Back in 2008, Kenya was torn apart in a corruption-filled election that was rigged to favour the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki. Over a thousand people were killed, and hundreds of thousands became refugees within their own country. Politicians from all sides were accused of instigating the post-election violence and attempts were made to take some of them to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Unfortunately, witness intimidation led to all cases collapsing, including the case against the current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, who is running for a second term this year. Subsequently, Kenya withdrew from the ICJ to avoid a repetition in the future.
Former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan helped broker a deal between the different sides of the conflict, and eventually a new constitution was born which devolved a great deal of power down to a new administration structure of 47 counties, divided into dozens of smaller wards. Women were given more access to political power, and most importantly, money was freed up from central administration.
Kenya is now approaching its second election under the new constitution which will take place on the 8th of August, and all levels of elected representation are being voted for; from president to the elected ward representatives, known as Members of the County Assembly (MCA).
In many cases, this devolution of power has meant a devolution of corruption, but not in all cases.
We had the opportunity to speak to James Omollo, a member of the Humanist Movement who was elected as MCA for the ward of West Nyakach in Kisumu County, which borders Lake Victoria in the west of the country.
It is clear, that a politician with a strong enough conviction to represent the people selflessly, without thinking only about personal gain and what money they can make in contract negotiations with suppliers, is able to make an enormous impact. In fact we could say that James is putting the NGOs out of business.
Pressenza: James, what inspired you to go into politics?
James Omollo: I think being a humanist really was a big, big, big motivational factor in me to join politics because I was seeing what was happening in my village, the things which were not right, and I wanted to get them done. So when Kenya passed a new constitution in 2010 which was going to devolve very critical functions like education, health, water and small roads, I wanted to do something for my community and that’s when I joined politics.
A lot of things were not going right and the people took them to be normal. Well it’s not normal because if they had a leader who really passionately thought about them they would achieve so much so that’s why I joined politics.
PZ: What kind of activities were you doing in the Humanist Movement in your community?
JO: Mainly we were doing education. I built a school in 2007 for my community with the involvement of women’s groups. So when devolution came I asked them, “Do you guys mind if I join politics so that I can do bigger things than what we are doing as a small community?” And they said, “yes, why not? We’ll vote for you.”
Right now I really think we have done so much. We didn’t have hospitals and I’ve built four hospitals in four years. It is a big record because initially we had only three hospitals in my ward now there are seven and I want to achieve more than ten within the next term.
PZ: What difference has devolution made to Kenya as a whole would you say?
JO: This has really brought about equity because you know in the previous term in 2007 only Nairobi was controlling the flow of resources, so the president and the vice president would really channel resources to their own provinces (we had eight provinces back then, not 47 counties) leaving the others to suffer, and now with devolution, there are devolved governments everywhere and the most marginalised get more money. So this was an equitable way of distributing resources down to the common person.
And this has really made Kenya evolve. There is a lot happening now which used not to happen with the same money. Because the same money was being controlled and was being siphoned off in Nairobi.
Now every county prioritises its things. We want health care, better education, better roads, better Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres. So every county has to prioritise its things through their county assemblies where there are members of the county assemblies like myself.
PZ: Tell me some of the most important developments that have happened over the last four years in terms of the benefits for the people of this devolved government.
JO: Mainly there were no roads into schools. For example in my ward we had 42 schools. Out of these 42 almost 30 had no roads accessible to their school, up to the school compound. Right now we have done over 30 roads within four years. There were zero roads built during the entire five years of the previous regime. Every time, no roads. Within four and half years we could achieve this. Over thirty eight roads done in the record time of four and half years. So every school, every health centre, every market and every administration centre is accessible. So that’s how devolution is working.
I just mentioned about health care. You know we had very few hospitals, now I want every sub-location to have a hospital of its own, so that we don’t walk a great distance. Like where I come from people used to spend 50 shillings (50 cents) on travel. Now the hospital is within walking distance. This is what we wanted to achieve. The county government has now employed those who work and take care of patients there, giving drugs and injections.
ECD was left for the parents. Right now the county government has taken care of that. Every school has an ECD teacher employed by the county government on the payroll, so that no parent has to pay for the teacher who is teaching their children. And we are building also ECD centres for them. These are really some things which have happened.
In terms of water, in my ward there was no clean water, it’s a very remote place. Right now almost 80% of the population have clean water. Some even have it in their homes, some have it in their population centres and this water is free. We have gravity driving water to their households so they can pay a flat rate and get it to their homes, but at the public points the water is free and everyone is accessing clean water. So if you cannot manage to get it to your home you’ll now go to the public point which is free.
There is 20% yet to achieve where we have drilled boreholes because they are not near the lake shore and not near the river, so there is part of my ward that is not yet served. But we have drilled two bore holes and they are now equipped. We are the going further so that every school has a bore hole and a water tower so that it serves the village.
(James is one of 35 members of the Kisumu County Assembly, and one of only three who have won the primary elections to be able to participate again in the election for the same party as before. The other 32 were defeated in primary elections mainly because they weren’t delivering services to the people they represent.)
PZ: Like this you could imagine that Kenya is becoming a real success story but there are still big problems here in Kenya. What for you are the big problems?
