There is more to devolution than positions

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BY EZEKIEL MUTUA

Extreme obsession with politics could prove a major undoing of the media when it comes to implement¬ing the new Constitution. The tendency has been to sacrifice development at the altar of political cacophony.

To put it mildly, the way some media communicate the devolution message is a gross disservice to Kenyans.
 
The impression is fast being created that devolution means little more than creating expanded space for political positions. To devolve, it seems, is merely to dish out such high-sounding titles like “governor” and “senator”.

The danger of portraying devolution as nothing more than the creation of positions for the political class and a new lease of life in bureaucracies and public offices is that it obfuscates the true objectives of the transfer from the centre to the grassroots of powers, privileges and management of re¬gional resources.

The point is that the regions are finally get¬ting to do something that has long been a dream of millions of Kenyans – namely, control and deployment of resources at the grassroots level. A precedent has been set.

There is absolutely nothing business-as-usual about it. The United Counties of Kenya will enjoy some of the best advan¬tages of the United States of America – a federated system feeding into one powerful centre, instead of the centre feeding off the regional units and the people.

Devolution is first and foremost a public communications phenomenon.

Information is articulated and disseminated to all and sundry. Among many other individually dis¬tinct things, all of America’s 50 states – not to mention the District of Columbia, Samoa and Guam in the Pacific and the West Indian Virgin Island – have a state motto and a state song, an anthem, if you like.

To Kenya’s national motto of “Harambee” will soon be added the distinctive mottos (and songs) of the 47 counties. The motto will be embossed on their seals, flags, stamps, logos, letterheads and livery. Perhaps a na¬tionwide competition will determine in each county – a communications dynamic.

Yet, the message on devolution which the media are giving out to Kenyans is that it is first and last a political affair. The message is based on the individual parts that go to make up the whole.

Take Ukambani, where there are vast tracts of under-used land, a lot of it arid and semi-arid (ASALs), and where hunger and relief food are hard facts of life.

Using land as a comparative advantage, and with irrigation, Ukambani could dramati¬cally help alleviate the population pressure on land in places like Kisii and Central Ke¬nya, earning the ASAL people revenue in the form of land and other rents and ensuring the county’s long-term food security.

The breadbasket Rift Valley, for so long beholden to middlemen at every level of the produce value chain, will begin to take the fate of its own produce truly in the farmers’ hands, peeling off many levels of merce¬nary brokers.

Devolution is both eye-opening and empowering. It brings to the grassroots the message of a potential home. The message the media ought to be trumpet¬ing daily is really quite simple: Wherev¬er they are, Kenyans are literally stand¬ing on the wealth and potential of their regions.

I have recently returned to Kenya from a tour of two of the world’s most irrigation-dependent lands from ancient times – Egypt and Israel. I was hugely impressed by what these two desert na¬tions have done with what they have. In both countries, I witnessed what must be among the most proactive nation branding and tourism marketing stratagems.

Israel, in particular, is truly astonishing ranked a terrible 192 out of 200 states by the 2009 EastWest’s Global Nations Brands Per¬ception Index, behind North Korea, Cuba and Yemen and just ahead of Sudan and Iran, Israel is usually considered to be one of the world’s hardest nations to brand and market.

As for Egypt, it is much more than just the pyramids and the pharaohs – no one leaves Egypt with the impression that you have only been to the land of ancient tombs.

In both Israel and Egypt, the cradle of faith and the cradle of civilisation, respec¬tively, the communications for development message is divorced from politics and politi¬cal personalities and exclusively focused on nation-building and the most creative re¬source deployment.

Kenya, the cradle of mankind, has much to offer, too – but only if we remain on-message in terms of devolution and resourc¬es and remove politics and politicking from every sphere of our national and regional development.

This is where the agenda-setting role of the media becomes paramount.

(The writer is the Director of Information and Public Communications of the Republic of Kenya email:emutua @information.go.ke)

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