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Delivering on the promise of peace? Devolution in Isiolo, Kenya

30 August 2018 Will Bennett Delivering on the promise of peace? Devolution in Isiolo, Kenya

Polarisation has long been a feature of Kenyan politics, where ethnic, religious, and other identity based divisions have driven episodic violence, especially around elections. In 2010, in an effort to address tensions the national government set out a plan to devolve power to 47 newly designated counties. Eight years on, has devolution delivered on its promise of peace and inclusion?

Successive Kenyan presidents have gained power by appealing to their ethnic communities with promises of jobs and services. Without institutions able to distribute resources fairly, securing executive office became vital for the well-being and future prospects of each ethnic community, rendering national elections zero-sum. With so much at stake at the ballot box, violence has been an enduring feature of national elections.

Devolution was meant to be the panacea. By decentralising power to 47 counties, each with democratically elected governors, devolution was expected to lead to more inclusive and accountable county institutions able to deliver better services for all, and in turn reduce the tensions and divisions that cause conflict.

But has devolution delivered on its promise of peace and inclusion? New Saferworld research from Isiolo County – part of the Peace Research Partnership – paints a mixed picture.

There are some undeniably positive results of devolution in Isiolo. There is more financial investment and employment, better roads, health and Early Childhood Development (ECD) facilities, and people are closer to democratic processes that directly affect their lives. On the surface, the county government structures themselves look robust too, with all the institutions theoretically necessary to govern in accordance with the 2010 constitution.

These are good signs, but don’t quite tell the whole story.

Far from being cast aside, the ethno-politics that characterise national politics in Kenya have now been devolved to the counties. Identity rather than policy is people’s primary political concern, with gubernatorial elections characterised by ‘negotiated democracy’, whereby leaders from the major ethnic groups form voting blocs to gain power and divide up county departments upon taking office.

Some negotiated democracies have been found to be ‘inclusive enough’ to maintain short-term stability. But this stability is unlikely to last. Identity politics pit ethnic groups against each other and lead to exclusive service delivery based on patronage rather than need. Many people we interviewed said they felt like ‘devolution orphans’, with little opportunity to participate in formal political processes or to have any impact on county policy. One person we spoke with said, “business is being done in the darkness.”

A system like this is not conducive to sustainable peace, which depends on the political inclusion of all sections of society to ensure that those in office are responsive to people’s diverse needs.

At the same time, a raft of progressive legislation has been passed but not implemented. An act must be a precursor to action, not a substitute for it: the dormant Public Participation & Civic Education Act 2012, in particular, represents a missed opportunity to improve political inclusion. Shortcomings such as this have left people excluded and unsure about how to access devolved services. This must be addressed – political exclusion is one of the most likely determinants of intra-state conflict.

Exclusion is perhaps most visible in the experiences of pastoralist communities. With scant meaningful support from the institutions responsible for either their immediate needs (grazing, water and livestock), or longer-term ambitions (education, livelihood diversification, county employment), inter-community conflict persists, often resulting in violent cattle raids.

Isiolo’s security services struggle to respond. Under capacity, publicly mistrusted, and largely decoupled from the county’s development strategy and its institutions, the police cut a frustrated figure, caught between national security priorities and county development needs. Too often they have little recourse but to use hard security responses to what are really human security issues.

With devolution only eight years old it is perhaps too soon to pass definitive judgement on its success. But we can assess the extent to which devolution has delivered on its promises of greater inclusion and peace so far, and it is clear that neither have yet come to pass. As institutions fail to deliver services equitably, old grievances have festered and new ones have emerged. Worryingly, people we spoke with predicted things may get worse, with violence deemed likely in 2019 when the contentious boundaries review will be carried out.

So what can those supporting the devolution process do to help deliver on its promises?

As an initial step, it’s time to stop seeing devolution as an end in itself – it is a process that can lead in a number of different directions, and perhaps even increase the short-term risk of conflict. It merits more critical engagement – instead of supporting county institutions as a de facto good, focus should be on how they function in ways that contribute to peace and stability. This requires two things: firstly, proper oversight and accountability mechanisms, both in terms of an impartial media, and more formal structures within the county government; and secondly, and above all, full political inclusion must be the central aim of those supporting devolution and the over-riding measure of its success. To do otherwise would be to fall back on blindly supporting formal institutions and procedures even as those in power continue to ignore the needs of many of their citizens.

This type of support is counter-productive in the long term, locking in inequitable structures that undermine effective governance and exacerbate exclusion – undermining yet further devolution’s promise of peace.


Read the report 'Delivering on the promise of peace? Devolution, inclusion and local conflicts in Kenya'.

Listen to our podcast about the research.

Read more about the Peace Research Partnership.

Read more about our work in Kenya.

Read more about our work on governance.