Is the reality of devolution beginning to sink in? This seems so with the increasing protests against new taxes and levies by county governments, notably on economic activities of low-income groups.
In the heat of the campaign for the new Constitution, sober minds warned of the cost of implementing it. There were concerns on the expected new layers of bureaucracy that could be too unwieldy and expensive for the country’s weak political and economic structures.
These concerns are now being vindicated.
Counties need money not only for the myriad jobs and bureaucracy created, but also to prop up the profligate lifestyles of the governors and their acolytes.
The predatory nature of the Kenyan state has simply been cascaded down to the local level. And it seems to give the governor licence to do anything.
There are worrying contradictions. Some governors are already playing politics with investments. A governor in central Kenya has directed that all coffee in his county be milled at a ‘county mill’ owned by KPCU, which is under receivership. The favoured mill is in another county!
The coffee sector is long liberalised and KPCU is just one of the many millers, but the governor has given private millers the quit notice.
Farmers are being coerced to market their coffee using a new and shady company, which the governor is obviously interested in. The matter is in court.
Did the Constitution create 46 monsters? In future, the government may find it difficult to control the counties. Will the National Government stem the excesses of the governors?
It is not just low-income players who are up against the apparent failings of the county governments. Health officials have protested their deployment to counties, questioning the capacity of the counties to manage and finance health services.
Then there are turf wars between different departments. In some counties, the Teachers Service Commission, now an independent entity is pitted against the county directorate of education, which represents the Ministry of Education. What is emerging is a rift between ‘the owners of the schools’ i.e. the ministry and the ‘owner of the teachers’, the TSC.
Maybe these are teething problems, but politics and lack of communication on the role of devolved structures may result in paralysis in governance.
Most importantly, opposition to increased taxation is from players in the informal sectors — the small man. This is not a bad thing.
Finally, devolution is mobilising the low income workers into what is shaping up into a grassroots protest across the country.
Since independence, low-income workers have been powerless over various issues affecting them. Many passively accepted heavy taxation, low agricultural prices, etc.
Introducing all manner of taxes and levies will definitely stifle development. It is easy to tax chicken- and cat-owners, but the micro-economic impact will be counterproductive.
The more sustainable strategy would be to engage people in finding creative ways of mobilising local resources by adding value, establishing markets links, and empowering the cooperatives.
Dr Mbataru teaches agribusiness at Kenyatta University. (firstname.lastname@example.org)