The reputation of the main hospital in Iten was so bad that the only people who went there were those who wanted to “die quickly”, says Alex Tolgos, the county governor.
But four years since Kenya started what the World Bank calls “one of the most rapid and ambitious devolution processes” on the planet, the hospital in the western Kenyan town has been transformed. More than half the patients in its 200 beds are from nearby counties, a sign, hospital administrators say, of its success.
The turnround, Mr Tolgos believes, is largely the result of new funding local authorities receive. “Before devolution you could not even quantify how little the districts got,” he says. “A lot of money was held in Nairobi and swiped for other budgets, but now people can feel it’s not.”
More than 20 per cent of government funds, or several billion dollars, are now allocated every year to the 47 Kenyan counties created from scratch in 2013. Money that once never left the capital or was embezzled is being diverted to rural areas, where social media and local awareness contributes to greater accountability.
This “game-changer for development”, as Erik Habers, an EU diplomat, describes it, has also shaken up the political landscape in a country known for its election-related violence.
With the political temperature already rising ahead of general elections set for August, the stability of east Africa’s dominant economy is becoming ever more important in a region blighted by conflict and internal unrest.
There used to be a premium on the presidency but as devolution gets entrenched people are keener on seeing who will be the next governor because he or she will have most direct impact on their lives
Some 1,100 people were killed and 600,000 forced to flee their homes in fighting — mostly in the Rift valley between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes — following Kenya’s 2007 election. The 2013 ballot, after the promulgation of a new constitution that introduced devolution, was much more peaceful.
Paul Korir, Anglican bishop of Kapsabet, 80km south of Iten, echoes the views of many when he says it is “50-50” whether the election will mirror the 2013 or the 2007 poll.
“We didn’t deal with the root causes of 2007-08,” he says, referring to land rights and marginalisation of some tribes. “It’s a utopia to think we’ve moved beyond 2007. If people believe they are marginalised, on the periphery, while others are not, it could act as a flashpoint.”
Devolution has thus become a crucial factor in helping defuse tension. Not only do previously neglected communities have better services, decentralisation has diluted the political stakes by creating local positions with real power.
County governors, county assembly members and senators in the national parliament are all directly elected. And unlike in 2013, when the system was brand new, people now know how crucial these posts are.
“The national mindset is changing,” says Kipkorir Arap Menjo, an opposition politician in Eldoret. “There used to be a premium on the presidency but as devolution gets entrenched people are keener on seeing who will be the next governor because he or she will have most direct impact on their lives.”
The first big test comes this month when local party members select candidates for election, a process that in areas such as the Rift valley is more important than the vote itself. The unity of people from the Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes in the ruling Jubilee party means that its candidates are almost certainly guaranteed victory there.
But there are fears that the selection process may be manipulated.
“If the nominations are not done well first of all it will cause violence and then it will risk the election of the presidential candidate because if people feel the process is not free and fair they will not vote,” says Mr Tolgos, a Jubilee member who is seeking re-election as governor.
Of equal importance is how the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission conducts the election. Last year, nationwide opposition protests against perceived bias led to the deaths of half a dozen people. “If it is not well managed there will be problems,” Mr Tolgos says. “In 2013 there was no violence partly because the election was run so much better than in 2007.”
Analysts believe devolution could be game-changing on another political level; it offers an alternative path to the presidency.
“If a governor is seen as a good performer then that could, and over the next decade is increasingly likely to, be a ticket to national-level politics,” says Abdullahi Abdille of the International Crisis Group think-tank.
However he adds a critical caveat: “You will still have to be from the right community though.”