Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero: devolution is ‘bringing services closer to the people’

Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero offers a critique and a defense of Kenya's experiment with handing power to local governments. (Christopher Swope)

Nairobi, one of Africa’s largest and most influential cities, doesn’t have a mayor — it has a governor.

His name is Evans Kidero, and he was elected in 2013 as part Kenya’s ambitious experiment with devolving power to local governments.

Kenya created 47 counties — Nairobi is one of them — and gave their newly elected governors significant new responsibilities for delivering government services. On a fast-urbanizing continent where central governments retain much authority over local services, Kenya’s new system is being closely watched as a possible model for the future.

I caught up with Kidero last week at the Citylab conference in London to find out how Kenya’s important experiment is going. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Christopher Swope: Tell me about Kenya’s new devolved structure of government.

Governor Evans Kidero: You’ll recall that Kenya got independence from Britain in 1963. And the governance system that came after was very, very centralized. All the services were being provided by the central government.

In the year 2010, we passed a new constitution, which created two levels of government. One is the central government and the second one is the devolved governments. We have 47 devolved governments — county governments — and Nairobi is one of them.

The new constitution specifies what role and services are provided by the central government. It’s security, both internal security and external security — the local police and the army. There’s the trans-county roads and the inter-county roads. Immigration. Prisons — the whole criminal justice system, including courts.

Education is divided. Pre-primary school for children ages 2 to 5 is with county government. Vocational training is with county government. But primary and secondary and university is with central government.  

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Health care is through county governments except for the referral hospitals, which is through national government.

Then the local roads are the responsibility of county governments. Traffic is the county government. Water and sanitation supply is the county government. Basically the social services.

Q: How is this financed?

A: The national government collects taxes and gives to counties a minimum of 15 percent of the revenue, which gets divided among the 47 counties to provide social services. Then there is a formula to divide up that 15 percent. The formula takes into account population, land area and the poverty index.

In Nairobi, we get about 4 percent of that 15 percent — that’s 0.6 percent of the national revenues.

Q: Can you turn that into U. S. dollars, in terms of what that means for your local budget?

A: Basically it’s about US$100 million. That’s what comes from national government, which is about 47 percent of our budget.

And then we are also allowed to collect local taxes. These include parking charges, land rates (property taxes), the local trading licenses, the building and planning fees. We had these revenue sources before the new constitution. And we are allowed to have enforcement officers. We collect about 53 percent of our budget from local fees.

Q: So how is this experiment in devolution going? What are the challenges?

A: One of the issues is the amount of money we get (from the national government) is not sufficient. And it doesn’t come in time.

And the second thing is that it’s the county government who knows the crime profiles in their areas — yet they are not responsible for management of the criminal justice system and the management of crime.

Q: Let’s take each of those. What’s the problem with money from the central government?

A: It’s not sufficient because salaries of local government employees and administrators take up 70 percent, leaving only 30 percent for development.

“It is the right way to go, bringing services closer to the people. It brings the government to account.”

We have 13,000 employees, of whom 40 percent are in health care — hospitals and clinics. Before, we only had clinics, we didn’t have hospitals. Our employment is much bigger than it was before, because all the social services from central government have been devolved, and they came with the staff.

The constitution says the formula could only be revised after three years — and we are now in the third year. So the formula is being looked at, to revise in terms of whether it is adequate.

Currently, it’s not. For all the counties, the per-capita allocation is about US$100 per head per year, while for us in Nairobi, it’s about US$30 per head per year.

Q: Why does Nairobi get less?

A: The formula favors the more rural areas, where there are vast lands and poverty. Nairobi is considered affluent — yet 70 percent of the population lives in slums.

The formula was an affirmative action — many of the roads and schools were being developed in urban areas, so the formula was a way to balance or fast-track the building of infrastructure and social services in the rural areas that had been left behind.

Q: And you mentioned policing as a challenge. Can you describe that?

A: What we need is to be like the rest of the cities of the world where the police is under the mayor. Because he’s the mayor — he’s the one who knows which are the crime hotspots.

We’ve had cases of terrorism and insecurity. And the central government is saying it will work together with the county governments so that the communities are clustered into small manageable areas where you know the residents. But that’s not sufficient.

The county governor, who is elected like the president, needs to have the responsibility. You cannot have half a responsibility. The central government — they’re afraid to let go.

As governor, you’re the one who has been elected by people, so if things are not working they turn to you. If garbage is not collected, the governor should be responsible. If there’s insecurity, if someone has been robbed, they say the governor is not doing his job, yet the issue of security is not the governor’s responsibility.

Q: Apart from these challenges, has Kenya’s experiment with devolution been a success?

A: It’s the best way to go, because its main objective is bringing services closer to the people. We have rural areas where 7 out of 10 women who had difficult births used to die. They’re not dying now because they have doctors close by and caesarean sections are being done instead of transporting them 300 or 400 kilometers to another facility.

There are small rural towns where people had never seen street lights. They now have street lights. So it is the right way to go, bringing services closer to the people. It brings the government to account.

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What needs to be done is to balance the power between what the central government exercises and what local government exercises. And also to fund local government sufficiently so that it’s able to operate.

Q: Are there things you control locally on the revenue side that can make up that funding gap?

A: Definitely. With land rates, we are only collecting 35 percent of the total rates payable.

Just yesterday (October 19) I published in the newspaper the names of all the rate defaulters. There’s a cabinet secretary and other prominent officials who are not paying their rates. So notice has been given that we’ll auction the properties if they don’t pay arrears.

“If someone has been robbed, they say the governor is not doing his job, yet the issue of security is not the governor’s responsibility.”

We have sold a number of properties — the process is slow but it happens. When we talk about data — sometimes the land records are not accurate. Accuracy of the data is important.

For carparks, we are only collecting half of the projected revenue. For building fees, the higher end will pay while the lower end will just go ahead and build.

So compliance with the statute requirements — that’s something that would give us more revenue. And actually, it’s possible that if we collected all the forecasted revenue, we wouldn’t even need the money from central government.

Q: So local governments can perhaps get out of this position of waiting for transfers of money from the central government?

A: They can. If one, they work with the citizens to understand that the payment of fees is for their own benefit. And two, they strengthen enforcement, to make sure there’s compliance.

Q: Citiscope had a story earlier this year out of Dakar, which was ready to go to market with a municipal bond and at the last minute the president of Senegal said no. Is Nairobi interested in pursuing municipal bonds?

A: The constitution was very clear on this: The counties cannot borrow for the first three years. I think it’s important, because we don’t want the country to be overexposed. We needed to stabilize systems and processes before people are allowed to do this. And identify which projects — not just borrow for the heck of borrowing.

The embargo on borrowing in the first three years was spot on. Because it’s a new system. We need to know how it’s going to work. We need to know what projects, and be convinced that the money borrowed will be used for the right purposes.

Q: Are there any other lessons Kenya has for the world on devolution?

A: Obviously, there is a struggle because central government feel they are losing control and county governments want to take control. So it’s something that must be given time. But central government must allow it to happen because it’s the only way services can get to the people.

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Christopher Swope is managing editor of Citiscope. Full bio

LEARNING FROM NAIROBI

  • Kenya’s 2010 constitution created 47 county governments and gave them significant responsibilities to provide local social services.
  • Nairobi Governor Kidero complains that funds from central government to pay for these activities are insufficient, and that central authorities should devolve policing to counties.
  • However, Kidero also says devolution is succeeding at bringing services closer to the people.  

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