Suspicion, fear and power struggle in Government out to kill devolution
Last updated on 15 Sep 2012 00:00
Dr Ben E Kipkorir has given one of the finest narratives for the case for devolution. In his autobiography, Descent from Cherangani Hills: Memoirs of a Reluctant Academic (2009), Kipkorir recalls Kenya’s early experiments with devolution, starting in the days of the colony.
He walks us back to the early 1920s, when the Local Native Councils (LNCs) came into being. The first councils were established in 1924 and 25, in what is today Nyanza and central Kenya. The trigger and driver was political agitation in these regions. It will be recalled that this was the time when central Kenya began agitating for the return of the stolen land, led by people like Joseph Kang’ethe, James Beauttah, and Jesse Kariuki. This matter remains a riddle to date.
In Nyanza, Bishop Owen would record that agitation was largely against the colour bar. The Abaluhya and Luo people of the Lake Basin are said to have wanted to enjoy the same rights as the Europeans.
Levity aside, the colonial government saw the native councils as safety valves. Kipkorir says that they were intended “to channel African political energies into non-confrontational avenues.” They would do this by bringing some degree of development to the natives. Not too long afterwards, the councils extended even to those parts of the colony that were “non-confrontational,” borrowing from a model that seemed to be working very well in Fiji.
The councils, while diffusing tension against the colonial regime, did indeed begin paying a development dividend. We are told that social and economic development became manifest, as a result of the activities of these councils. Allow me to quote Kipkorir generously, “By 1939, save for the Northern Frontier District and to some extent parts of the Coast, the LNCs were responsible for virtually every important initiative, enterprise and programme affecting African social and economic development.
“The councils passed laws and exercised judicial powers through tribunals specially set up for this purpose. The cost of maintaining these courts was met by the councils. In turn, revenues from fees and fines went to the coffers of the respective authorities. There are records that indicate that as a result of the involvement of LNCs in administration of law and order, crime as defined by colonial authorities, declined.” The LNCs were later enhanced into African District Councils (ADCs). They were given more powers – equal to those exercised in European District Councils. We are told that in no time these authorities came to resemble and function like local authorities in Britain. They were vibrant and they delivered.
The North Nyanza District Council is reported to have been by far the most advanced, thanks to three “Mission Boys,” Canon Awori, Henry Kerre and Joshua Barasa. I commend Kipkorir’s book to all who would aspire to become governors, or county representatives under our new Constitution. You will find it an invaluable launching pad.
But that aside, something went awfully wrong right from the moment we began counting our footsteps to independence. Fear of “economic and political domination” of “small tribes” by the so-called big tribes in Kanu saw “the small tribes” come together in what would become the first official opposition Kadu. They began to agitate for a devolved Independence Constitution. Political gerrymandering by Kanu and British constitutional midwives in Lancaster saw the country go to independence with a devolved Constitution that lent itself to easy amendment and even frustration.
The Jomo Kenyatta government, seeking to centralise and consolidate power, deliberately frustrated and eventually killed devolution. This was despite the fact that devolution had worked very well, even before independence. Daniel Branch has said in Kenya: Between Hope and Despair 1963 – 2011, “His (Kenyatta’s) strategy to destroy the regional assemblies and force the collapse of the Constitution was simple. While waiting for the legislation revoking devolution to pass through Parliament, Kenyatta starved the regional assemblies of the revenues they needed to operate. By July 1964, the bank accounts of the regional assemblies were empty.”
We have come full cycle. We are back where we were before November 1964, when Mzee Kenyatta’s gerrymandering killed devolution while also making him the first President of Kenya without being elected to that office.