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Kenya’s Coast: Devolution Disappointed
Kenya’s Coast: Devolution Disappointed
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
A Muslim woman and her children cross the Majengo area of Mombasa, after police secured the area in a major security operation, 17 November 2014. AFP PHOTO/Ivan Lieman
Briefing 121 / Africa

Kenya’s Coast: Devolution Disappointed

Six new coastal counties created by Kenya’s 2010 constitution have replicated the closely-held patronage politics of the former Coast province, adding to inefficiencies, costs and mutual suspicions. To maximise the potential of devolution – and prevent militants like Al-Shabaab exploiting popular disappointment – Nairobi and the new counties need to become more cooperative, open to dialogue, and inclusive, especially toward marginalised youth.

I. Overview

The huge public expectations raised by devolved government on Kenya’s coast have turned into disappointment. Patronage politics that marked the former centralised system has been replicated in the new counties, making government even more inefficient and expensive. Though political leadership is now local, power is closely held, and leaders are suspicious of both national and local rivals. Certain regions, communities and many youth still feel marginalised. Political devolution has deflected but not resolved grievances that fuel militancy, which continues to be met by hard security measures driven from Nairobi. Greater inclusion and cooperation within and between county governments, as well as national-county dialogue, is needed to maximise devolution’s potential and ensure militant groups, like Al-Shabaab, have fewer grievances to exploit. 

The 2010 constitution prescribes partnership between national and county institutions; instead there is competition and confrontation (at least for now peaceful). The former Coast province is divided into six new coastal county governments. They are caught between the popular and still potent idea of majimbo – greater political and economic autonomy and authority devolved to the regions – and a central government that expects them to focus on service delivery and only play a parochial political role that many dismiss in frustration as vijimbo (little regions). National government (including the president) have undertaken a number of high-profile, if piecemeal, initiatives that the coastal county elite has interpreted as a challenge to the spirit of devolution and its local political primacy. In response, leading coastal politicians are stirring up local discontent and threatening unilateral takeover of key revenue resources such as Mombasa port. However, the coastal retreat into defensive regionalism is likely only to exacerbate county-capital frictions, not extract concessions from the national government. 

The tension between national and county government is not unique to the coast, but coastal grievances, historical and current, are particularly acute and have fuelled the recent rise in nativist and Islamist-inspired militancy. Militant networks, though damaged and presently dormant, are by no means dismantled, and parallel networks of urban youth gangs and armed political entourages make for a still combustible mix. The coastal counties also remain an opposition stronghold into which the ruling party would like to make inroads. This risks a convergence of national and local political competition in the 2017 elections of a sort that in the past has produced communal tensions and localised violence. 

The gulf of mistrust – exploited by all sides – not only limits the full delivery of devolution’s benefits; in the case of the coastal counties, it also undermines efforts to combat militancy and attendant violence now subsumed under a “countering violent extremism” (CVE) agenda that is a priority of both Nairobi and its international partners. Rather than focus solely on building the capacity of the security and intelligence services, international assistance to counter radicalisation should give equal and increasing emphasis to outreach and reconciliation, so as to find political common ground and articulate and address the region’s grievances within the coast’s newly devolved political structures. 

A renewed civic education campaign to underline the potential gains of devolution, as well as the responsibilities and roles of county government and its elected representatives, is urgently needed. Promising initiatives like the “Commonwealth of Coast Counties” (Jumiya Ya Kaunti Za Pwani, JKP), which aim to amplify the benefits of county government through regional (cross-county) projects, need to be depoliticised and given technical support by relevant national ministries and authorities and multilateral institutions (eg, the World Bank). There should be greater institutionalisation of welcome, but currently ad hoc, interventions toward resolving long-term land grievances, specifically the regularisation rather than wholesale redistribution of land titles.

Overall, renewed reconciliation work is needed at all levels in the coastal counties ahead of elections; specifically, national and county governments and donors need to reach a renewed understanding of the role and limits of civil society and community-based organisations (CSOs and CBOs), which are still best placed to identify and diffuse potential conflict flashpoints at local levels. The promotion of greater partnership between national and county governments (even as a regional bloc) should be a security and developmental priority for Kenya and its partners.

