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Kenya: Development, County Governments and the Risk of 2017 Election Violence
Kenya: Development, County Governments and the Risk of 2017 Election Violence
Briefing 94 / Africa

Kenya After the Elections

Though the 2013 general elections were relatively peaceful, Kenya is still deeply divided and ethnically polarised.

I. Overview

Kenyan democracy was severely tested in the lead-up to, during and after the 4 March 2013 elections. On 9 March, following a tense but relatively peaceful election, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) declared Jubilee Coalition’s Uhuru Kenyatta president-elect. He garnered 50.07 per cent of the vote – barely passing the threshold for a first round victory. His closest opponent, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, challenged his victory in court, but despite allegations of irregularities and technical failures, the Supreme Court validated the election. Although Odinga accepted the ruling, his party and several civil society organisations questioned the election’s shortcomings and its impact on democracy. President Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, will have to restore confidence in the electoral process and show robust commitment to the implementation of the new constitution, in particular to devolution, land reform, the fight against corruption and national reconciliation. Failure to do so risks further polarising the country and alienating the international community.

Despite some clashes preceding the vote, and following the court’s decision, the nation avoided a repeat of the 2007-2008 post-election violence. A number of factors contributed to a predominantly peaceful election, including a general consensus between the political elite and the citizenry not to bring Kenya to the brink of civil war again. International pressure, in particular from the current International Criminal Court (ICC) cases, media self-censorship, restrictions on freedom of assembly, and deployment of security forces to potential hotspots also helped avert unrest. In addition, Kenya’s citizens took pre-emptive action by returning to ethnic homelands to vote, with vulnerable groups vacating areas of past communal violence.

However, a number of vital, more overarching reforms addressing systemic and structural conflict drivers – a culture of impunity, high unemployment, land reform, resettlement of internally displaced persons (IDPs), ethnic tensions, weak institutions and regional and socio-economic inequality – have yet to be implemented. Accountability for the 2007-2008 post-election violence remains largely unaddressed. It now rests with the ICC with charges against three (of the original six) suspects still pending, including prosecutions of the newly elected president and deputy president. Kenyatta and Ruto deny the allegations against them and have publicly committed to cooperate with the court. Yet in early May, Kenya’s permanent representative to the UN submitted a brief to the Security Council seeking to have the case terminated, a move that was subsequently rejected by Ruto and the attorney general but follows a history of government challenges to the court.

With the first election under the 2010 constitution complete, Kenyans now anticipate the full force of reforms that aim to redress grievances against centralised governance and uneven economic development. Through devolved government, the 47 newly created counties, with their own elected governors and assemblies, will seek to tackle socio-economic inequalities. However, faith in the central government’s will and capacity to implement reforms has been further weakened by the failures in the reformed electoral machinery. To restore public confidence in the electoral process, the government should:

  • conduct a comprehensive audit of the electoral process, drawing on all the relevant legislation, institutions and mechanisms;
     
  • address inadequate training of IEBC field officers, the police and other security sector personnel;
     
  • enhance communication of the processes in the electoral cycle and address deficiencies in civic and voter education; and
     
  • investigate and prosecute those suspected of committing electoral offences, including IEBC staff members, and work to rebuild confidence in the IEBC. 

County governments will have to work alongside central government to ensure effective management and equitable allocation of national and local resources. The success of devolution will depend on mutual cooperation between the National Assembly, the Senate, county governors and assemblies, and the Transitional Authority (TA) mandated to oversee the devolution process. In the following months the new government should:

  • clarify the distinct and interdependent functions of county and national governments pursuant to the constitution and relevant legislation;
     
  • encourage transparency with continuous updates on the status of the transition;
     
  • ensure county governments adhere to constitutional requirements for diversity and representation; and
     
  • build capacity at the county government level and ensure adequate and timely resource allocation.

As Kenya moves forward under a Jubilee government, focus will be on implementing the constitution, ensuring the smooth transition to devolved government and bringing justice to the victims of the 2007-2008 post-election violence. To ensure political stability, economic growth and mutually beneficial foreign relations, President Kenyatta’s government, with the support of regional and international partners, will need to:

  • cement peace and reconciliation initiatives and continue to seek justice for post-election violence victims through continued cooperation with the ICC; and
     
  • maintain progressive relationships with regional and international partners to ensure the achievements of the Grand Coalition Government, established in 2008, are preserved and built upon, and that Kenya’s ambitious socio-economic goals are achieved. 

Nairobi/Brussels, 15 May 2013

A Turkana woman walks past a road construction project near Isiolo town, about 320 km (200 miles) north from the capital Nairobi, on 7 July 2008. REUTERS/Antony Njuguna
Commentary / Africa

Kenya: Development, County Governments and the Risk of 2017 Election Violence

ISIOLO, Kenya. Until a decade ago, few ventured beyond Isiolo without armed police escort. A dusty frontier garrison town in central Kenya, it was the gateway into the badlands of Kenya’s former Northern Frontier District.

In the last two decades, as Kenya’s economy and politics have liberalised, Isiolo has transformed into a vibrant commercial hub owing much to its strategic location. It straddles the recently upgraded (paved) Pan-Africa highway that links the Horn (especially Ethiopia’s huge and relatively untapped markets) to central Kenya and beyond to Central and Southern Africa.

Isiolo is also an important node of Kenya’s LAPSSET (Lamu Port, South Sudan and Ethiopia) planned infrastructure project. This seeks to develop a new “northern” transport corridor between Kenya and Uganda and to better integrate Ethiopia and South Sudan into East Africa, and will include a new port being built near Lamu, oil pipelines and a refinery.

