Kenyans again went to the polls on 9 August 2022 to elect their representatives at the national and county levels. The elections were the third in Kenya under the 2010 constitution that introduced devolution. Instituted in 2013, devolution sought to bring government closer to the people by devolving political and economic resources to Kenya’s 47 county governments, to better address the local needs of Kenyans.
In the last decade, devolution could potentially have transformed the lives of the people of north-eastern Kenya but, unfortunately, this has not happened, despite the accrual of substantial funds and political power; the billions of shillings that have gone into the region have not brought improvements. On the contrary, some sectors such as healthcare and water service provision have seen a decline or remained the same despite the billions that have been pumped into these sectors in the last 10 years. North-eastern Kenya remains one of the most underdeveloped regions in Kenya, lagging behind in almost all development indicators. Its people are among the poorest in the country, with the majority lacking access to basic services and infrastructure such as water and healthcare, good roads and electricity.
The lack of progress in the last ten years is largely attributed to poor governance and the massive theft and misappropriation of public resources by elected leaders, the region’s elites and public officials. All indications are that massive graft, corruption, and misallocation of political and economic resources have stymied the region’s ability to take advantage of devolution and catch up with the rest of Kenya. Resources meant for the population have been misappropriated and the leadership has nothing to show for the ten years since devolution; blatant theft and embezzlement of public funds and poor governance have been its defining characteristic in the last ten years.
This article is a review of devolution in north-eastern Kenya ten years after its inception. It focuses on the three north-eastern counties of Garissa, Wajir and Mandera and is a reflection of the writer’s assessment of devolution in north-eastern Kenya over the last ten years. The situation described above is similar elsewhere in the larger northern Kenya in the counties of Marsabit, Isiolo, Tana River, Samburu, Turkana, and West Pokot, but this piece focuses exclusively on the three north-eastern counties.
Highlighting the failures of devolution and how it has not delivered for the people of north-eastern Kenya, is by no means advocating for the previous Nairobi-based centralised governance system where resources were shared only by a few at the centre (1963-2013), a system that had neglected and marginalized the region for far too long, denying it investments, the cause of the predicament the region faces today.
The current failure of devolution in northern Kenya is partly tied to the failure at the centre; the ills of the centre have been replicated at the periphery. From 2013, under Jubilee, the national government experienced astronomical levels of corruption and theft of public funds affecting public sector institutions than any other time in Kenya’s history. National state oversight institutions mandated to fight corruption at both levels of government were unable or unwilling to effectively carry out their oversight duties. Also of importance to note is that the widespread allegations of corruption and misappropriation of public funds are not unique to the counties of north-eastern Kenya but are also reported across most of the country’s 47 counties and this has greatly demoralized Kenyans.
Blatant theft of public resources
In the north-eastern region, county officials and the leadership, including governors, executives and other public officials have been stealing from the people. Over the years, the office of the Auditor General has exposed massive misappropriation of resources and irregular procurement rules. General public perception in the region is that the leaders are not serving the people’s interests, but are only enriching themselves with the resources with which they have been entrusted, with impunity and zero accountability. As a consequence, the electorates have given up and resigned themselves to their fate, leaving it to God to punish the thieving elites in the hereafter.
Over the last decade, and during the tenure of the last two county administrations, the elected governors turned the north-eastern counties into family “fiefdoms” and “small monarchies” similar to Middle East monarchies where those who benefit most are the immediate family members, close friends and cronies. Nepotism and favouritism were widespread, and governors and their appointed county executives used relatives, including extended family members and close friends as proxies to siphon off public resources meant to benefit citizens. Across the three counties, the governors and other senior county public officials placed close family members and relatives on the county payroll as ghost workers with no job descriptions, actual portfolios or offices. Individuals who had previously never worked in any major capacity and had little or no experience were given high-paying public sector jobs only because they belong to the right families or know the right people.
The electorates have given up and resigned themselves to their fate, leaving it to God to punish the thieving elites in the hereafter.
Governors, county executives and elected local leaders also used proxies and companies owned by friends and close family members to obtain lucrative multimillion contracts. For the five years the governor and the county executives were in charge, they and their proxies remained inaccessible and out of reach of the ordinary mwananchi.
