Kenya’s Somali North East: Devolution and Security
Kenya’s Somali North East: Devolution and Security
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Countdown Begins to Kenya’s Transitional Election
Countdown Begins to Kenya’s Transitional Election
A man rides in a donkey cart past Kenya policemen as he crosses from Kenya into Somalia at the border town of Mandera, 5 December 2014. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
A man rides in a donkey cart past Kenya policemen as he crosses from Kenya into Somalia at the border town of Mandera, 5 December 2014. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
Briefing 114 / Africa

Kenya’s Somali North East: Devolution and Security

Clan politics, poor services, growing corruption and disarray in the security forces are undermining Kenya’s newly formed north-eastern counties, allowing the violently extremist Al-Shabaab movement to infiltrate over the border from Somalia. To build security and capitalise on devolution’s potential, national government and county elites alike must become more pragmatic and inclusive.

I. Overview

Devolved government in Kenya’s newly formed north-eastern counties, designed to address decades of political marginalisation and underdevelopment, has been undermined by dominant clans monopolising power and growing corruption. Violent clan competition and antipathy between elected county elites and the remaining national administrative structures have allowed the violently extremist Al-Shabaab movement to expand and operate with relative impunity across large areas of the North East. Its attacks exposed security-service disarray and caused a sharp reversal of already stretched state services in this vast and poor region that shares a porous 680km border with Somalia. To end the violence and capitalise on devolution’s potential, county elites must be more inclusive of minorities, cooperate across local boundaries for inter-county peace and recognise the continued role for neutral national institutions. National government should recognise where pragmatism can trump convention and back new security approaches that combine national and county responses.

Rampant criminality, inter-clan animosities and small-arms proliferation stretch policing and render highly insecure the sprawling refugee camps that host more than 350,000 Somali nationals fleeing the conflict in their country. This is compounded by Al-Shabaab infiltration, radicalisation and recruitment – especially in a borderland region where the inhabitants’ national identity is historically contested and suspect. As relations between the refugees and their Kenyan Somali host communities fray, demands for the camps’ closure are becoming more strident.

After lengthy bureaucratic infighting and knee-jerk initiatives that smacked of political score-settling and risked alienating many Kenyan Somalis, a new security approach is finally in place, led by senior national security officers who vitally have local roots (ie, Somali heritage) but are directly accountable to the national executive. This has temporarily helped bridge a breakdown in cooperation, especially in local intelligence-sharing, between county commissioners appointed by the president and newly-elected county governments that resented their security oversight. Whether this approach is applicable to other insecure areas with historically-strained relations with the centre is yet to be seen.

A purely security-focused approach, however innovative, is in any event not a panacea. The new devolved county governments must share responsibility for chronic insecurity instead of continually deflecting blame to the centre. Most importantly, the inclination, with some notable exceptions, for a winner-takes-all approach to county politics will only generate further insecurity, as will the deepening problem of graft. With the second “devolved” elections in 2017 promising to be even more competitive than those in 2013, consensus on minimum provisions for cross-clan inclusion is needed now.

New county elites underutilise existing peace-making structures (“local peace committees”, community-based organisations and clerics) and prefer “county-owned” forums dependent on – often compromised – clan elders, while keeping the national government and its good offices at a distance and ignoring or sidelining women and youth networks. The government should establish an independent commission of national and local experts to offer solutions on the contentious issues at the core of the inter-clan frictions, such as borders, land, wells and justice and restitution for losses.

Finally, the national and county governments urgently need to reestablish social services (especially health and education) at the same time as they strengthen the security sector. Education can help reduce poverty, promote integration among ethnic and religious groups and fight extremism; and, at least in the medium term, more resources should be allocated to lift its standards. Donors, multilateral and bilateral alike, have clear incentives to give developmental aid that supports successful devolution and enhances Kenyan and regional security.

Nairobi/Brussels, 17 November 2015 

Banners of Kenya's opposition leader and presidential candidate Raila Odinga, and Kenya's Deputy President William Ruto, also presidential candidate, are seen in Kericho, Kenya, July 30, 2022. REUTERS / Baz Ratner
Q&A / Africa

Countdown Begins to Kenya’s Transitional Election

Kenya’s highly anticipated vote featuring two political heavyweights, Orange Democratic Movement leader Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto, is likely to be closely fought. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Meron Elias outlines what is at stake.

What is happening?

