The Book Club: Devolution in Kenya

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Our popular “Book Club” features the best of the new publications on African politics. This week, we bring you the work of Dominic Burbidge, who has been doing some of the most insightful and thought provoking research on the impact of the system of devolution introduced in Kenya in 2010.

In 2010, the Kenyan people promulgated a new constitution, containing within it one of the most radical political experiments the world has ever seen. The constitution split core government functions into 47 sub-national governments, working to avoid the winner-takes-all politics that had so divided Kenya in the past.

Devolution challenges the assumption that progress is about having a centralised, bureaucratised state. Its alternative hypothesis is that national unity can be brought about through sub-national governments built through local democracy and public participation. I evaluate Kenya’s devolution experiment in a recent book published by Strathmore University Press, An Experiment in Devolution: National Unity and the Deconstruction of the Kenyan State.

What is devolution?

Devolution is about bringing decision-making to local governments rather than central government. In the case of Kenya it led to the creation of 47 county governments, each with elected county assemblies and elected governors. County governments can pass legislation locally and are in charge of 14 key functions, among them the entirety of health care. There have now been two rounds of elections of governors for each of the counties, creating a vibrant and diverse democratic exchange about how each county is led.

Kenya’s devolution experiment forces us to rethink assumptions about what the state is in Africa. Under the devolution model, the point is not how “strong” or “weak” a state is, but the degree to which politics is able to include and unite. I argue against those who have framed African politics in terms of state “strength” or state “weakness” and say that the most burning issue is whether people feel included and in possession of state structures. On this point, Kenya’s 2010 constitution makes a radical break with how African states have previously operated.

The era of “state-building” was about administrative consolidation for the purposes of economic development. Kenya’s devolution experiment is a return to politics as the best way of reconnecting state and society.

Has devolution in Kenya been a success?

So far, those who have evaluated devolution in Kenya have done so either in terms of what it means for public service delivery or what it means for centre-periphery relations. In the book I point out that these approaches fail to address the core aims of devolution: bringing about national unity and political participation. These are the tools designed to heal Kenya’s social and political divisions.

I conduct in-depth fieldwork and national surveys to evaluate the impact of devolution on national unity. I find that devolution is making people across the country feel significantly more Kenyan, and that devolution makes it much less likely that elections will be violent. The reason for this is that devolution means the presidency matters less than in the past.

There has been great fear that devolution in Kenya will increase the ethnicisation of politics by making things more regional. I provide demographic data on ethnicity by county and show that, while this is a significant danger, in the main county governments are working to include minorities. Much of their ethnic homogeneity is because the administrative units were created that way in the colonial era, not because they have now been democratised.

Devolution has led to what I term “the rise of the independents”. These are political candidates who have no party and no presidential allegiance, and who don’t care that they don’t. I show that Kenya’s devolution experiment has in this way led to a clean break with former ways Kenyan politics has been done. For most citizens it no longer matters whether one’s governor is part of the group of one’s preferred presidential candidate. This challenges the “big man” politics normally associated with democracy in Africa and shows that new, local social contracts can counter national political pressures.

Since devolution was brought about, do you feel more Kenyan, less Kenyan or it hasn’t made any difference?

Survey data on Kenyan attitudes post devolution

Devolution is fundamentally reshaping political behaviour in Kenya. It is re-creating a social contract between citizens and their representatives, when oftentimes none existed before. There are, of course, numerous problems with the implementation of devolution, including public service frustrations and ongoing corruption, but these problems are locally owned and locally felt, such that they are being held to account in a way that they weren’t at the national level.

Kenya’s vibrant democracy means devolution’s problems are attracting political actors who frame themselves as fixers. The prestige of the newly-created positions has attracted high-level national politicians back to their regions to vie in local elections. National politicians who refuse to engage with devolution are being side-lined.

For a long time, analysts of democracy in Africa have been looking for ways to reconnect state and society. Kenya’s devolution experiment provides just that.


Dominic Burbidge is a Research Director in the University of Oxford. His previous book was The Shadow of Kenyan Democracy: Widespread Expectations of Widespread Corruption

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