A small portion of the loot was laundered in the region. Much of the looted money was laundered in major cities such as Nairobi and Mombasa, where the county leadership used the ill-gotten wealth to invest in residential properties and shopping malls. County governors and their executives bought houses, apartments and palatial homes worth hundreds of thousands of US dollars in Nairobi’s upscale residential areas such as Kilimani, Kileleshwa, Lavington, Parklands, Karen, Spring Valley and others. In the Eastleigh neighbourhood the looted public money was “reinvested” in businesses in the form of shopping malls. Some used the looted public resources to marry second and third wives or to purchase vehicles worth many times their annual salaries as county officials, while others used the plundered money to go to Mecca on pilgrimage and “contribute” to religious causes such as building mosques and Islamic madarasa schools. Governors, specifically, moved some of their ill-gotten wealth abroad, especially to the Middle East and Turkey. Favourite destinations include cities such as Dubai, Ankara, Abu Dhabi and others, where the governors bought palatial holiday homes and apartments.
North-eastern governors opened offices in Nairobi where they would spend a good part of their time instead of operating from their county headquarters. Governors and county executive members also held county executive meetings in Nairobi instead of the county headquarters. You would also find that many county officials such as executive members, chief officers and members of county assemblies were ever present in Nairobi, operating from the city instead of operating from their respective county headquarters.
Why is this the case? How are elites able to steal with impunity? The stealing that happens in the counties mostly happens through the flouting of public procurement rules, inflating the price of projects and at times even budgeting for non-existent ones. Kenya has been plagued by corruption since independence, but corruption and blatant theft of public resources became commonplace from 2013 when the Jubilee Party led by Uhuru Kenyatta came to power. Under the Jubilee government, corruption cases involving the blatant theft of billions of shillings of taxpayers’ money became the norm. Pervasive institutional corruption at the centre spread to the periphery through devolution and, therefore, political and economic devolution to Kenya’s 47 counties only enabled the creation of another cadre of corrupt elites with the ability, through elections, to capture institutions and resources. What used to happen at the centre has been replicated at the county levels through devolution; county leaders plunder everything from nationally devolved county funds to donor contributions. They take for themselves and their proxies the most lucrative contracts. Development projects in the region have become contractor- and vendor-driven, with the governors, deputy governors, county executives and elected members of county assemblies being the biggest beneficiaries.
North-eastern governors opened offices in Nairobi where they would spend a good part of their time instead of operating from their county headquarters.
The looting of public resources was successful and continued unabated due to weak government oversight institutions such as the anti-corruption agency, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC), the Department of Criminal Investigations (DCI) and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). The lack of effective anti-corruption mechanisms and political will at the national level to fight graft plays a major role in fuelling graft and theft at all levels of government. In essence, there was little to no risk of being held accountable and this explains why the leaders are unafraid. Not a single culprit who has stolen from the people in the last ten years is behind bars because of what he or she has done, despite the scale of the corruption and mismanagement.
Poor service delivery
The mismanagement, graft and elite capture of county resources has resulted in poor service delivery for the people of north-eastern counties. A major challenge is that the leadership has been unable to prioritize development that would transform and improve service delivery. Despite the billions in investment—cumulatively, the three counties received close to Shs100 billion in devolved funds over the last ten years—there is nothing much to show for it. Also, the leadership has simply been unwilling to prioritize and invest in areas of public need where the impact would be greatest. Instead, funds have been spent as they come in poorly thought-out contractor-driven “development” projects. As a consequence, crucial sectors such as livestock and water, healthcare and education provision, where the needs of the population lie, have been ignored and, in some instances, the quality of services has deteriorated compared to the period before devolution.
In the counties, the easiest way to steal public funds is through infrastructure projects that are of no benefit to people, such as repairing a rural road that does not actually require refurbishment. Millions in resources have been poured into the construction of structures that now lie idle. For instance, it is quite common to build a structure in a certain village and label it “a health centre” or “a market” even as it remains unoccupied and abandoned. No health workers, equipment and drugs are deployed to the structure to make it an operational health facility. Office blocks are also built which then remain unoccupied.
