New governor sets out to transform Nairobi

NAIROBI — In the three weeks since Nairobi’s first governor, Evans Kidero, took office, he has fired 11 people for delivering fictitious invoices for nonexistent goods, a practice he calls “supplying air.” This week alone, he has suspended 16 members of his staff on suspicion of corruption.

“The city has suffered major, major corruption over the years,” Kidero said, promising many such “fights” to stop the graft and cartels that he argues hold back prosperity in the Kenyan capital.

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“I might be unpopular with a few, but it will ensure that more resources are available for providing services,” said the slum-born former businessman, a fan of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The dilapidated City Hall where he and the new county government works — replacing a mayoral system — is at the forefront of Kenya’s plan for devolution, an ambitious plan to redress inequality and boost services in East Africa’s biggest economy.

The 55-year-old Kidero, who is in the office by 6:30 a.m. daily, knows he needs to put in the hours. Nairobi accounts for 60 percent of Kenya’s $37 billion economy, making him by far the most important of 47 new governors elected in March polls for a five-year term.

Since independence 50 years ago, Nairobi’s population has grown more than tenfold. Today, 70 percent of its 4 million people live in slums, 60 percent have no job and everything from water and sewage to power and roads is inadequate for a nation set on becoming a middle-income country within 17 years. Fraud and evasion caused the previous administration to collect just a third of the revenues that were due, he said.

“If things change in Nairobi, things will change in the whole country. Every Kenyan — it doesn’t matter where they are — their dreams and aspirations are resident in Nairobi,” said the pro-business Kidero, once a managing director with SmithKline Beecham. He promises to improve traffic, rubbish collection and security within his first 100 days of office.

The governor grew up in Majengo, a slum in eastern Nairobi, and he campaigned relentlessly in slums, heeding cries from residents of “Kazi hakuna” (“No jobs”). One of seven children, he became head boy at school and rose through the corporate ranks. “Having seen the deterioration that this city underwent, my whole desire is to add value,” he said.

Kidero inherits city council debts of $470 million and hopes to negotiate a reduction in that debt with central government. He also expects an annual budget of $135 million from the central government, obliged by a 2010 constitution to redistribute 15 percent of national revenues to the new counties. The hope is that this will alleviate one of the main complaints underlying the deadly ethnic violence that followed 2007’s disputed polls: that central elites controlled wealth.

“Devolution will ensure every region gets a piece of the cake, not depending on the whims and the likes of the ruling class,” said Kidero, who says he wants government to double the devolution allocation to 30 percent. He hopes to match Nairobi’s share with improved collection of local taxes such as business rates and car-parking fees.

Nairobi residents regularly complain of protection rackets in the transport sector and high prices afflicting the poorest. “We are not going to let some people exploit the lives of Kenyans,” Kidero said, referring to his desire to smash cartels that charge dearly for supplying water to slums.

But the devolution plan carries its own risks. The delivery of cash to 47 vast new local bureaucracies — more than 80,000 national staff are expected to transfer to local counties — could duplicate spending without any improvement of local services.

According to the World Bank, which describes devolution as part of “arguably the most momentous and far-reaching reforms in Kenya’s post-independence history,” the devil lies in the details. “The downside risks — of service delivery failure and political backlash — are very real if devolution is not skilfully managed and seen to deliver tangible results,” it said in an analysis of the policy.

Kidero ran on the same party political ticket as presidential runner-up Raila Odinga. Like him, he is an ethnic Luo, but Kidero insists he is driven by neither ethnicity nor politics. “If I wanted to be a tribal representative, I would have gone to stand in Nyanza,” he said, referring to western Kenya’s Luo heartlands.

Supporters of Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s new president and a member of the Kikuyu group that dominates politics and business, say that he and Kidero get on well.

Kidero’s father-in-law was Tom Mboya, a prominent Luo politician who was assassinated in 1969 as ethnic tensions rose in government. The governor’s supporters hope he may one day become a presidential contender in his own right, a question he elegantly sidesteps for now.

“I’m not a politician, I’m a corporate person,” he said. “First and foremost, I’m a Kenyan.”

— Financial Times

 
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