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Kenya’s fight against coronavirus difficult with its two-tiered governance system

By Morris Kiruga
Posted on Friday, 17 April 2020 18:21, updated on Monday, 20 April 2020 12:14

Virus Outbreak Kenya
County workers practise social distancing and wear masks as they queue to renew their employment contracts in Uhuru Park in downtown Nairobi, Kenya Monday, April 6, 2020. (AP Photo/John Muchucha)

With Nairobi and its metropolis under lockdown, Kenya's devolved units face their make or break moment.

On Thursday 17 April, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta announced the country now had 234 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 11 deaths, just over a month since the pandemic made landfall in the East African economic giant. In the five weeks since, Nairobi and Mombasa cities have been put under lockdown, as the country tries to stem the spread of the virus.

READ MORE: East Africa’s battle with Coronavirus

While the routine addresses – usually made by his health minister – have covered the work of county governments in the country’s two-tiered governance structure, Kenyatta also made a point of noting that it [devolution] “…continues to show its power to deliver.”

Funding to devolved units

Just a day before the address, the chair of the Council of Governors, Wycliffe Oparanya said that the devolved units had Shs.5 bn in an emergency fund. Of more interest was how devolved units were having a hard time getting much-needed medical supplies and equipment, which he blamed on a virtual monopoly by a state-owned company

From the onset of the COVID-19 response, governors said that their governments were not equipped to handle the pandemic within their borders. One problem was, and still is, that the country has only two public testing centers:  the Kenya Medical Research Institute and National Influenza Center, both centered in Nairobi.

READ MORE: Kenyan government agree to pay cuts, curfew imposed as coronavirus cases grow

President Kenyatta, serving his second and final term amidst heavy debt, high taxes, and an economic downturn, has centered his COVID-19 response in the capital and state structures.

Two-tiered system

“All counties have laboratories that can handle such tests during periods like this; we are waiting for approval from the National Government. Devolution has not been in the heart of some people in the system,” Machakos Governor Dr. Alfred Mutua said at a press conference a month ago.

Now in its eighth year, Kenya’s two-tiered governance structure has had many highs and lows, most of them centered on what role the county governments have in delivering services.

One of the most consistent issues is healthcare, of which Kenyatta’s administration ceded the lower-level hospitals to county units, but has been accused of trying to claw back control.

“Prolonged fight for control of the healthcare system”

Since the first year of devolution, in 2014, county governments have been in a prolonged fight for control of the healthcare system with both the central government and healthcare staff unions.

The unions have supported plans by both the executive and legislature to have the country’s healthcare run by the main government, but county units insist that would harm devolution.

  • With more power to direct local revenues and resources, as well as access to a chunk of the national budget, counties could invest more into healthcare where needed.

A 100-day nationwide strike by doctors in 2017 led to a short-lived detente between the counties and the state, as they both toiled to get them back to work. There were many issues at play, chief among them being how counties were running hospitals.

A Nairobi court jailed union leaders for a time, but their unrelenting demands forced through an agreement. In mid-2019, a wave of new strikes by doctors triggered the issues again after less than half of the 47 counties kept their part of the 2017 deal.

At the time, according to the doctor’s union, the country had 2,500 unemployed doctors “but the governors have refused to employ them directly.” Union officials also said that they [county governors] had also refused to pay health workers’ salaries regularly, or even keep health facilities stocked.

The solution, they added, was to move the health function back to the Kenyatta government. Counties, on their part, have routinely claimed that doctors do not want to work in the close supervision that is brought on when run by a devolved unit.

  • One county fired more than 60 doctors in mid-2019, while several others threatened to do the same.
  • In addition to wages, other issues included lack of working medical equipment, and several systematic layoffs of healthcare support staff as part of austerity measures.

Nairobi depends on devolved units

With Nairobi now cut off from the rest of the country, county governors have assumed a renewed importance in the country. Despite the capital’s role as the country’s economic and political nerve center, it relies on its devolved units for everything from food to labor.

