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A short while back, the office of the Auditor-General, whose job it is to keep an eye on how taxpayers’ money is spent, released a report that touched partly on the counties.

Of Kenya’s 47 devolved units, it gave a clean bill of health to the accounts of only two — Makueni, led by Governor Kivutha Kibwana, and Nyandarua, led by Governor Francis Kimemia.

Though a reader of the Kenyan press and social media might easily think that “governor’ is synonymous with corruption, a wise man who follows county affairs intelligently and closely says not all the 45 counties that got a qualified audit opinion are mired in graft.

For a few of them, their problem is incompetent county officials and governors who, though they might be honest or half-honest, are careless or don’t have bookkeeping expertise.

It was he who introduced me to the three types of the Kenyan governor. The first and worst species he called “open-mouthed”.

This is the governor who eats most of the money sent to the county with his/her cronies. Apart from being corrupt, some of them are incompetent too. He named names.

The second type of governor is the “mouth-half-closed” variety. This cohort, he said, is likely to be the majority.

Reasonably competent, smart, in another world they would be honest but are politically pragmatic, therefore indulge in corruption for reasons of watering their political base and to maintain the local electoral alliances that brought them to power.

The third type is the “closed mouth” one; either steeped in old bureaucratic traditions or the Kenyan democracy movement, smart and largely competent.

Governor Kibwana is the quintessential specimen of the “closed mouth” governor, he said, and Kimemia is broadly in the same class, but does not sit at the same table with the don.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is common to hear people chanting things like “Kibwana for President in 2022”. One can only hope he is wise enough, for now, to disregard the noise of the market.

Yet there is a point there, about how devolution and the counties have rearranged the conversation about Kenyan politics and leadership.

Many proponents of devolution had argued that beyond taking groceries near to the people, the counties would also be laboratories for testing candidates for the presidency.

Under the previous over-centralised system, there was only one big hill, with the President the only cock on it. There weren’t any minor hills for the smaller hens and cocks to show off what they had.


There are other two, less advertised and, probably, more important benefits of counties and governors, my man said.

The first is that they provide “competing governance and policy models” that weren’t available.

Makueni proves you can build a modern hospital for about 10-15 per cent of the going price in mainstream Kenya, where it is inflated and loaded with kickbacks for the army of people who “eat” from projects.

In a country where governors have launched plastic chairs, kiosks, forlorn pit latrines and footbridges made out of eucalyptus and claimed they cost hundreds of millions of shillings, the value of the Makueni and Nyandarua counter-narrative is massive.

I asked him how long it will take before the people in badly governed counties become sufficiently envious of the Makuenis of this world and demand the same.

His reply was not inspiring. He said there are at least two more elections where the “open-mouthed” governors will thrive, after which it will be very hard to elect them.

In other words, salvation for counties being pillaged by their governors and MCAs will only come in 2032!

The impact of corrupt governors will manifest nationally before they do at the county level.

Seems totally counter-intuitive, but his argument is that Kenyan politics’ biggest problem is tribalism.

At the national level, most people will elect crooks as long as they are ‘their’ crooks (from the same ethnic community).

Apart from a handful of cosmopolitan counties, the majority are largely homogeneous, “seeing governor after governor from your tribe stealing from you and not providing the social services the neighbouring county is getting, will, in good time, get people to see that you won’t necessarily be well-served by having a president from your community”.

Seeing that tribe doesn’t guarantee that a leader will serve you well is easier than discerning and voting for competence and honesty. Those will come as next level goods, he argued.

Every other week, there is a story of Kenyans going to a neighbouring well-run county that is not led by one of their own to get services that are not available in their corruptly run one.

Maybe my friend is right. It will not take these service-delivery “refugees” long to reach the right conclusions.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer Roguechiefs.com. @cobbo3