If you know me well enough by now, you'd know that I am not a fan of devolution as it has taken place in Kenya over the last few years. The idea behind it was noble: development spread over the country, even to those hinterland areas that had been marginalized for the longest time. At its heart, the notion that you could provide a myriad of services to the people within their localities, such that they wouldn't be required to pass through Nairobi seemed like a win-win situation.
However, as with most things Kenyan, the concept is beautiful, but the implementation is a disaster. Too much political finagling has since saddled us with a heavy debt burden; we have too many counties, most of which exist to settle political points. Each of these units has too much political representation taking home massive salaries and delivering nothing in return. And finally, the counties merely devolved a problem that was faced by the central government: weak institutions and poor accountability for the manner in which money is spent. This has exacerbated the "leaky cauldron" syndrome, and thus the country as a whole is just hemorrhaging money that was meant to spur development.
Lest I be labelled as a person who's all about theories, I give you now the example of Ngong Town. Situated approximately 20 kilometres from the city centre, Ngong is one of those areas that seemed poised to take off as a part of "Greater Nairobi". Basically, as space and prices become more prohibitive in Nairobi, Ngong could very easily have morphed into an ideal suburb.
I've basically called Ngong my home since late 1989 when my parents moved us out here (despite much protestation). A staple of the town was its big market located right at its centre; on the periphery of the market was a Bus/Matatu stage/terminus where people could catch a bus onwards to Nairobi via Ngong Road or via Kiserian. I've been informed lately that the spot may actually all have been a terminus, and was encroached on by the market sellers (I still remain unconvinced).
Anyway, not much has gone on in terms of development at the market place for a long time; it remained the same village type installation with little in terms of improvement. When the devolution bug hit us, at least initially, nothing changed either. However, circa early this year, I noted that the market area had been cleared out. Unfortunately for most drivers, who already have a problem driving through that portion of Ngong Rd. surrounding the market, the market stalls ended up being uprooted and deposited on either side of the road's "pavement" area.
It was bad enough driving through before; now, it's a situation akin to driving through Kawangware. The obstacles are plenty: pedestrians, animals, motorcycles and matatus. You are literally moments away from knocking someone down or running into one accident or another; to add insult to injury, this is one of those areas where a rowdy crowd can mushroom at a moment's notice - especially the motorcycle fraternity - and you could be in for a very hefty "shakedown".
This is really a development failure. Granted, I hear people mention that there are plans to relocate the market, or perhaps even build a storeyed building where it will be housed; however, I feel like the market should have been the first priority in this case. As I drive past that parking lot, I see that some matatus have started using the parking areas; but, on the other hand, I still deal with the marked nuisance of the matatus that refuse to use the parking area and willing obstruct traffic along the road as they collect their customers. Apparently without the watchful eye of the law to steer them straight, it's just business as usual.
From a cost-benefit analysis, we would have received much bigger gains from upgrading the market first. Lord knows in this day and age of Cholera, we should prioritize measures that'll safeguard our food safety. I have hoped for the longest time that Kenya would adopt an organized "Farmers Market" model similar to what's done in the US and Europe. We need to prioritize this very basic concept, and try to add more value to this portion of the agricultural supply-demand chain. The matatu industry is a rogue that can only be tamed by concerted political effort (..but then, this is an election year, so no one in their right mind will be trying to needlessly unsettle this particularly big portion of the electorate). So, why spend money so frivolously?
I don't have photographic evidence here, but lately I've come across a board erected at the parking lot which proudly states that this is a World Bank-funded project. Seriously! How can free-thinking independent Kenyans not be ashamed at needing the World Bank to sponsor the construction of a mere parking lot? How can anyone excuse running up a debt (yes, this is indeed debt) for such a simple project? No doubt the project was inflated so that pockets ended up lined in the process, but seriously, this is why we can't have good things.
Kenya looked at Devolution as a salve for the issue of skewed development in the country; however, without applying any sort of Discipline to all these efforts, nothing meaningful will really be achieved. I'd dare say that Discipline pegged to our previous non-devolved administration would have brought the change we desire at a much faster rate (and it would have been cheaper too).
Unfortunately, short of a miracle, it seems we're doomed to ride this devolution train until we either get it right, or it bankrupts us enough to have to make a major change. Come what may, even for this realist, it pays to have faith at least once in a while. So my eyes are open, and in my heart I retain some hope that sober minds will eventually prevail and that we will mature as a country and as a people. We just have to.