Why new governors must listen more, allow public participation

My attention was torn between watching the Supreme Court proceedings and the transitions unfolding across 47 county governments this week. With Fernandes Barasa and Abdulswamad Nassir elected in Kakamega and Mombasa, the Council of Governors (CoG) is now complete. What are some of the early signs of leadership and opportunity? How do the new governors and their deputies avoid the cycle of impeachment and one-term return home package? 

Leadership development advice for the first 100 days usually stresses listening and relationship building before setting and declaring new performance standards and accountability measures. Every policy or procedural problem worth transforming is reinforced by a powerful eco-system. Strong leaders understand this as they introduce transformative changes that affect millions of people’s lives. 

This week saw some early wins. Nairobi Governor Johnson Sakaja’s public apology and executive order for release of boda boda motorcycles opens the door for riders to now comply with new rules introduced earlier in the year. His visit and promise to people of Mukuru Kwa Njenga to assist them rebuild their homes should also not go unnoticed. It has been ten months since 40,000 homes were reduced to rubble in that inhumane forced eviction by the Interior Ministry, National Police Services, and the Nairobi Metropolitan Services. Most of the Mukuru families still live under plastic sheeting.  Governor Susan Kihika visited Nakuru Level 5 hospital Wednesday. Finding patients detained for unpaid bills, she contributed Sh5 million and made an executive order for 64 medical detainees to be released.

These examples must not to be dismissed as acts of populism. They are actions that defend Kenyans’ rights to livelihoods, health, housing and dignity. They must inspire other county and national leaders to protect and promote our Bill of Rights.

Releasing Kenyans from petty offences, investing in their livelihood capacities, independence and sustainable access to essential services are not only public expectations. They are also the basis of the constitutional social contract between leaders and citizens. Governors must also, now introduce desperately needed affirmative action programmes for informal SMEs and businesses owned by women, youth and persons with disabilities.

Despite a shortage of offices, incoming Trans Nzoia Governor George Natembeya reported to work by 07.30am and demanded staff also do the same. It may sound simple but showing up on time and ready to work is really the first sign of leadership. Showing up with your spouse on the other hand, is not.

First Meru Gentleman Murega Baichu may need a chat with Kirinyaga counterpart Kamotho Waiganjo on how to give female governors, space to govern. Learning this mistake early is useful. As outgoing Migori governor Okoth Obado and other past governors have learned, there are some real career costs in bring the family to work. Governors must listen to county executives and officers and absorb all data available before reshuffling their cabinets and re-writing their performance contracts.

The presence of ghost-workers and para-normal activity may, however, need more immediate direct action. This week, Governor Simba Arati berated the Kisii human resource director after finding 256 drivers on payroll for 82 county vehicles. The auditing and re-aligning personnel against functions will probably take months for the county governments, but without it, none will slice through the public expenditure wastage.  Governors must avoid the temptation to go “mteja” and ghost us. They can do better by announcing official public phone lines, establishing official social media handles and #AskYourGovernor spaces for deliberate dialogue.

Appointing and announcing county ombudspersons and public participation experts will also assist them keep their constituents informed and response-able.  With 4.5 million unclear why their vote mattered and 8 million too resigned to get out of bed on a public holiday and vote, country governors must sidestep being encircled by the public.

Deepening public appreciation of the power of active citizenship and responsive governance is as important as service delivery and prosperity in this next phase.

They were first published in The Standard on 03rd September 2022. Kindly reproduce here with permission from the Standard.

Irũngũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya Executive Director and writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]