Kenyans are due to vote on 9 August in a high-stakes election that has polarised the country’s political elite. The election pits Deputy President William Ruto, who will be trying for the top office for the first time, against Raila Odinga, the veteran head of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement. As deputy president, Ruto once seemed to be the heir apparent, but he has fallen out bitterly with President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is serving his second and last term. Instead, Kenyatta backs the candidacy of his own long-time rival Odinga, who has made four previous attempts to win the presidency.

Polls show a mixed picture in the contest between Ruto and Odinga. One closely watched polling firm, TIFA Research, found that Odinga has carved out a lead in recent weeks, with 49 per cent to Ruto’s 41 per cent. Another survey, by the Radio Africa Group, concluded that the race is a dead heat, placing Ruto at 45 per cent, one point ahead of Odinga.

Kenyan elections are almost invariably hard-fought, but the Odinga-Ruto showdown has been unusually unpredictable in part because deal-making among Kenyan elites has upended old alliances. Kenyatta, who clinched the presidency in 2013 and won re-election in 2017, was expected to endorse his deputy Ruto, who backed him in both those campaigns. Instead, Kenyatta forged a partnership with Odinga soon after the 2017 vote.

The reshaped electoral chessboard means the outcome will probably come down to the degree to which Odinga and Ruto can muster support outside their respective bases.

The reshaped electoral chessboard means the outcome will probably come down to the degree to which Odinga and Ruto can muster support outside their respective bases. Ruto is strongly ahead in his Rift Valley backyard, while Odinga enjoys an unassailable lead in Nyanza, where he traces his roots. The picture is more complex in the vote-rich Mt. Kenya region, north of Nairobi, which has produced three of Kenya’s four post-independence presidents. There is no major candidate from the populous central highlands this time around. Ruto has shown surprising strength in this region, where Kenyatta has traditionally been dominant. The deputy president remains well ahead in polls, though without anything like the huge majority that Kenyatta won in 2017. Odinga, while trailing Ruto in the region, has raised his poll numbers to between 25 and 30 per cent, up from the single-digit figure he recorded in 2017. Odinga hopes that improvement in this region will make up for his losses to Ruto in his long-time strongholds in western Kenya and the coast. Ruto’s chances, meanwhile, rest on him scoring a convincing win in Mt. Kenya while eating into Odinga’s support in the western, coastal and northern parts of the country. Another key issue to watch will be whether two less prominent contenders, George Wajackoyah and David Mwaure, can peel enough votes away from the two main candidates to force a run-off.

What is at stake? 

Although the campaign has been largely peaceful, its tone has sharpened in the final weeks. Not just the two main candidates but also the outgoing president view the race in existential terms: they see winning as a matter of political and economic survival. Ruto, though now vastly wealthy, has parlayed his humble background into a campaign image as a “hustler”, an everyman who understands the needs of ordinary Kenyans, unlike Kenyatta and Odinga, the dynastic successors of Kenya’s first president and vice president, respectively. Ruto and his running mate Rigathi Gachagua have promised to tackle the “state capture” they say has occurred during the Kenyatta presidency, an implicit threat to investigate the Kenyatta family business empire’s ties with the state. But Ruto could face investigation himself, should Odinga prevail, into the source of his wealth (the political stakes, given his relative youth at 55, are arguably lower for him). Odinga, 77, will be making his fifth and likely final bid for the presidency. Portraying himself as a safe pair of hands who will unite the country, he has also vowed to root out corruption. He chose the respected anti-graft crusader Martha Karua, the first woman to run for deputy president on a major ticket in Kenyan history, as his running mate. In the eyes of his supporters, winning would reward him for his great personal sacrifices, including a long spell in detention in the 1980s, in the quest for a more democratic Kenya.

The two sides have traded ever more pointed barbs over the past few weeks. Attack billboards have sprung up and concocted accusations have flown on social media. Kenyatta and Ruto in particular have launched tirades against each other. On 31 July, government spokesperson Cyrus Oguna condemned politicians for stoking tensions and urged the two front-runners’ teams to dial down their rhetoric.

The most severe drought in 40 years has sharpened communal hostilities in the hardest-hit areas.

