Letter from Africa: Kenya's political boxing match

Benson Gicharu Njangiru (L) of Kenya and Tafari Ebanks of the Cayman Islands box during their men's bantamweight quarter-final bout at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, 30 July 2014 Image copyright Reuters

In our series of letters from African journalists, broadcaster and media and communications trainer Joseph Warungu reflects on the growing crisis in Kenya's decentralised system of government.

I love watching boxing.

I suspect the reason for this is that I am completely incapable of landing any meaningful punches even on a mosquito; I still get thoroughly bitten and beaten.

Any previous attempts at facing up to an opponent in the ring or in a physical argument has always sent me flat on the ground with blurred vision.

So I am content to just watch others fight from the safety of my television screen.

However, the current political bouts in Kenya's governance structures are too painful to watch, even for die-hard boxing fans.

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Image caption The new system is intended to keep a check on the president's powers
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Image caption Kenyans want a better transport network that would make it easier to get produce to markets

Although it is the politicians who are trading fiscal and territorial punches, ordinary Kenyans are left bleeding from the nose as they crave for public services like affordable health care and better roads to deliver their agricultural produce to the markets.

For years, Kenyans thought the solution to these problems was hampered by a governance system that put too much power in the hands one man - the president - or a central government which sat in the capital, Nairobi, and selectively chose where to direct national resources, thus alienating certain regions or communities, especially if they had the unfortunate wisdom to cast their votes in favour of inconvenient parties.

And so in 2010 the people voted for a new and bold constitution that decentralised power.

'Dashing to court'

It created 47 new regional counties, each led by an elected governor - and elected local assemblies to keep the governor in check.

The senate was also established to watch over the affairs of counties with a senator elected from each of the 47 counties.

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Image caption Kenyans had hoped that the new constitution would usher in an era of better governance

But since this devolved system came into being following last year's general election, the traditional government versus opposition fight has gradually turned into an all-out administrative civil war.

First the local assembly representatives turned their boxing gloves on their respective governors, threatening to paralyse the county governments' operations unless their various demands were met, including an increase in their salaries and other benefits.

In some counties the local assemblies have gone as far as impeaching the governor or his deputy (all the 47 governors happen to be men).

The affected governors have only managed to cling to dear life by screaming and dashing to court.

In some instances county assembly representatives have gone off on foreign trips, ostensibly to learn how other devolved systems work.

But Kenyans see this as a waste of their tax money, accusing governors of buying the loyalty of county assemblies.

As governors continue to duck irritating blows from the local assemblies below them, fresh punches have started to rain from the senate above.

A new bill signed into law by President Uhuru Kenyatta last week puts senators directly in charge of billions of shillings, the local currency, by appointing them as chair of their respective County Development Boards.


Before I strayed into journalism back in the day, I was a high school teacher in Kenya.

In those days the one person we revered and worshipped the most was any public service manager with AIE - the authority to incur expenditure.

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Image caption Many Kenyans do not have easy to access to water
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Image caption Living conditions are particularly bad in slums in the capital, Nairobi

By their signature they decided when and for how long you could go on an official trip, what you could or could not buy and what you ate and drank.

They were demi-gods. They lived by - or sometimes with a bit of help from - their AIE.

You had to keep an AIE holder close, sometimes even parting with a portion of your official travel expenses. A manager without AIE was nothing.

Under the Kenyan constitution, the senate has the mandate to oversee the management of counties; it also has the power to decide whether a governor lives or dies politically.

Once the local assembly impeaches a governor or deputy, the senate has a final say in the matter.

But despite such wide-ranging powers, without AIE, the senate could not bite - the new law allows them to bite and chew.

'Knocked in the teeth'

And so when the senate put on its new punching gloves and glared at the counties, the governors reacted by swinging wild punches in the face of the central government.

They are once more pushing for a national referendum to increase their share of budget allocation from the national treasury.

Already the governors are heavy AIE holders, controlling 226.7bn shillings ($2.57bn; £1.5bn) , which is equivalent to 43% of Kenya's national revenue.

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Image caption Activists campaigned strongly for the constitution to be approved in the 2011 referendum

If their referendum bid succeeds, it would also effectively tilt the balance of power in their favour.

In the past when the governors' blows became unbearable, the president has had to intervene and whisper sweet words in their ears to persuade them to shelve their referendum plans.

The president knows that given the current state of the economy, a referendum would be financially crippling and politically unpredictable.

And so the Kenyan political boxing ring is messy and crowded - with lots of blood on the floor.

Members of the county assemblies are punching governors in the eye. Governors are knocking the national government in the teeth. Senators are hitting governors in the stomach. Everyone says they are fighting for the people.

But ordinary Kenyans who are meant to referee this twisted battle are on the floor with a serious haemorrhage.

With the cost of living rising by the day, clean running water a perennial challenge and food becoming the single focus of survival, Kenyans are too hungry, too weak and too tired to stop the fight.

As a boxing fan my job is to watch it, report the results and hope that one day the right AIE holder will connect unselfishly with the people on the floor.

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