LAPSETT’s prospects have declined with the global price of oil, the rising terrorist threat in the North East, South Sudan’s civil war, and with Uganda now looking at an alternative pipeline route via Tanzania. Isiolo, however, will continue to play a central role in Kenya’s ambition to exploit its vast northern rangelands. 6,500 acres have been set aside for a new “Isiolo Resort City”, construction for a large dam on the Ewaso Nyiro River to serve it is already underway; a new airport, and a modern abattoir to process 400 cattle daily from the region’s large livestock population are also planned.

Yet Isiolo is one of a number of 47 new counties that face risks of conflict ahead of and during the 2017 polls. Not only has the national problem of an ethnic winner-takes-all politics devolved to the counties’ internal electoral competition, but local actors are making exclusive claims over potentially lucrative resources and infrastructure that fall in their boundaries, increasing conflict over internal administrative borders – which are often badly demarcated and therefore disputed. While these conflicts are found throughout Kenya, they have particularly affected counties in the pastoral areas of northern and southern Kenya, including the Rift Valley.

Devolving authority to county government in 2013 was one of the principal innovations of the 2010 constitution.

Devolving authority to county government in 2013 was one of the principal innovations of the 2010 constitution, and a response to the 2007-2008 post-election violence. The goal was to enhance local communities’ participation in development with the expectation that it would reduce competition over national resources, which had often taken on ethnic overtones and fuelled violence, especially at election time. It was also hoped county government would enable marginalised regions to catch up with the more developed areas, again addressing and reducing historic regional grievances.

Undoubtedly there has been a surge in county-based development especially in infrastructure, but these gains (and devolved funds that finance them) are connected to a rise in localised conflicts and insecurity in three aspects:

  • The heightened stakes of county power, controlled by the governor and other elected officers, have often reproduced national ethnic competition at county level.
     
  • The creation of new minorities within counties including in urban settings is generating new tensions, particularly where their economic activities are now seen as outsider competition by the new county elites.
     
  • Inter-county competition is growing over the ownership and control of big national or regional development projects where they traverse county boundaries, making these borders prone to violent dispute and rendering residents belonging to minorities from rival counties vulnerable to reprisals.

While Isiolo’s potential should bring development dividends – 63 per cent of its population live below the poverty line – its prospects are already blighted by a sharp rise in communal conflict. This is partly because control of national-regional development projects is contested by the new county elite as exclusively “theirs”.

The Isiolo county population (estimated at over 150,000) is diverse. Most are herders from tribes like the Boran, Somali, Samburu and Turkana in the northern “rangelands” (desert in the eyes of many), but a minority are farmers, because the county straddles the line of “sown” lands of the central highlands, settled by Meru agriculturalists and traders.

While this crossroads of livelihoods brings exchange and a dynamic local economy, it has also driven conflict: in the 1990s most of the ethnic violence was between the Boran and Somali, but since then ethnic conflict has diversified and evolved. In late October 2015 deadly clashes pitted Somali, Boran and Samburu herders against Meru farmers along the disputed county border resulting in six deaths. A few days later, riots erupted in Isiolo town following the death of a Meru boda boda (motorbike-taxi) operator; Boran, Somali and Turkana then looted Meru shops and blocked the Isiolo-Nanyuki highway; the situation was only brought under control by the deployment of soldiers from the 78th Tank Battalion, based in the town’s outskirts.

The Isiolo-Meru tension is just one example of inter-county disputes that now affect more than half the counties.

Because of the way Kenya’s new counties were often hastily drawn up (some see deliberate ethnic “gerrymandering”), formerly cosmopolitan regional capitals have become administrative centres for smaller counties dominated by one or two ethnic groups, and smaller communities neighbouring counties or further afield living in these cities have become “minorities”. In Isiolo’s case, Meru communities are now a minority, dominant in trade and in some urban wards, but frozen out of the big county executive seats, like those for the governor, senators and members of the national assembly. They are caught up in the increasingly bitter and violent conflict over the poorly-defined border between Isiolo and Meru counties.

The Isiolo-Meru tension is just one example of inter-county disputes that now affect more than half the counties, with growing calls for a new county border demarcation exercise. The Commission on Administrative Justice (a statutory body to address administrative and governance disputes) has called for the creation of a County Boundaries Commission, with a mandate to conduct a new survey and clearly mark out borders with visible markers. However, any new commissions or actions are unlikely to have an impact on contested boundaries before the 2017 elections.

Inaction is not an option since contested boundaries and the ethnic interests competing over them will aggravate hotly disputed county elections in 2017. The counties and the national government need to consider a sequence of high-impact policy interventions to mitigate the risk of county-based conflict, now and in the run-up to 2017. These could include:

  • a moratorium on all land sales in disputed country border areas, pending the outcome of a credible adjudication of contested lands and county border demarcation (properly marked with high-visibility markers);
     
  • a clear national government policy statement that borders will be reviewed after the 2017 polls by an independent technical commission and its decisions will be final and binding;
     
  • the creation of a new “County Inclusion Index” by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission to identify counties that are failing to meet the constitutional requirements of inclusive government (the commission is already doing this but on an ad hoc basis);
     
  • new high-level inter-county talks, involving elected officials and a broad cross-section of credible civil society leaders, to ease tensions and create sustained peacebuilding and reconciliation.

Contributors

Researcher, Horn of Africa
a_abdille
Project Director, Horn of Africa
RAbdiCG