The Dawn of Devolved Government in Kenya

by | Jan 13, 2016

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About Dominic Burbidge

Dr Dominic Burbidge is a Researcher at the Department of Politics and Lecturer in African Studies, University of Oxford. He is author of The Shadow of Kenyan Democracy.


Dominic Burbidge, ‘The Dawn of Devolved Government in Kenya’ (OxHRH Blog, 13 January 2016) <> [Date of Access]

In a landmark paper on Kenyan politics, Daniel Branch and Nic Cheeseman developed the term “bureaucratic-executive state” to describe how power came to be centralised in Kenya between the years 1952 and 1978. The over-centralisation began under British colonialism, and was taken forward by first president Jomo Kenyatta to ensure state administration complied with his directives, as opposed to being led by parliamentary deliberation. Against this trend, and against all the odds, in 2010 the Kenyan people promulgated a Constitution that is the most radically decentralised in the East African region. The winner-takes-all presidency that the bureaucratic-executive state created had proven too destabilising and distasteful, with a rigged election in 2007 leading to violence that left more than 1,100 dead and about 600,000 internally displaced. In reaction, a new Constitution was proposed that would make the presidency less powerful and less able to develop certain areas of the country at the expense of others.

The new Constitution, supported by the Kenyan people in a 2010 referendum, created 47 county governments that each year receive at least 15% of national revenue for functions of government that have been devolved to their management. Each county is led by a governor, elected by local residents, who appoints a county executive committee.

These steps towards decentralising power were unimaginable only a few years previously. And already there have been gains, with one early victory being peaceful elections in 2013. Nevertheless, the process has been inhibited by mismanagement in transferring government functions out of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, to the local level. In addition, there is a growing dilemma of whether the state purse can handle the extra costs of so many new political offices—a topic being researched by colleagues of mine at Strathmore University in Kenya.

Alongside these questions of capacity, there is also a question of appropriate political representation of ethnic minorities. This is a serious issue because the county administrative territories are based, in their origin, on the districts developed by British colonial authorities, which aimed to confine ethnic groups. The brutal system sought to restrict inter-ethnic collaboration, which meant ownership of land became highly politicised along ethnic lines, rather than based on standardisable rules of ownership. When labour migration and economic opportunity naturally resulted in mixture, local politics became fixated with the question of who counts as indigenous, and who instead can be excluded as an outsider, a trend analysed more generally by Mahmood Mamdani.

Devolution in Kenya needs to avoid these dangers if it is to be democratically consolidated. In a recent paper, I provide statistical evidence to show that, on average, the dominant ethnic group of each county is overrepresented in its county government composition. All governors are male, and all have appointed county executive committees with a majority of members from their own ethnic group.

These governors have been democratically elected, so there is no reason to take issue with any individual on the basis of these statistics. At the same time, however, section 197 (2) of the Constitution and section 35 of the County Government Act 2012 demand appropriate care be taken to ensure that minorities and marginalised communities are politically represented. And here lies another difficulty of even more urgency. In keeping with the need to establish county governments appreciative of local ethnic diversity, the Constitution provides for deputy governors as running-mates to governors. The two candidates can then present a more ethnically diverse candidacy to the electorate, more likely to foster cross-ethnic voting blocks.

However, deputy governors directly inherit the governorship if the county governor is impeached. The problem with this is that it encourages deputy governors to aim at the position of governor by manipulating disaffected groups so that they advocate for the governor’s impeachment. Deputy governors usually lack a specific portfolio once elected, meaning they are without specific duties to which they can be assessed and held to account over the course of their term in office, making them all the more out of sync with the day-to-day goals of their county government. Deputy governors can be dismissed, but this will likely upset those from their community.

As is said in Dholuo: “kasigro geto kabangi”, the small pot covets the big pot.

There is a legal solution: parliament and the people of Kenya need to amend the Constitution so that successful impeachment of a governor is followed by a gubernatorial election for that county. Anything short of this encourages ethnic factionalism during the governor’s term as the deputy governor can make surreptitious promises to those willing to trump-up impeachment charges.

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