Does decentralization devolve corruption or services? The case of Kisumu, Kenya

Kisumu City/CREDIT:Victor Ochieng
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The 2010 Kenyan constitution devolved power to 47 new counties, each with its own directly elected Governor and Senator. The new system generated considerable excitement as Kenyans hoped that it would finally reverse the country’s highly centralized and top-down political system, placing power in the hands of citizens and their county representatives. Yet early reports of the performance of devolution in reality were mixed – it appeared to make a great difference to those in far flung areas such as Turkana, who had rarely felt part of the Kenyan state before, but there was widespread concern that it devolved corruption more than it had service delivery. The case of Kisumu County, located in Nyanza – the stronghold of opposition leader Raila Odinga – perfectly illustrates this tension.

Kisumu County Government has had three election cycles since its establishment in 2012. The first was characterized by claims of the misappropriation of funds, irregular procurement processes, and irregular payments to an unverifiable workforce. The consequence of these problems was a failing health system and skyrocketing debts dubbed “pending bills”. The Auditor General of Kenya flagged Kisumu County for adverse audit reports for every single year of this period, indicating that its financial statements did not reflect its true financial position. Optimists dismissed these issues as “teething challenges” and many ignored the extent of the problem, perhaps in part due to Kisumu’s status as a “one party zone” under Odinga’s control. These “teething problems” have not gone away, however, and corruption has fundamentally undermined the county government’s performance.

As a result, what should have been an opportunity for Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement to demonstrate its capacity to govern effectively has turned into an embarrassment.

According to County Treasury Reports (2023), Kisumu received over 61 billion Kenya Shillings between 2018/2019 and 2022/2023. However, corruption watchdogs have reported that some 11.67% of this budget was lost due to a wide range of flawed processes and procedures including the violation of county financial laws, ghost workers, and a bewildering array of improper payments for everything from salaries and allowances through to the acquisition of unnecessary assets. In turn, this has led to recurring and growing “pending bills” that threaten to bankrupt the county. There is already evidence of basic system failure characterized by the collapse of some services and boycotts by service providers who are refusing to supply services and goods due to a lack of trust in the country’s payment systems.

The health system, for example, has been grounded by periodic go-slows and demonstrations by health workers, as well as inadequate equipment and supplies. A number of research studies have also found that the County is hampered by a lame-duck oversight body in the shape of the County Assembly, which has often been captured through political patronage and compromised by the executive. In its first term, the County Assembly of Kisumu saw theatrical politics and personal rivalries, while subsequent Assemblies have been characterized by leadership struggles and ineffective operational mechanisms. A number of observers have described the Assembly as muzzled by political interference by ODM leaders and officials, and chocked by rent-seeking, political sycophancy and a lack of attention to core legislative tasks such as oversight and scrutiny. What is more, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission and the Auditor General have both cited the Assembly for open disregard of financial laws including procurement malpractices as well as lack of legislative oversight on executive audit issues.

This evidence suggests that, in the case of Kisumu at least, the new county system has devolved corruption more than it has service delivery. The impact of this process has hit the people of Kisumu hard and undermined their confidence in county government, leading to a disillusioned citizenry. In addition to low levels of public participation, numerous research publications have identified, ill-equipped hospitals leading to increasingly negative health indicators, and worrying high rates of communicable, maternal, neonatal, and nutritional diseases – which remains the most significant driver of the country’s high mortality rates. This is a major worry moving forwards, especially as additional research has ranked the county first in the country in terms of HIV prevalence, second in terms of tuberculosis rates and ninth in terms of the extent of diarrheal diseases.

While Kisumu is clearly not representative of all Kenyan counties, its experience is a stark warning that when decentralization is poorly managed with insufficient mechanisms to correct and discipline failing county governments, it may neither bring power closer to the people, nor generate more effective public services.

Raphael Akeyo is a Research and Public Policy specialist with experience working on County Governance in Kenya, and holds a Master’s Degree in Research and Public Policy from Maseno University and a BA Political Science from the University of Nairobi.

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