Ideas & Debate

Why the devolution conference should be about governance, not party for governors

Devolution Conference
Delegates attend a session at the Devolution Conference at Kirinyaga University on March 6, 2019. PHOTO | NMG 

The immediately salacious headline about the 6th Devolution Conference being held in Kirinyaga County spoke to 150,000 condoms being made available for free to 6,000 delegates.

Our famed songster Suzanna Owiyo quickly did some further math, and on Twitter calculated, on a 50 per cent male-female ratio, 12 condoms for every man every day. Which was just about right. I thought this was supposed to be a serious meeting.

When a TV crew was then robbed of roughly Sh 500,000 in equipment, my eyebrows were raised. No surprises, then, that the formal opening of the conference happened as late as tea time on Tuesday.


President Uhuru Kenyatta’s off-the-cuff remarks at the conference opening were quite telling, speaking unequivocally to the corrupt and the resource constraints that are the unsurprising result of his own government’s mega-investment and borrowing spree. There is clear political will, but technique matters just as much.


The actual “Big 4” focused conference programme seemed unusually overloaded.

A main programme supplemented by sub-programmes around five themes: trade and manufacturing, universal health care, food security, affordable housing, and (think large dams) water and sanitation.

As Council of Governors chairman Wycliffe Oparanya openly wondered, what’s the role of counties in the “Big Four” outside of a formal policy framework?

This could have been so much simpler. A 6,000-delegate conference could have dealt with three simple questions appropriate to the times of the day. First, how to grow local economies. Not as individual counties, but maybe as regional economic blocs.

Better still, how to create competitive industry clusters. Mostly, in a way that addresses basic household rights beyond the Big 4 — food, basic rights (education, health, shelter, security et al), income opportunities and access to assets — towards participatory governance (between elections) and safety, security and access to justice (think, rule of law).

Our Constitution created two great things; devolution to address geographical inequality, and a rights and freedoms charter to address our other inequalities.

Here’s a further thought.

If there’s no own source revenue (OSR), or local revenue, without a local economy, then shouldn’t devolved agriculture, trade and industry be priority sectors in counties in this second devolution wave?

Let’s call this the “re-imagining our economy” challenge.

Second, sorting out the fiscus. Any governor who claims to have presented a County Fiscal Strategy Paper (CFSP – deadline February 28) to his County Assembly that respects the legal-regulatory implied 35-35-30 ratio between payroll, operations and maintenance (O&M - service delivery) and development would be a fiscal hero (or is conning the people).

This cannot happen with uncontrolled and nepotistic employment, tenderpreneur-driven O&M and misguided Member of County Assembly (MCA) pet projects. Beyond the showbiz of these conferences, official comfort apparently exists with 70:30 payroll/service delivery ratios when all development is nationally sourced through conditional grants. Costed norms for service delivery are conspicuously absent.

Think about this as the “re-thinking our county government” challenge.


Of course, local government doesn’t exist without national government. It is a national disgrace that the national ministries of agriculture, health and housing command budgets far in excess of the entire county equivalent when these are devolved functions. Big 4, anyone?

Thinking more broadly, shouldn’t the Devolution Conference be an opportunity to downsize national government? Not just bloated ministries, but parastatals and regional development authorities. Or the new-fangled provincial administration now known as county administration.

Dam scandals are not our only deadweight loss, over-institutionalisation probably costs us much more. Maybe we should call this our “re-calibrating our theory of government” challenge. What if we got our regional economic blocs to think through basic concepts like industry clusters, comparative and competitive advantage?


What if we got our counties to think more rationally about balanced budgets based on that 35:35:30 ratio? A staff complement (payroll) that’s fit for purpose. Service delivery that offers value for money. Development as real investment, including backlogs.

That’s probably what a good county government would look like. Which is why it’s probably time to view the Annual Devolution Conference as a statement of good governance, rather than a jolly jamboree for governors.

Last year, I wrote about Level Zero to Six Governors. Let’s find Level Six this time, without the endless speeches.