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Fighting for Space: Kenya Faces Devolution Challenges

County assembly member Karungo wa Thang'wa meets with constituents at a market outside Nairobi every Tuesday as he waits for the government to pay for an office, Kenya. (G. Joselow/VOA)
Behind the vegetable and fruit sellers, in a quiet corner of the Kwamaiko market outside Nariobi, Karungo wa Thang’wa sits behind a wooden desk. He’s wearing a suit and a tie; a laptop is open in front of him next to a small sign bearing his name.

A line of people are waiting to see him on a Tuesday morning and each takes a turn in a plastic chair next to his desk. “Welcome to my office,” he said.

Thang’wa is a member of the Kiambu county assembly, a body created by Kenya’s 2010 constitution as part of a system of devolution, meant to redistribute power and wealth from the central government to the newly-created 47 counties.

A former radio announcer, Thang’wa has a flair for performance, although he has set up his desk in a market stall out of necessity.

“I decided to come to this market every Tuesday because one thing,” he says. “I don’t have an office.”

Paying the Rent

Thang’wa is caught up in a nationwide power dispute between county assemblies and the central government.

Governors, who took office last month, have boycotted opening sessions because of disagreements about pay, grinding to a halt local legislative activities before they could even begin.

Thang’wa said the government should pay for his new office, but the head of a transitional authority set up to smooth the devolution rollout has said that is not the case.

Ekuru Aukot, one of the lead architects of the constitution, said a lot of local representatives may be exaggerating what they should get from the government, though he said Thang’wa does have a point.

“In a way the guy is right,” he said. “Because he’s not really expected to work under a tree, I mean this is really simple logic.”

Who’s in charge?

Aukot said devolution first started going off track when former president Mwai Kibaki appointed County Commissioners to coordinate between the county assemblies and the national government. Governors saw the appointments as a direct challenge to their authority and unconstitutional interference from Nairobi in county affairs.

Aukot says governors and county assemblies are wrongly being treated as if they are just managers there to distribute resources as instructed by the central government.

“Let the governor be the CEO of the county and therefore make determinations as to how the county is being run, but in collaboration with the central government,” he said.

Meantime, back at the Kwamaiko market, Thang’wa had just finished talking with Naomi Njeri, who came to seek help paying for her deaf daughter to attend school.

She said that while she appreciated the representative meeting people in the market, she thinks it would be better if he had an office.

“He’s a big man,” she said. “And the market is only a place for things to be bought and sold.”