing.