Arrow Left Arrow Right Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Kenya: Development, County Governments and the Risk of 2017 Election Violence
Kenya: Development, County Governments and the Risk of 2017 Election Violence
Report 197 / Africa

Kenya’s 2013 Elections

Preparations for elections in Kenya turn into high gear today as the parties in the three major coalitions nominate their candidates.

Executive Summary

Kenya’s elections this year should turn the page on the bloodshed of five years ago, but the risk of political violence is still unacceptably high. A new constitution, fresh election commission and reformed judiciary should help. But the vote, now set for 4 March 2013, will still be a high-stakes competition for power, both nationally and in 47 new counties. Forthcoming trials before the International Criminal Court (ICC) of four Kenyans for their alleged role in the 2007-2008 post-election violence look set to shape the campaign. The potential for local violence is especially high. Politicians must stop ignoring rules, exploiting grievances and stoking divisions through ethnic campaigning. The country’s institutions face fierce pressure but must take bold action to curb them. Business and religious leaders and civil society should demand a free and fair vote. So too should regional and wider international partners, who must also make clear that those who jeopardise the stability of the country and region by using or inciting violence will be held to account. 

Many reforms were initiated to address the flawed 2007 polls and subsequent violence. A new constitution, passed in a peaceful referendum in August 2010, aims to fortify democracy and temper zero-sum competition for the presidency by checking executive power. New voting rules require the president to win more than half the votes and enjoy wider geographic support. Power is being devolved to 47 counties, each of which will elect a governor, senator and local assembly. Despite recent mishaps, the new Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) still enjoys public trust. Judicial reform, including the appointment of a respected new chief justice, also augurs well for a more robust response to electoral fraud and disputes. 

The new institutions, however, have their work cut out. The ICC proceedings are influencing political alliances and the campaign. The four individuals facing trial deny the charges and maintain their innocence. While the cases aim to erode impunity long enjoyed by political elites and may deter bloodshed, they raise the stakes enormously. The two most powerful of the accused, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, look set to contest the elections on a single ticket (Kenyatta for president, Ruto for deputy president). Both have politicised the ICC cases, deepening ethnic polarisation, and have accused Prime Minister Raila Odinga, their strongest opponent, of conspiring with foreigners against them. 

The Kenyatta-Ruto alliance would be a strong ticket. Aware that Kenyans want an end to impunity, both have pledged to comply with the ICC, even if they win. Yet, regardless of the outcome of their cases, a president facing lengthy trial before the ICC could potentially have extremely damaging implications for reform and foreign relations, which Kenyatta’s backers should ponder carefully. For the moment, their eligibility to run for office remains in doubt; a case challenging their compliance with new constitutional requirements for public officials’ integrity is with a high court and may find its way by appeal to the Supreme Court. Were the courts to find Kenyatta and Ruto ineligible after the closing date for submitting nomination papers on 30 January, their supporters would be unable to choose alternative candidates, which might lead to strong protests and even spark conflict. Dealing as it does with a highly charged political issue, whichever way it goes, the final decision is likely to be contentious. If possible, the date of any decision should be announced in advance so the security agencies and others can prepare accordingly. 

Other signs are also troubling. Political parties and politicians flout new rules unchecked. The IEBC’s bungled procurement of voter registration kits reduced the confidence it previously enjoyed and suggests it may struggle to resist enormous pressure as the vote approaches. The late start to registration has cut all fat from the electoral timeline, and any flaws will heighten tension. The IEBC must work transparently with parties and other stakeholders to clarify and regularly review the timeline, so as to avoid any further – and highly-charged – delays.

Voter education will be crucial. It is the first general election under the 2010 constitution, with new rules that are considerably more complex than previous polls (each voter will cast six ballots). Limiting confusion and misunderstandings could help reduce disputes and election-related conflict. It is also vital that the IEBC provide sufficient access and information to citizen observers and other civil society groups. They must be able to plan their deployment properly and enjoy full access to every part of the election process, especially the tallying of results. Such groups can also be useful allies in bolstering commissioners’ ability to resist political interference.

Insecurity too poses a huge challenge. Despite the reforms, many structural conflict drivers – continuing reliance on ethnicity, competition for land and resources, resettlement of internally displaced people (IDPs), and poverty and youth unemployment – underlying the 2007-2008 violence remain unresolved and may be cynically used by politicians to whip up support. Many of those who fled the turmoil remain displaced. Land disputes feed local tension. Youth unemployment is still very high and, together with poverty and inequality, means a steady flow of recruits for criminal groups and militias that can be mobilised to intimidate opponents and their supporters or protest results, as they have in the past. Attacks blamed on the extremist Al-Shabaab movement and clashes over land can cloak political violence. Meanwhile, police reform has lagged and the security forces look ill-prepared to secure the polls. An experienced inspector general of police, David Kimaiyo, has been appointed, but the delay in his selection means little time remains for significant security reform. Multi-agency security planning, which has also lagged, must be completed and implemented. 

Ethnic campaigning and horse-trading as alliances formed – by Kenyatta and Ruto but also other leading politicians – have deepened divides. How the supporters of either of the two main tickets, those of Deputy Prime Minister Kenyatta and former cabinet minister Ruto running and of Prime Minister Odinga and Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka respectively, would respond to losing a close vote it perceives as flawed, or even to early signs it is falling behind, is unclear. International partners, including regional neighbours whose economies rely on a peaceful transition, should monitor any signs of interference or violence and weigh in quickly to deter it. Devolution, for all its benefits, introduces new conflict dynamics, as competition between groups for power and resources controlled at county level becomes fiercer. 

All these challenges are surmountable, especially given the remarkable determination of most to avoid a repeat of 2007-2008. But they require concerted action by Kenya’s institutions and their allies, and – most important – clear signals to leaders who are seen to be prioritising the pursuit of power. The people deserve better. To put the horror of five years ago behind them, they deserve the chance to vote without fear and elect leaders committed to reform and ready to serve society as a whole rather than the narrow interests of its elites.

Nairobi/Brussels, 17 January 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