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BLOG: Revisiting the ‘facts’ around Nairobi governor’s abrupt surrender of key roles to Kenya’s national government

Kenya president Uhuru Kenyatta has his hands full with managing the country’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. But he still found time in March to oversee the surrendering of some key functions of the capital city to the national government. 

In February 2020 many were surprised when the governor of Nairobi county, Gideon Mbuvi Mike Sonko, handed over the critical roles of health, transport, planning and development, and public works, utilities and “ancillary” services.

Kenya’s 2010 constitution decentralised power to 47 counties including Nairobi, with Sonko’s move splitting opinion. Some media houses called this a “bloodless coup”.

A military man, Maj Gen Mohamed Abdalla Badi will now run the newly created office of the Nairobi Metropolitan Services

The county has been plagued by problems, with Sonko barred from office since December 2019 under corruption charges. In the transfer deed the county acknowledged “internal constraints as to the effective discharge of its functions” and that some of these “would be more effectively performed and exercised by the national government”.

‘Fact-finding mission’

When the news broke in February 2020, Sonko took to social media to try to explain why he was ceding some of his most important functions. 

The decision, he said, was made after his administration set out on “a fact finding mission” with benchmarking and “lessons from other jurisdictions across the world including Washington DC in the US and Abuja in Nigeria”.

“From these case studies, we established that cities and metropolis, the size of Nairobi, are best served jointly by devolved units and central governments.”

Two questions arose from this. First, what cities other than the two mentioned did the governor and his team visit ahead of the crucial decision?

Elkana Jacob, the governor’s spokesperson, told Africa Check the governor’s team was planning a “fact-finding mission” when the decision was made.

Asked if there was a report that guided the decision, he responded: “There was no report as such.”

Second, while Abuja and Washington DC are capital cities, are they “the size of Nairobi”? 

What does ‘size’ mean, when describing cities?

A general view of the Kenyan capital Nairobi on May 7, 2018. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)

Africa Check asked Dr David Kaufmann, a researcher on capital city governance and an assistant professor at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, about city sizes.

“City size is normally defined as the number of people living within the city territory,” he said.

“Yet the functional city is in most instances larger because urban sprawl and settlements do not stop at the city border,” Kaufmann said. He cautioned however that definitions are usually “complex and context-specific”.

Comparing three cities by population

How do the three capital cities of Nairobi, Abuja and Washington DC compare in terms of population?

The US Census Bureau puts the population of Washington DC at 705,749 people as of July 2019. When a wider metro area is considered, this population grows to about 6.3 million people.

For Nigeria’s Abuja, the most recent estimate is 3.6 million people in 2016, by the country’s National Bureau of Statistics. (Note: Nigeria’s population estimates are from four years ago and are deeply contested, with a census last held in 2006.

Nairobi in turn has a population of 4.4 million people, according to the 2019 Kenya Population and Housing Census published by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.

It may also be worth noting that unlike the Kenyan city, neither Washington DC nor Abuja are regarded as their countries’ main economic hubs.

Administration of capital cities ‘always political projects’

Kaufmann told Africa Check that based on his research “there are no metrics like population size or land area or economy that could justify a federal or national administration of a capital city”.

“Federal or national administration of capital cities are always political projects,” Kaufmann said. 

Who runs the US and Nigerian cities Sonko referred to?

The governance of Abuja 

“Abuja is run by the federal capital territory, headed by a minister appointed by the president,” Dr Eduardo Lopez-Moreno, head of knowledge and innovation at UN-Habitat in Nairobi, told Africa Check.

 The Federal Capital Development Authority, which administers the city of Abuja, was legally established in 1976.

Dr Onyanta Adama-Ajonye, a researcher at the University of Stockholm in Sweden, wrote her doctoral thesis on governance in Abuja, including on its power relations. She said that Nigeria’s federal government used the relocation of the capital city to centralise power. 

The politics of the location of Lagos, the country’s economic hub, and its domination by one ethnic community, pushed for the adoption of Abuja as a “national unity” project, Adama-Ajonye said.

Lagos was Nigeria’s federal capital until December 1991. 

In her 2007 thesis, Adama-Ajonye noted that “the federal government inserted itself into the governance of [Abuja]” and that “those who have given some attention to the administrative structure of the city, still appear to favour a dominant role for the federal government”.

“Services in Abuja are managed by appointees and civil servants, people that cannot be removed from office through elections,” she told Africa Check.

The governance of Washington DC

The District of Columbia, or DC, was established through political negotiations after the US War of Independence or American Revolutionary War, which ended in 1783. It was argued that  no state should have oversight over the capital, Kaufmann told us.

The current form of government in the US capital was established by the District of Columbia Home Rule Act in 1973, leading to a mixed governance structure between the federal and local government. 

Lopez-Moreno said that while local officials have the authority to pass laws and govern local affairs, the US Congress maintains the power to overturn local laws in Washington DC.

The governance of Nairobi

Before Nairobi was constitutionally designated as one of the 47 counties in Kenya in 2010, it was administered by local authorities, comprising elected and nominated councillors, under a mayor. 

All local authorities were overseen by the central government through a powerful local government ministry. Power passed fully to the county following a 2013 election when a governor with executive authority and a county assembly were picked.

The county then also had direct control of the city’s budget.

There have been previous efforts to have the city administered by the national government, most recently in 2017. But it would appear governor Sonko’s political and legal troubles have paved the way for the major change, rather than a comparison with similar cities.

Said the University of Zurich’s Kaufmann: “What is happening in Nairobi is very, very unusual. I think it is very political.”

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