JO: Kenya is not short of resources, resources we have but the big problem we have is corruption because the small elite in the country controls everything. They want to have everything for themselves. If you are a leader you want to take everything for yourself. For example, I stay in a mud house. I don’t mind because I have my salary, but I give service to the people. Our political elite in Kenya has the mentality that they are there to loot. They loot everything leaving just a small percentage for projects. In the new railway project in Kenya, a lot of money has been looted.
If all the money which is being looted by the government would be channelled to infrastructure, Kenya would be among the best economies in the world, because we have a lot of resources. We have tea, we have coffee, we have sugar cane, we have minerals, we have the workforce, we have universities, so we have so much in terms of human resources, in terms of natural resources, which if channelled into the right direction and back into the society would make Kenya a very fast growing economy, but that’s not happening because of the political elite and the few who, from the time of independence up to now, have really made it impossible for that to happen because they want to loot everything.
They get into power to loot. It’s almost everywhere.
Until we have leaders who really think about the people they represent then we will not have the Kenya we want to see and this will only happen when a new generation comes to power who can think.
What is killing us is tribalism. There are those who want to develop one section of Kenya rather than another because of tribalism. This is not right, because we have to develop everybody equitably. In Kenya until we get rid of corruption I think Kenya will not really move faster no matter how hard we try.
PZ: You come to politics from your experience in the humanist movement which has always had a strong focus on peace and nonviolence. How have you been able to introduce those ideas into your ward where you work and also into the county government itself? Have you been able to promote those issues while you’re there?
JO: Sure, sure, I’ve been elected by the people, but I’ve also been elected within the county assembly. I’m the leader of the majority party in the county assembly so I’m the head of government business. This has come about because of my ideals.
I had ideals before I joined politics. These ideals have remained with me. I’ve inspired even my colleagues. That’s why they elected me to be their leader.
I had never done politics before but when I came with these ideals in my mind I would talk to them and tell them that, “guys we are here to represent the public, the thousands and thousands of suffering people. We are here to help them, we are not here to steal from them we are here to make them feel happy and to make them feel that they are represented well. We have to do the right thing.”
That’s why they elected me. As the head of government business I also inspire the executive who does the implementation. I tell them this is the right thing to do, we have to do this and they cannot really control me to do otherwise. They know how I operate so this has really helped this county and I think a lot has been achieved in this county. For example a bursary fund [money to subsidise secondary education]. It was my idea. I brought it to the governor. I told him, “Governor, we now have our money. We can educate our own children with our money. Let us set aside money for bursary funds to educate our people.” And he bought the idea.
I told colleagues we have to pass a law for bursaries, and these are the things I have achieved because I was seeing the problems we have.
Now we have to put a basic principle such as universal access to water. Let us do it. Let us give money to water. Let us give money to healthcare before we even put money into IT infrastructure, let us do healthcare and then IT will come and then other things. So roads, healthcare and water have really achieved a lot in this county thanks to my being there to guide my fellow county assembly members in this.
PZ: With these investments in infrastructure, in health care, in education, are you starting to see some kind of impact on the economic development of the region?
JO: Sure, sure, sure. You know a lot has happened to Kisumu. We have brought lights to the market centres to make the economy work for them for even 24 hours a day if they want.
Nowadays businessmen and women can now trade until even ten in the evening. They are not worried about light. So this is really doing a lot.
This is also even giving investors the confidence to come and invest, and you can check. Over the course of the last five years there has been a lot of investment. This place [the shopping mall we are sitting in] was not there. Investment has come because there is a conducive environment in terms of how Kisumu is doing its things.
Actually devolution is really creating a lot of impact. We’re really growing at a fast rate. Kisumu used not to grow at this rate, but now it is, even up to the most rural level.
PZ: So despite the difficulties, you see a very positive future?
JO: Sure, sure. The national government pumps six billion shillings (60 million dollars) every year to a city like Kisumu. So that is good money for infrastructure. We have our problems because at the county level corruption is thriving.
If you’re not tough as an MCA the people around you will just eat the money meant for your projects so you won’t achieve what you want. In my case, I’m proud that West Nyakach is among the top wards. In the top two or three. I think there is no other ward above my ward in terms of service delivery.
We have pumped almost 200 million (2 million dollars) into the ward in four years, of which I have taken nothing and I am very proud. I don’t want it. Why should I? If I will take even three million (30,000 USD) to build a house or to flourish, I don’t want it because this is meant for them, so let them get it.
They voted for me, and the power of their votes can make me change their lives and that’s what I’m doing, so if everyone will be thinking like this, then every ward would become a modern ward, but this is not the case.
There are colleagues who are compromised. 10 million is allocated for a hospital, 5 million is utilized 5 and the rest disappears. They have no conscience. I think it’s not right.
If every leader would be concerned that the people get what they want to get, what they should get, then Kenya would be really perfect. Because there are enough resources.
I’ve just proven it in four years. This ward has achieved a lot and if I was not there they wouldn’t have achieved it.
We have to do it, we have to do it right because that’s when poverty will be eradicated in Africa. There will be no poverty. There will be no poor guy because everyone will have universal access to the most basic services and that means a healthier life for everybody and a good life for the future of Kenya, for the generations to come, and everyone can now look forward to a better future which I really wish for.