Sometimes, the size of a block of stone can affect democracy. If it’s too small, democracy could be at risk. But luckily, Phyllis Nduva, a 65-year-old farmer from Mwaani, a village of 1,000 people in eastern Kenya, has a mobile phone with a camera and knows how democracy works. It goes like this: Nduva photographs the blocks that a construction firm has just laid for the foundations of the village’s new health centre. She sends the photos to another farmer, 33-year-old David Mutisya, the chairman of the building committee. He looks at the construction plans – which a county government engineer previously went through in detail with the building committee – and confirms Nduva’s suspicions: the blocks are too small. The building committee summons the construction firm and confronts the site manager. Supplying materials that are smaller or of inferior quality than those specified in the order, while charging for the higher-quality product, is the language of corruption.
The farmers from Mwaani demand the correct blocks for the foundations. The health centre needs a solid footing. The site manager has no option. He is forced to replace the blocks. And he has to put up with members of the building committee prowling around his construction site every day, taking notes and watching every move his labourers make like hawks. There is nothing he can do about it because these farmers own the building: the residents of Mwaani wanted a health centre and now they are building one. And the county government will only pay the construction firm once the new owners are satisfied, and when they confirm to the county government in writing that the building has been completed as planned.
In Kenya, people don’t challenge authority. Kenyans don’t assert their rights and Kenyan villagers don’t confront businesses. But the new constitution of 2010 devolves selected government functions to 47 newly formed counties. The functions include healthcare, preschool education and maintaining minor roads in rural areas. Two elections ago, in March 2013, the decentralisation plans started being implemented. Grassroots democracy is essential here. It is no longer the central government far away in Nairobi that decides how a village, town or county will develop, but the local people themselves.
Between them, the 47 counties receive at least 15 per cent of the national budget. Each individual county budget is calculated using a formula based on the size of the population, the size of the county and its poverty rate, as well as a fixed proportion for administrative costs. Each county has a local parliament led by a governor. Kenya is spending a lot on democracy.
“The presidency was the beast that had to be tamed,” says Abraham Rugo, head of the Kenya Office of the International Budget Partnership, an organisation that collaborates with civil societies around the world to analyse national budgets in order to improve the quality of governance. The ‘beast’ was embodied by Kenya’s former president, Daniel arap Moi, who ruled the country as a dictator for decades until 2002 and wielded absolute power. His role became the root of all conflicts – only the president could decide where and how Kenya’s resources, i.e. money, were distributed.
“There was no room for anyone else to have an equal say in running the country,” says Rugo. The new constitution of 2010 was intended to decentralise power to prevent conflict – to clip the president’s wings, devolving power horizontally to parliament and the judiciary, but also downwards to autonomous regional administrative units. The aim is to turn a society that is just about surviving into one that is flourishing. ‘All sovereign power belongs to the people’, according to Article 1 of the Kenyan constitution.
The constitution goes into great detail in order to defuse or ward off social conflicts. For instance, it provides for a clear recognition of marginalised groups, such as the Ogiek, an ethnic minority of around 35,000 people who live as hunter-gatherers in the forests of central Kenya and have been fighting for decades for their right to stay in the forests. What is more, no more than two-thirds of the members of an elective public body may be of the same gender. This rule is intended to give women better access to decision-making positions. However, the Kenyan parliament has still not managed to sign this rule into law and only 22 per cent of the country’s MPs are women.
During President Moi’s rule, it was his home region that had the most schools and the best roads. Kenyans in other parts of the country had never set foot on a paved road. In order to distribute resources more fairly across the regions and to avoid resentment between Kenya’s 44 ethnic groups, the constitution divides the country into 47 counties. In the village of Mwaani, people have grasped the spirit of the constitution and are not letting go of their new-found decision-making autonomy. Mwaani is in the county of Makueni. People here depend on agriculture. There are plenty of mangos and oranges, but water supply is a problem. Nearly two-thirds of the population of just under one million lives in poverty.
But a silent revolution is spreading in Makueni: the county is seen as a model for successful decentralisation. It is the only one of the 47 counties in Kenya to have clear guidelines and structures for the political education of its citizens. Long before the structural changes took place, the civilian population in this area was one of the most active in the country. However, it is one man in particular who leads Makueni. He is seen as the father of decentralisation and was very influential in drawing up the parts of the constitution that relate to devolution. He is Kivutha Kibwana, a law professor, referred to respectfully as ‘Prof’ by the local people.
“We feel great,” says David Mutisya, the chairman of the building committee in Mwaani. “We are being taken seriously at last.” The farmers of Mwaani got together and decided that the nearest hospital – in Wote, the capital of Makueni County – was too far away and they wanted a health centre in the village. When the county government asked them what they wanted, they were ready. They formed a building committee, which includes seven villagers as well as county government experts, and elected the young farmer David Mutisya to the position of chairman. The construction will cost around 30,000 euros – and not one cent more than the estimate. These management committees are the people’s key to democracy. They provide transparency and give people the feeling that decisions are not simply being taken over their heads. “People understand now: it’s our project and it’s our money,” says Patrick Mutunga, a member of the building committee.
However, although the progressive constitution is a powerful tool for resolving deep-seated conflicts that have been simmering for decades, the Kenyan government keeps undermining its implementation. “The government makes sure that the counties are not given enough money to function properly,” says Abraham Rugo. “Although the health system is completely decentralised, the national government still controls 70 to 80 per cent of its functions. Besides, it takes years to pass laws in parliament.” According to Rugo, the government is slowing down the processes to avoid having to relinquish any power.
For the administration expert, the constitution’s greatest achievement is having “heard the voice of the people”. However, he says, “This is also the aspect that’s most frequently abused.” Makueni’s progress is by no means typical for the country as a whole. The new administrative structure has also decentralised corruption: whereas, in the past, it was mainly government ministers who lined their own pockets, now the local parliaments are joining in. In a short space of time, people in positions of responsibility can be seen living in new houses, driving expensive cars, and hiring bodyguards at the taxpayer’s expense. They find ways of giving government contracts to businesses owned by their relatives, so that the profit stays in the family. One county has been digging a roadside ditch for two years. Now rubbish is piling up in the ditch because construction has stopped: someone ran off with the money for the construction firm.
The constitution provides for comprehensive control mechanisms when it comes to distributing public resources to the counties, but these procedures cost time and money. “Before a county gets its money to build a health centre, for instance, it needs approval from seven or eight authorities at various levels,” says Rugo. “We don’t trust one another or the system. This is one of the main causes of conflicts in Kenya. No one is held responsible for misconduct.” He is convinced that trust can only be built if an elected government fulfils its social contract with its citizens, “namely, taking care of everyone, regardless of who is in power,” and if laws apply to everyone.
At the moment, they don’t. No one in Kenya has ever been convicted of corruption, yet theft of public resources is one of the biggest areas of conflict for any government, including Kenya’s. Although President Uhuru Kenyatta declared corruption a national security risk in 2015, a Kenyan daily newspaper recently calculated that in the past five years, only 13 per cent of government expenditure was accounted for correctly. So much money leaks out of the government machinery that some government functions have come to a standstill.
“This conflict has never been as intense as it is today,” says Abraham Rugo, “but people are staying quiet,” for fear of losing the little they have fought so hard to accomplish. Kenyans have resorted to their private conflict-resolution strategies: a growing middle class can afford to look after itself and several family members. Other financial gaps are plugged by self-help groups and micro-insurance policies.
Translation and Proofreading: Ros Mendy and Nivene Rafaat for lingua•trans•fair