The Benefits of Regionalism

The issue of political equity trumps any fear of economic viability

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By Janek Sunga

I believe the re-introduction of devolution has been wonderful for our democracy.  In the social sciences, five years is the bare minimum that is required for conducting a proper longitudinal study. In such a study, scientists make observations and gather data on the same subjects repeatedly over a long period of time.

We are only seven years into this new Kenya experiment. I believe at the ten year mark, we can begin taking proper stock of the success of devolution. However, valid questions have been raised about the viability of some county governments which I will address in this essay.

“Let the people decide!”

Well, the people decided in 2010 when they voted to usher a new constitutional dispensation. Kenneth Matiba’s famous dictum is the simplest definition of democracy there is. The people decided that they wanted their destiny in their very own hands, and closer home. Political equity was a big factor of why we clamored for the return of ‘majimboism’. I believe the issue of political equity trumps any fear of economic viability. The counties as currently constituted are viable as political units. Democracy now feels more tangible because citizens can see their vote translate into action at the grassroots.

It is so much easier to make the walk down to the County Assembly in Kisii or the short trip across the street to the Governor’s office than to drive all the way to Nairobi and demand to be heard at State House. Devolution is the cushion that protects the wananchi from the failures of the capital city.

So how do we ensure the principles of Devolution are not sacrificed at the altar of economic viability? The answer lies in regionalism. I am not talking about sneaking the old Provincial Administration system in through the back door. To a certain extent, the political boundaries that were drawn by the 2010 Constitution are artificial.

This is more apparent when you realize that certain problems transcend county boundaries. There are several counties that share  geographic and climatic features. Counties in what used to be called the Northern Frontier District, and later the North Eastern Province largely comprise of Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASAL). The former Nyanza and Western provinces consisted mainly of counties that are part of the Lake Basin. Central Province was mainly the highlands.

At present, the Council of Governors recognizes six regional economic blocs: the North Rift, the Frontier Counties, the Lake Region, Mt. Kenya and Aberdare, Southern Eastern Kenya, and the aptly named in Swahili, Jumuiya ya Kaunti za Pwani. When it was launched the head of the Lake Region Economic bloc, Kakamega Governor Wycliffe Oparanya, was quoted in the press as saying “The envisaged economic bloc will act as a one-stop-shop for investors keen to exploit existing opportunities.” Secretariats have been established to coordinate the works of the groupings. On paper it seems the counties are partners, but in practice counties continue to act as islands unto themselves.

Regional ventures may turn out to be more sustainable in the long term compared to stand alone county projects. Counties should focus on specializing instead of being everything to their constituents. They can pool their resources for those grand problems that require a joint regional venture to solve. In the Wealth of Nations Adam Smith famously showed us the importance of division of labor. Another less well known thinker David Ricardo pointed out the ‘comparative advantages’ of nations. According to Ricardo, countries can mutually profit from trade even if one is superior at producing everything compared to the other. That’s why Kenya has always focused in the international market on what we are good at: tea production, tourism and the like.

Regionalism extends beyond the tribal lines and focuses more on common socio-economic problems. Different tribes otherwise known as counties can collaborate in facing these challenges together.

For example counties in ASAL have similar problems. They are mostly made up of pastoral communities. Samburu, Turkana and Marsabit counties have been identified as hotbeds of cattle rustling by researchers at Masinde Muliro University. Counties can build on their strengths and align their resources strategically to combat common challenges together.

The Lake Region can pursue eliminating malaria as regional issue. The climate of the Lake Victoria Basin is hot and wet. Therefore it provides ideal breeding grounds for the Anopheles mosquito, the vector that spreads the deadly malaria parasite.

It is not just local governments that can cooperate at the regional level. Private sector partnerships can extend to businesses, nonprofits and universities.  Chambers of commerce from different cities and counties can be involved in regional marketing campaigns. I would also like to see counties involved in research and development. They can harness local university departments in helping assessing particular needs. Research and analysis can also be undertaken in support of socio-economic development.

Some innovation is already taking place at the county level. In April this year, at the Fifth Devolution Conference President Uhuru Kenyatta acknowledged the rapid advances made in the public health sector by the counties. First he commended Governor Kivutha Kibwana for introducing universal subsidized health-care in Makueni. The President also added that Mandera had halved its child mortality rate by investing in medical facilities. Finally he commended Kapenguria County for building its first medical training college. 

The regionalism I am talking about is voluntary. I am not advocating a system imposed from above, that would be the old system again. Regionalism means these public private sector partnerships would naturally evolve into self-sustaining ecosystems. Regionalism would entail that partnerships will be built as needed. These same unions would also dissolve when they had passed their useful life.

Remember that election promise by the Jubilee government to build a stadium in every county- what a ridiculous notion. There are only a few counties like Nairobi and Mombasa that are viable as stadium hosts. In fact, Nairobi has three respectable stadiums. Others counties don’t require a stadium at all.

You can blame it on our old friend, David Ricardo and his theory of comparative advantage. What might be needed is a space for youth development, but not a stadium in the sense of a Nyayo or Kasarani. Stadiums can only be sustained if they can attract permanent home based league teams. A regional stadium makes sense. It makes much more sense to invest in one large stadium to harness the athletic powerhouse of the North Rift. Perhaps one world class training facility for our gold medal winning athletes. The rest of the counties can have smaller training facilities that act as feeders for the large stadium.

In that same vein, it is just not workable to build a university in each county. I am not even sure the enrollment pool will be big enough to draw students from. Think of all the counties in the ASAL each having their own university. With their sparse populations, it is not just possible. Instead counties can pool their resources to build one strong regional university.

Other counties can act as feeders for this university with. At present, Garissa University should serve the needs of the ASAL well. It might also make sense for certain counties to just have dispensaries and clinics rather than a major hospital. The notion of one of everything in each county persists because both citizens and politicians equate it to better service delivery. This is simply not true, and it is unsustainable.

If we were more mature as a democracy, and even more confident in our nationhood I would advocate for regional blocs that focus on ethnic and cultural origins. But we are woefully immature in this. Besides, such groupings have existed in the past, and some continue in the present. Some counties and indeed regions have also a distinct monolithic ethnic and cultural identity. Unfortunately, regionalism that has emphasized this aspect have turned our elections into deadly ethnic conflagrations. Cultural cooperation has never been done well in Kenya.

I feel the only greatest hits have been AFC Leopard and Gor Mahia, and that’s pretty much it. I am hesitant to focus on this because national cohesion is a much more important goal. I hope the Council of Governors keep that in mind as they strengthen their regional coalitions. (

— The Writer is a Management Fellow at the City of Wichita, USA. He can be reached at janek.sunga@park.edu

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