The biggest winners of Kenya polls

Thursday August 11 2022
KE govern

One of the pallets with Ballot Papers at Aldina Visram High School in Mombasa on August 8, 2022. PHOTO | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

While national media and international attention have been focused on the Kenya presidential election, what is happening with the County governors is nearly as important.

There was excitement around the devolved County governorships earlier in the year during nominations, then the attention of most of the Kenyan national elite and commentariat shifted back to Nairobi.

Recently, I was glad to be invited to a couple of brainiac policy events looking at, one, how this August 9 vote was likely to turn out and, two, what Kenya’s future will look like. In most of them, the focus was firmly on the counties.

At one of them, the fellows did a clever dance with the numbers and looked at counties as countries. Turns out, a couple of counties would be richer than Kenya if they were countries. Another one looked at “state effectiveness”, and again, a few counties would be better run if they were countries than Kenya is.

There is a universe emerging in Kenya, which has been remarked on for some time now by several people, where the big deal is not Nairobi, but the counties. Even society itself is shifting. Years back, on social media, little of interest was posted from outside Nairobi. Today there are as many liberated young women from the counties posting bold side views of themselves on Instagram that would shock their aunts as there are creative Kenyans from these areas publishing works of their ingenuity on TikTok and Pinterest.

If the counties are rising, one has to wonder why this time there was less drama about the election of governors than there was in 2013 and 2017. For starters, it seems because it marked the end of the two terms of a record 21 of the 47 governors. Without that many incumbents, the contests have been less visceral. Secondly, and related to that, the prestige of a sitting county governor – especially one who does a good job – seems to be so high that it simply is a bridge too far for rivals to unseat them. After the first generation of governors who ushered in the system, Kenya is likely going into a phase where most sitting governors, if they can avoid the troubles that dog the Nairobi and Kiambu office holders, can expect to see out their two terms without being ousted by a pretender to the throne.

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Comparing Kenyan county governors with those from the few federal states in Africa, like Nigeria, yields exciting insights. Though they have less autonomy, call fewer shots, and have far smaller budgets (and are less corrupt) than their Nigerian counterparts, they seem to have more social substance.

This is likely a result of history. There always has been a vacuum in local power in Kenya. In pre-colonial times, there were chieftains and warrior fiefdoms as political powers, but their range was limited.

Koitalel arap Samoei was the supreme chief of the Nandi and led their resistance against British colonial rule. But he didn’t rule over anything approximating a state. Contrast that to the kings of Buganda, who oversaw highly centralised and expansive states.

When one goes to Nigeria today, within federal states, there is a gaggle of traditional centres of power. You can’t throw a stone in Nigeria, and it doesn’t land on a chief’s homestead. There are those who are born chiefs, and there are those upon whom it is thrust. A leading business executive, senior civil servant, and retired army general, all become chiefs. Then there are seers with power, and several tiny old kingdoms with kings, queens, princes, and princesses, at the edge of every forest and the banks of every other river. And, depending on the state, emirs and sultans with quite some local heft.

A Nigerian governor might have the mansion, limousine, and purse, but they are not the only star in the state. No such problems in Kenya. The governor is The Man or The Woman.

Additionally, the post-colonial state in Kenya exacted a high level of alienation upon the peoples from the periphery. Not so much in occupying the control space but in “bringing the fruits of development”.

The counties were a radical redistribution of resources and patronage back to starved peripheries, and the goodies even shocked some local systems. Sitting on top of this new lucrative food chain has given governors the power of the Great Providers. It is clout derived from previous extreme deprivation.

This election will reveal how much the polarisation caused by the cutthroat elite competition has withered away the prestige of the state they seek to seize electorally. It’s much like the fight one has with their siblings when they are kids over a shirt. The winner will likely get a shirt that has been torn in the fight.

The unintended consequence of the 2010 constitution is that the electoral contest for the presidency diminishes the value of the prize. In effect, it is a state remaking project. The winner is not who goes to State House in Kilimani but the governor’s mansion in a county upcountry.