Re-reading Prof David Anderson's piece on the "majimbo" debate in Kenya between 1955 and 1964 (Yours in Struggle for Majimbo), I am struck by the similarity of those times to current efforts at devolution in Kenya.
"Majimbo" is Kiswahili for "regions", and refers to bringing power to the local level, rather than having everything determined by a centralised state based in Nairobi.
Majimboism was advocated by the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) as Kenya transitioned towards independence at the beginning of the 1960s. The sentiment driving it was the fear that many communities would be dominated by those politically better positioned when Kenya became independent. The aggrieved communities wanted assurance that they could administer things in their local area in a way that met local concerns.
The idea was initially supported by the British administration of the time, though was not liked by members of the Kenya African National Union (KANU), who instead wanted to see national unity through a strong central state.
Analysing these trends, Anderson makes a couple of comments that could almost interchangeably describe current debates about devolution, a key part of Kenya's 2010 constitution.
Constitutional provisions for devolution are being hotly contested in Kenya as they are being implemented, leading to divisions between state ministries and county governors most especially.
Anderson remarks that although the divisions between KADU and KANU had found partial compromise as they were debated in the Lancaster House talks of 1962, 'once back in Nairobi, KANU immediately mounted a political offensive in which it dismissed majimboism as anti-nationalist and KADU as "tribalists".' (p. 557)
How often have we heard the same thing being told to supporters of devolution, that they are going against national unity and are inciting tribal feelings?
Anderson describes Mwai Kibaki's response in 1962 to those in favour of a majimboist constitution: 'Kibaki first spoke of the need for unity and cultural integration, "otherwise we shall never at any time have one nation in this country". The burden of his argument, however, was economic. The existing provinces and districts already had a costly infrastructure which it would be expensive to replicate for any new arrangements, "particularly when there are no benefits other than the theories which have been put forward".' (p. 560)
As then, so now. The perspective of Nairobi is ever centred on complaining about the costs of devolving power, even though the state's finances has most of all been troubled by the corruption of Nairobi-based politicians.
There is, nevertheless, a big difference between the years surrounding independence and now. After Kenya achieved independence in 1963, KANU refused to implement the previously agreed upon regional provisions, and ceased authorizing funds from central government to local areas (p. 562). Now, however, the amount transferred from the centre to the counties is fixed constitutionally so that it is always at least 15% of national revenue. Those at the centre have still tried to meddle with the process of sending it, erecting various technical barriers and then claiming that county governments are not spending their own money. These are short term tussles, however. Nairobi-based politicians will, in the long term, be forced to acknowledge that decentralised government is here to stay.