This means the Kenyatta administration has no choice but to relent on its prolonged power struggle with devolution, partly as a means of dealing with COVID-19. The 47 governors, more than half of whom are serving their second terms and cannot stand for re-election, also now need Nairobi more than ever.

County Commissioners versus Governors

While the central government has County Commissioners, essentially Kenyatta’s high-level representatives in all the county units, Governors are elected and have executive authority.

The struggle between the two power bases was a major issue in the 2010s, but it is coming in handy as both tiers work towards the same goal.

With Nairobi firmly under Kenyatta’s control after a controversial transfer signed by Governor Mike Sonko in late February, other governors are now working to protect their populations from the economic havoc of a closed off capital while helping stop the spread of the virus. According to a Ministry of Health update on 14 April, there are now COVID-19 clusters in nearly half of the country’s 47 counties.

“We strongly advise our residents living outside the region not to travel home… For those who, despite this advice, decide to travel to the region, quarantine facilities have been identified in each county,” the governors of an eight-county economic bloc in the country’s North Rift said on 5 April. One county south of the capital is also making international headlines, after its fast turnaround of a textile factory to make face masks.

Mombasa’s response garners praise

In Mombasa, the country’s second largest and second most-infected city after Nairobi, Governor Ali Hassan Joho has earned nationwide praise for his proactive response to the pandemic and its effects.

On 15 April, for example, he gave the national police thousands of masks and asked them to hand out the excess ones to members of the public, instead of arresting them. “So anytime your officers would need masks you are welcome to receive them from us,” he told the national head of police.

  • He has also launched a nutrition support system, received 18 ventilators from the ruler of Dubai, and built auto-sprayers for use at the Likoni Ferry, which handles traffic of up to 300, 000 passengers and 6, 000 motorists every day.
  • Mombasa also has a 150-bed field hospital, as it prepares for a likely surge in the coastal region.
  • In Kisumu, the third largest of Kenya’s cities, Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o is also working with the County Commissioner to impose the nationwide curfew, and handle other COVID-19 response measures.

Lingering questions

In between Kenyatta’s administration and the governor’s, the lingering question remains of who does what? On 15 April, the governors’ caucus chair said that the new pandemic rules, which have County Commissioners inspecting and distributing food and other supplies, “violate the institutional and functional integrity assigned by the Constitution to the two levels of government.”

What is clear is that the pandemic will make or break Kenya’s two-tiered governance structure, especially now that its spread has escalated to community transmission.

The capital is of particular importance in the future of the governance structure, not just because of its role in the country, but also because it is now run by the Kenyatta administration.

  • Health was one of the devolved services that Governor Sonko handed back to Kenyatta in February.
  • As part of his reforms, President Kenyatta appointed a new body to run the city in March. Its new chief of health, Dr. Ouma Oluga, is a former doctors’ union leader who was the face of the 2017 nationwide strike.

While the pandemic offers President Kenyatta the chance to refreshen the city quickly, it also presents the biggest social, economic, and political risks. The takeover of Nairobi, and the impeachment of Kiambu Governor Ferdinand Waititu in January, had already worsened the central government’s relationship with counties.

Perhaps out of political instinct or buyer’s remorse, Governor Sonko has also been trying to claw back some of the powers he signed away.

In a Facebook post dated 4 April, the governor insisted that “the transfer of functions did not amount to a takeover or dissolution of the Nairobi City County Government.” Amidst global headlines of his COVID-19 care packages including bottles of Hennessey cognac, he has also resurrected his eponymous “Sonko Rescue Team”: a personal organisation that offers parallel social services.

Bottom Line: While President Kenyatta’s credentials in supporting devolution are mixed, both he and the 47 governors now need each other more than ever. For Nairobi, the political and executive authority of governors throughout the country lightens the burden of dealing with the pandemic.

It will come in handy, for example, in keeping borders closed and food and essential supplies flowing. But governors also need President Kenyatta because they run small administrative units that cannot do much alone.

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