To symbolize misplaced priorities, the leadership has invested millions in ultra-modern office blocks, and residences for the leadership, instead of fighting poverty and investing in critical infrastructure such as water, healthcare and fodder for livestock at this time of severe drought.
The leadership is simply not investing in priority areas. The livestock sector, the main source of livelihood and the economic mainstay of the region remains highly underinvested. The response to the ongoing drought emergency is a testament to the ineffectiveness of the county leadership in responding to emergencies and assisting people at a time of need. Had the county and national governments intervened and provided the needed water and fodder for the livestock, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of head of livestock, which are people’s livelihoods, could have been prevented. The pastoralists have had no one to turn to as the response from both the counties and the national government has been lacklustre; they have had to fend for themselves, buying water for their livestock from private water vendors at an exorbitant cost. On average, one water truck costs between KSh10,000 and Sh60,000 depending on the distance from water sources, which in many cases are at the county headquarters. I witnessed residents of Wajir County who live far from the county headquarters having to wait for “their turn” to receive water supplied by trucks contracted by the county government. In one village less than 60 kilometres from Wajir town, residents had to wait more than 14 days for their turn to receive water. And when the one truck arrived at the village of 300-plus households, it could only provide water for the people but not for their livestock. In many of the less accessible villages in Wajir, help from the county government never arrived.
The easiest way to steal public funds is through infrastructure projects that are of no benefit to people, such as repairing a rural road that does not actually require refurbishment.
North-eastern is the most water-stressed region in Kenya, the number one hurdle that the people of the region face. Obtaining drinking water for both people and their livestock is a major challenge. Unfortunately, the region’s leadership has not been willing to find a sustainable solution to the perennial water shortage, the most common response to “alleviate” the water problem in the last decade being the construction of expensive water pans and boreholes. The big ugly holes dotting the landscape serve as temporary rain water reservoirs, but do little to solve the perennial water problem in the region. The leadership prefers them because they are easy to implement as they do not involve much technical skill and are normally constructed at inflated cost. Water pans are not a sustainable long-term solution as they dry up almost immediately at the onset of the dry season.
Ten years after devolution, and after receiving billions of shillings annually including in allocations for the water sector, residents of Mandera County headquarters do not have access to running water in their homesteads. The Mandera leadership has been unable to tap the waters of River Daawa, which flows through the county headquarters for most of the year. The county residents rely largely on commercial water vendors.
The World Bank-funded Water and Sanitation Project meant to connect households to piped water, provide community water points, and improve sanitation services in Wajir Town, the Wajir County headquarters is failing, largely because of lack of county leadership and elite competition for contracts related to the project.
Half of the homesteads in Garissa Town do not have access to running water. Those that do have access to water benefited from a water project that was undertaken in the town during President Mwai Kibaki’s 2003-2007 administration. This means that from 2013 to 2022 the Garissa County leadership has not done much to expand water provision. This is despite River Tana, Kenya’s longest and largest river, flowing right through Garissa Town to drain into the Indian Ocean.
Water pans are not a sustainable long-term solution as they dry up almost immediately at the onset of the dry season.
The health sector is an area that has seen a deterioration in services during devolution. Hospitals and health centres have been incapacitated by lack of staff, lack of adequate medical equipment and essential supplies such as drugs and laboratory reagents.
The three main referral hospitals in the region are run down. Public health facilities have collapsed to the extent that they do not offer basic services such as CT Scans; citizens are forced to seek such services in private facilities at exorbitant prices. When medical equipment such as MRI machines and CT Scans break down, the authorities take months to have them fixed. As an example, when the MRI machine at Garissa’s main referral hospital broke down, it took the administration months to have it repaired.
Statutory government oversight institutions such as the EACC, DCI and the DPP have spectacularly failed to rescue the counties from the thieving elites. Despite the wanton theft and loss of billions, the corrupt are walking free and are not held accountable. No single public official has been apprehended and convicted for stealing and misappropriating public resources in the last ten years. The national government must prioritize the fight against corruption and theft of public resources, and reform and empower anti-corruption agencies if the fruits of devolution are to reach the people of north-eastern Kenya and the larger northern region as a whole.