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Decentralisation in Kenya: the governance of governors*

  • Nic Cheeseman (a1), Gabrielle Lynch (a2) and Justin Willis (a3)


Kenya's March 2013 elections ushered in a popular system of devolved government that represented the country's biggest political transformation since independence. Yet within months there were public calls for a referendum to significantly revise the new arrangements. This article analyses the campaign that was led by the newly elected governors in order to understand the ongoing disputes over the introduction of decentralisation in Kenya, and what they tell us about the potential for devolution to check the power of central government and to diffuse political and ethnic tensions. Drawing on Putnam's theory of two-level games, we suggest that Kenya's new governors have proved willing and capable of acting in concert to protect their own positions because the pressure that governors are placed under at the local level to defend county interests has made it politically dangerous for them to be co-opted by the centre. As a result, the Kenyan experience cannot be read as a case of ‘recentralisation’ by the national government, or as one of the capture of sub-national units by ‘local elites’ or ‘notables’. Rather, decentralisation in Kenya has generated a political system with a more robust set of checks and balances, but at the expense of fostering a new set of local controversies that have the potential to exacerbate corruption and fuel local ethnic tensions in some parts of the country.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Corresponding author


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The authors would like to thank Job Bwonye, Alex Dyzenhaus, Amanda Magisu and Betty Okero for writing the county-level reports that this analysis draws upon. We would also like to thank Dominic Burbidge, who collected county level data in support of this analysis and whose work we draw on in the section entitled ‘The design of decentralisation’. Two anonymous reviewers and the editors of JMAS provided comments and suggestions that have significantly improved the quality of the manuscript.



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Decentralisation in Kenya: the governance of governors*

  • Nic Cheeseman (a1), Gabrielle Lynch (a2) and Justin Willis (a3)


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