Aside from the presidential election, Kenyans will also choose among thousands of candidates for national and county assembly member seats, representatives to the senate and county governorships. Contests for the latter post tend to be particularly pitched, considering the devolved powers and control of resources governors enjoy under Kenya’s constitution. In some places, the contests have already turned violent: in the northern county of Marsabit, the national government imposed a curfew following deadly clashes between local communities. The most severe drought in 40 years has sharpened communal hostilities in the hardest-hit areas, as Crisis Group reporting recently found. There have also been reports of attacks on women candidates on the campaign trail, despite the progress for gender representation indicated by Odinga’s nomination of Karua.

Although tensions may flare in some localities, the principal threat to stability lies in a disputed presidential outcome. Should the winner clinch the presidency by only a narrow margin, the declared loser may reject the result. Ideally, the aggrieved loser would turn to the courts, but if instead he calls supporters out into the streets they could clash with police. Communal violence might also ensue.

Are institutions prepared for the exercise?

The main questions about preparedness concern the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). This body, which runs the balloting and tabulates the votes, suffered a blow to its credibility after the 2017 presidential election when the Supreme Court annulled the results, citing the commission’s failure to conduct the vote in conformity with the constitution and electoral law. The IEBC has promised to learn from its mistakes, with Chairman Wafula Chebukati saying it will ensure the election is transparent by offering agents of all parties’ access to vote tallies at polling stations.

Surveys show high public trust in the IEBC (TIFA’s poll found 74 per cent of respondents have either “a lot of” or “some” confidence), but a combination of state pressure and its own missteps has hobbled its preparations. First, parliament failed to approve the funding the commission requested to run the elections in time, delaying preparations including staff recruitment. Secondly, state-aligned media and senior officials have launched attacks on its credibility, casting doubt on its capacity to conduct the vote. Authorities on 21 July arrested foreign contractors who had come to Kenya at the commission’s invitation for supposed immigration violations. Critics view these moves as attempts by the state apparatus to intimidate the IEBC. For its part, the commission has a clumsy communications strategy, rarely informing the public about its internal workings in a proactive manner, drawing accusations from both major candidates’ camps that it is not acting with the requisite transparency.

Police have committed a number of electoral code violations.

Security forces are another key player. For most of the campaign, they have behaved with restraint. In the final weeks, however, police have committed a number of electoral code violations, including blocking Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza alliance members from reaching a number of campaign venues.

On the plus side, Kenya’s judiciary has built on the public trust it earned with its unexpected annulment of the 2017 vote, alongside a number of subsequent decisions barring an attempt by Kenyatta and Odinga to change the constitution. Defeated candidates may well turn to the Supreme Court again this time.

What should be done?

Kenyan elections matter well beyond Kenya. The country is East Africa’s main transport and commercial hub and a violent breakdown following polling could have reverberations in the neighbourhood. As Kenya is a democratic bellwether in the region, a smooth election could be a powerful example to fellow governments that peaceful politics has more to offer than the personalist authoritarianism that has become common in the region. It has also positioned itself as the site of potential peace talks to end the war in northern Ethiopia and already hosted talks among parties to the conflicts in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Both initiatives could run aground in case of a prolonged crisis. 

The 2022 election cycle has had many encouraging features, notably that social tensions have been strikingly low. Yet intense elite polarisation – and the likelihood that the losing candidate will reject the outcome, especially if the election is close – means that all actors need to take steps to prevent the election from veering into violence. In particular, authorities should permit public institutions, notably the IEBC, the space to administer the election without interference. They should stick by their pledge not to shut down or slow the internet, as doing so would impair the commission’s capacity to transmit results electronically to tallying centres. Security forces should maintain strict neutrality.

The electoral commission should communicate the steps it is taking to ensure the vote’s integrity.

The electoral commission should communicate the steps it is taking to ensure the vote’s integrity. Its chairman should hold press briefings to apprise the public of developments on election day and every subsequent day until it announces the final tallies. It should open its systems to scrutiny by political parties to reduce mutual suspicion. Electoral officials and other authorities should also ensure that party agents have full access to polling stations including – as the chairman pledged – during the vote count. Foreign and Kenyan observers should also be granted access. Odinga and Ruto should commit to turn to the judiciary rather than the streets if they are dissatisfied with the vote’s conduct or the outcome. Even at this late stage, a commitment by both not to act vengefully against each other – or against the outgoing president – upon taking the reins of power would help ratchet down tensions.

The Horn of Africa can scarcely afford another crisis with so much of the region in ferment. Kenyan authorities, the IEBC and other institutional leadership, the judiciary and the major candidates should all do their part to ensure a peaceful vote by acting with restraint – and fairness – as Kenyans go to the polls.