The Elephant


Election 2022: Will the Incoming Leaders Deliver the Promises of Devolution to the People of North-Eastern Kenya?

By Abdullahi Abdille Shahow

Election 2022: Will the Incoming Leaders Deliver the Promises of Devolution to the People of North-Eastern Kenya?

Kenyans will go to the polls on 9 August to elect their representatives at the national and county levels. The upcoming elections are 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. 

Just like the rest of Kenya, the residents of the three north-eastern counties of Garissa, Wajir, and Mandera where I was born and brought up, will once again go to the polls to elect their representatives: governors, members of county assembly, women representatives, members of the national assembly, and senators. Those who will be elected will be in charge of managing devolved resources at the county level for the next five years.

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 Kenya 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 billions of Kenya shillings being pumped into these sectors in the last 10 years. Northeastern Kenya remains one of the most underdeveloped regions in Kenya, lagging behind the rest of Kenya in almost all development indicators, and the people are among the poorest in the country. The majority lack 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 stunt the region’s ability to take advantage of devolution and catch up with the rest of Kenya. Resources meant for the population are being misappropriated and the leadership has nothing to show for the ten years after devolution existence; blatant theft and embezzlement of public funds and misgovernance 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.

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

Disclaimer: By highlighting the failures of devolution and how it has not delivered for the people of north-eastern Kenya, the writer 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 current 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. Under the Jubilee government, the national government has since 2013 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 have been 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 north-eastern, county officials and leadership, including governors, executives and other public officials are 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 they have been entrusted with, with impunity and zero accountability. As a consequence, the electorates have given up and resigned themselves to their fate, leaving it to God to will punish the thieving elites in the hereafter.

Over the last decade, and during the tenure of the last two county administrations, the elected governors have 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 have become widespread, and governors and their appointed county executives use 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 have put close family members and relatives on the county payroll as ghost workers who have no job descriptions, actual portfolios or offices. Individuals who have previously never worked in any major capacity and have little experience are given high paying public jobs only because they belong to the right families or know the right people.

Governors, county executives and elected local leaders also use 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 are in charge, they and their proxies remain inaccessible and out of reach of the ordinary mwananchi.

A small portion of the loot is laundered in the region.  Much of the looted money is laundered in major cities such as Nairobi and Mombasa, where the county leadership uses the ill-gotten wealth to invest in residential properties and shopping malls. County governors and their executives have 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.  One favourite estate among senior Somali county officials from northeastern is the South C neighbourhood, where a high number of county executives live and operate from, instead of their respective county headquarters. They either pay high monthly rents or have bought expensive apartments and houses. The Eastleigh neighbourhood the looted public money is “reinvested” in businesses in the form of shopping malls. Some use 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 have 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, have moved some of their ill-gotten wealth abroad, especially to the Middle East and Turkey. Other favourite destinations include Dubai and Turkey where the governors have bought palatial holiday homes and apartments in cities such as Ankara, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and elsewhere.

All north-eastern governors have offices in Nairobi where they spend a ood part of their time instead of operating from their county headquarters. Governors and county executive members also hold county executive meetings in Nairobi instead of the county headquarters. You will also find that many county officials such as executive members, chief officers and members of county assemblies are ever present in Nairobi, operating from the city instead of operating from their respective county headquarters.

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. Under the Jubilee government, the national government has since 2013 experienced astronomical levels of corruption and theft of public funds affecting public sector institutions than any other time in Kenya’s history.

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 projects. Kenya has been plagued by corruption since independence, but corruption and blatant theft of public resources has become commonplace since 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 have become the norm since 2013. Pervasive institutional corruption at the centre has spread to the periphery through devolution and, therefore, political and economic devolution to Kenya’s 47 counties has 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.

The looting of public resources has largely been successful and continues unbated 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. Inessen ce, there is 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 large-scale corruption and mismanagement.

Poor service delivery 

The mismanagement, graft and elite capture of county resources has resulted in poor service delivery to the people of north-eastern counties.  A major challenge is that the leadership is 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 is simply unwilling to prioritize and invest in areas of public need where the impact would be greatest. Instead, funds are 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 be 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 recent response to the drought emergency is a testament to the ineffectiveness of the county leadership in responding to emergencies and assisting people at a time of need. Last year alone, millions of head of livestock died after water pans and grasslands dried up following a severe drought season. The drought is even now ongoing. Had the county and national governments intervened and provided needed water and fodder for the livestock, the deaths of millions of head of livestock, which are people’s livelihoods, could have been prevented. The pastoralists had no one to turn to as the response from both counties and the national government was lacklustre; the pastoralists had to fend for themselves, buying water for their livestock from private water vendors at an exorbitant cost. On average, one water truck cost between KSh10,000 and Sh50,000 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 50 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 residents, it could only provide water for the people but not their livestock. In many of the less accessible villages  in Wajir, help from the county government never arrived.

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.

North-eastern is most water-stressed region in Kenya, the number one hurdle that the people of the north-eastern 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 nothing 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 flowing right through Garissa Town to drain into the Indian Ocean.

The health sector is an area that has seen a deterioration in services during devolution. Hospitals and health centres have been incapacitated from 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. On a visit to Wajir Referral Hospital in Wajir town, I found that the hospital did not have staplers to pin papers together, staff in the maternity ward were using bandages to tie papers together, a situation that persisted throughout the period of one week that I visited a sick relative in the hospital’s maternity wing. Upon enquiry, I was informed by the staff that this had been the situation for weeks. They also told me that it was common for them to run out of other basic essentials such as cotton wool.

A call to the people of north-eastern counties

This is a wakeup call and a public appeal to the people of north-eastern Kenya to elect people of integrity in the upcoming election on 9 August. It is only the electorate who can stand up to and liberate their counties and resources from the thieving “leaders” who have captured and appropriated the county resources. The electorates should give priority to electing leaders of integrity who have a good track record. It is time to reverse the misgovernance and misappropriation of public resources of the last ten years.

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 accountability. On the contrary, they flaunt their ill-acquired wealth in front of the poor citizenry they have stolen from.

No single public official has been apprehended and convicted for stealing and misappropriating public resources in the last ten years. However, we should not lose hope. Hopefully, the next national government that will be elected in Nairobi in August will prioritize the fight against corruption and theft of public resources, and reform and empower anti-corruption agencies.

In the meantime, the citizens of north-eastern should not give up and resign themselves to their fate, but rather, use the power of the ballot to vote in good leaders who will serve them.


Published by the good folks at The Elephant.

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