In the Kenyan parliament we want, they are building the state, not tearing it down

Saturday March 08 2014

I confess I am finding Kenya’s transition to devolution a bit depressing. Kenya’s is an adversarial, separation of powers system, and in any system of that type, mature or newly founded, there will be constant bickering over the boundaries of institutional power.

What disturbs me is the lack of serious national players with an interest in building up devolved institutions.

To be fair, the principle of an adversarial, separation of powers system is that, when every institution pursues its own selfish interests, it will tend to disperse power from the centre and ensure that no single actor can dominate.

In that sense, we are doing pretty well. Constant conflict is shifting power away from the national executive, and toward new bodies in ways that are not entirely predictable.

Early in the transition, it appeared that the momentum was with governors, and that the Senate was headed for oblivion. Senators have managed to invert that discussion, and now seem to have regained relevance at the expense of governors.

County Assembly Members started out with little power or sympathy, but have learned that by pulling together, they can extract more power and money and send governors home.


Controller of Budget and Auditor reports that have in the past served mainly to collect dust are suddenly being debated and driving real-world outcomes. CRA recommendations now make it more difficult for Treasury to simply have its way on revenue sharing, creating space for broader deliberations.

All of this may be dizzying, infuriating, and expensive, but it is inexorably taking the limelight and resources away from the national executive. Kenya is changing, and in many ways, it is changing the way Kenyans wanted it to.

Still, I am depressed. While a competitive, separation of powers system can work well to disperse power, it is not designed, by itself, to create national unity or a coherent development agenda. Weakening institutions can never yield development; we must also build.

Yet most seem intent only on destroying. Where are the great Kenyan leaders who understand what it means to build up the state before we try to tear it down? Where is the forbearance of a public that understands that such tasks cannot be accomplished in a day and a night?

To counter this, I will write about the institutions we want, the ones that we need to ensure that devolution is not just about destroying central power, but about building a multi-level state that delivers.

This week, I will start with Parliament. The Parliament we want is one that is primarily focused on making laws, rather than constantly amending them to suit its interests. It has read the Constitution and is working to advance it, through the enactment of relevant policies.

MPs understand that their job is to ensure that there is a good framework for the use of the Equalisation Fund (and all funds) by the executive (either national or county) to deliver basic services like health, and that officials are held to account for the use of this money.

They use Controller and Auditor reports to hold both levels of government to account, not just counties.

The Senate has read and focuses on its primary role in the Constitution, which is not oversight, but to “protect the interests of the counties and their governments.”

Senators understand that their first calling is to build up county government systems. They are meant to hold national government to account for providing technical support in building these systems.

They must also ensure that there are clear guidelines for things like how to classify recurrent and development spending, before they start clobbering counties for not spending enough on development. They are pushing for guidelines on taxation that clarify what fees a county can and cannot charge.

They recognise that they are the last, not the first, recourse for county accountability, because devolution is fundamentally about accountability at county level, by county actors.

National actors must step in only when systems at county level have been built, but have failed. They do not step in before the systems have been built, because then they never will be.

They work with counties to ensure that a system of accounting officers are in place to manage public funds, and that these officers report to the County Assembly.

When they have erred, they are reprimanded at county level. Senators support county assemblies to understand their role in scrutinising the budget before it is approved and while it is being implemented.

Most of all, parliament is the place where Kenyan problems are debated, not exacerbated, and solutions proposed, vetted and approved. Because parliamentarians are building the Kenyan state, not tearing it down.

Jason Lakin is senior programme officer and research fellow at the International Budget Partnership. E-mail: [email protected]