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Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta (L) greets opposition leader Raila Odinga of the National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition after addressing a news conference at the Harambee house office in Nairobi, Kenya, on March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
Briefing 136 / Africa

After Kenya’s Leaders Reconcile, a Tough Path Ahead

The meeting between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga was an important step toward ending the protracted crisis over last year’s disputed election. To build on the progress, consensus is required on concrete steps that can help safeguard against future polarisation and violence.​

I. Overview

The meeting on 9 March 2018 between Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga was as unanticipated as it is significant. In their joint statement issued after the talks, they promised to address the “deterioration of relationships between communities” and “aggressive antagonism and competition” that has blighted repeated electoral cycles in Kenya. This pledge is welcome: the warm words between the two men should help end the protracted crisis provoked by last year’s disputed presidential election, while raising prospects for some form of national dialogue and reforms to avert a repeat. But now comes the hard part.

The two leaders, together with other politicians, business leaders, clerics and diplomats, must now ensure the next phase is a consensual, inclusive process yielding meaningful change. Priorities include an investigation into police killings and police reform; a reopening to civil society and the media; and political reforms that aim to reverse Kenya’s winner-takes-all politics, perhaps including provisions that widen representation in the executive. While changes to rules are important, in themselves they will not temper the country’s zero-sum ethnic politics without a broader shift in the behaviour of Kenyan leaders.

A. Historical Feud, Contested Polls

The presidential election, held on 8 August 2017, pitted the incumbent Kenyatta against veteran opposition leader Odinga. Both are scions of prominent political families – Kenyatta senior was the first president and the elder Odinga was vice president at independence. The pair fell out in the 1960s and the two families have dominated political competition for decades.

Ahead of the 2017 election, the younger Kenyatta and Odinga headed the tickets of alliances cobbled together largely along ethnic lines. The election commission pronounced Kenyatta the victor, but Odinga rejected the results. The Supreme Court annulled the vote on 1 September, finding widespread irregularities and illegalities in the tallying, tabulation and transmission of results, and ordered a fresh election. Odinga boycotted these polls, which were held on 26 October, citing insufficient reform of the electoral authorities. Kenyatta won with 98 per cent of the vote (although turnout in opposition areas was extremely low) and was declared president.

After that second election, Kenyatta and Odinga both took escalatory steps that deepened social divisions and triggered violence, leaving dozens dead, mainly at the hands of security forces. Odinga defied pressure from allies and foreign diplomats, and staged a mock inauguration on 30 January at which he was declared “people’s president”. This show not only compounded the political crisis but also sowed discord within Odinga’s own National Super Alliance. Kenyatta initially drew praise for pulling the security forces away from the venue of the Odinga ceremony to avoid a confrontation with opposition supporters. But he subsequently ordered several private TV stations off the air for days (and ignored a court order declaring this action illegal). He has led a crackdown on civil society and dismissed calls from the opposition, religious leaders and diplomats for a national dialogue.

After that second election, Kenyatta and Odinga both took escalatory steps that deepened social divisions and triggered violence.

Last week’s talks between the two leaders were thus an important turnaround in a situation that appeared headed toward prolonged stalemate. It seems that back-channel contacts between aides culminated in the surprise one-on-one meeting in Nairobi.

The two leaders would both benefit from reconciliation. Kenyatta’s second-term agenda – focused on growing the economy – would be imperilled if a significant proportion of the electorate continued to question his legitimacy. Reaching out to Odinga, who enjoys particularly strong support in western Kenya and along the coast, is one way to overcome those challenges.

Odinga, too, has much to gain. In recent weeks, key opposition allies seemed to be abandoning him, as they positioned themselves for the 2022 election. The latest move puts Odinga back at the centre of Kenyan politics. Aides say the veteran opposition leader, who has long championed reform and was a supporter of Kenya’s progressive 2010 constitution, seeks to claim a place in history by pushing further change to the winner-takes-all political system.

B. Three Critical Steps

Kenyatta and Odinga have formed a committee of close aides to spearhead the campaign for national unity and propose possible constitutional amendments. To succeed, they need to ensure that any reforms are adopted only through an inclusive dialogue that consults as wide a cross section of the population as feasible. Important allies of both leaders appear to have been excluded from the talks and could seek to undermine reform efforts. Both Kenyatta and Odinga need to rally militant supporters behind the rapprochement to achieve wider buy-in for any prospective deal.

Moreover, a settlement negotiated exclusively by politicians would clearly contravene Article 118 of the Constitution (which demands public consultation before major decisions are made). The committee devising the reforms should host meetings with grassroots and other civil society organisations, as well as clerics and business leaders, to discuss any proposed changes.

Three areas will be vital in shaping reform if Kenya is to avoid further cycles of polarising and destabilising elections:

1. Lowering the stakes. In their joint statement, Kenyatta and Odinga conceded that polarisation and all-or-nothing contests for power have turned elections into “a threat to lives, our economy and our standing as a nation”. Many politicians believe that the narrow structure of the executive, in particular, with only the posts of president and deputy president up for grabs, leaves little room for accommodation of a wider cross section of elites.

Some politicians suggest amending the constitution in favour of a Tanzania-style system to include a prime minister and possibly a deputy prime minister nominated by the parties that won the most parliamentary seats. Pursuant to this structure, both would govern under the supervision of a directly elected president. Such a move, proponents argue, would have several positive implications: broadening the executive, checking presidential power and, crucially, beginning to address the question of “exclusion and, ultimately, animosity” that Kenyatta and Odinga raised in their statement.

Finding ways to spread power around different positions and institutions, and to widen representation in the executive, could lower the high stakes of elections. But such an overhaul, particularly after the exhaustive constitutional reform undertaken less than a decade ago, should not be entered into lightly. It would require a process as consultative and inclusive as that which preceded the adoption of the 2010 constitution. Alternatively, a proposal from the leadership of Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party, which commands a majority in parliament, to create a formal role for the leading opposition figure in presidential elections – with a special budget and specific mandate – might be less controversial and achieved through legislative rather than constitutional change.

Kenya’s political elite and civil society ought to be cautious in assuming that rule changes alone will transform the culture of winner-takes-all ethnic politics and fierce electoral competition. The 2010 constitution in principle strengthened checks and balances and independent institutions, and thus should have achieved those objectives. That these reforms failed to avert last year’s crisis is a testament to the manner in which Kenyan politicians contest power. Political culture – the behaviour of Kenyan leaders, particularly the distribution of resources along ethnic lines – needs to change as much as formal rules of the game.

2. Probe rights violations. Human rights groups found that the police were responsible for by far the largest number of deaths, including of several infants, during protests over the electoral crisis. A judicial commission of inquiry should investigate these killings. It should go beyond identifying culprits – who should face prosecution – and issue binding recommendations, potentially including retraining officers and a review of police codes.

The government also should reinvigorate efforts to reform the police and strengthen civilian oversight, including by empowering the Independent Policing Oversight Authority. Wider police reform, including through implementation of existing constitutional provisions that protect the security forces’ leadership from interference by the executive, remains key to addressing Kenya’s poor human rights record.

3. Civil liberties and media freedom. Kenya has a deserved reputation as one of the continent’s more open societies. Its free-wheeling private media and debate of public issues on social media as well as its robust civil society help promote transparency and accountability. Those freedoms are in danger, both from an intensified government campaign against civil society and from government pressure on private media firms, including threats to selectively withdraw government advertising, a crucial source of revenue. Odinga should use his place at the table to persuade Kenyatta that the country would gain more by maintaining its culture of openness.

C. Conclusion

Kenyatta and Odinga deserve praise for their recent show of statesmanship in agreeing to hold talks to try and end the crisis and help unite the country. Together with civil society, religious groups, business leaders and the diplomatic community, they should now turn to the hard work of ensuring this chance for meaningful change is not wasted.

Nairobi/Brussels, 13 March 2018

Appendix A: Map of Kenya