Posted in Democracy in Government

A Political Theory Nerd’s Take on Kenyan Politics – Part 1

Today I am following the trends to political climate in Kenya. I write this post impartially with the only aim being to continue an analysis that started with me thesis. I have spent the summer looking at colleges and know how realizing how deeply I enjoy comparative politics. Well, I am also practicing for my grad school applications haha, so I would love your input, disagreements, agreements etc.

I have spent the summer going back and forth between American and Kenyan politics, two spectacular countries to be associated with right now. Then I ran into this gem that is Jodi Dean’s Democracy and other Neoliberal Fantasies. In this text Dean analyzes the George Bush’ win in 2000 and the choice of the Left to take the role of “victim” to posit the the Right as villain. Dean criticizes this as the avoidance of responsibility, the assumption that the other person stole the election gives the victim other a moral high ground hence authority to do anything. But this also concedes power to the legally declared winner. She aims to differentiate the resistance from leaning on victimhood.

While this book is ideologically specific to the US, comparative politics are inevitable. I will not go much into the philosophies of victimhood, but they are very much present in the Kenyan politics among all opposition parties to the ruling party. I hate to normalize tribal politics, but Kenya’s politics have continued to be very much tribal despite the effort to decentralize the government. The opposition continues to lose in field advantage to alliances of larger tribes the moment the opposition goes along in playing tribal politics. You see, tribal politics are all about numbers, and that familial identity that unless challenged, could tentatively give favor to the ones with the upper hand. I recognize the shallowness of that conclusion, but this is research and thought in progress.

So below is the beginning of my research analysis of Kenyan devolution (decentralization) and ethnic politics. 


On December 12, 1963, Kenya celebrated independence from British rule. Since then, post-colonial state formation has been met with numerous crises and roadblocks. This has come in the form of coup attempts, ethnic conflict, corruption and other struggle. In response to these political struggles, the Kenyan state has gone through several structural changes. The most recent round of concerted state transformation was ushered in after the March 2013 elections with a new system of devolved government. Devolution is the transfer of authority, resources and personnel from the national to the sub-national level. As a more comprehensive form of decentralization, devolution’s greatest concern is to distribute more power to the sub-national level of government. Its typical purpose is to protect local minorities, ensure fair distribution of resources and diffuse conflict. The mandate for devolution was originally introduced in 2010 by the New Constitution proposed by a government appointed commission. The idea was to distribute authority across multiple levels of government. The decision to devolve was informed by several historical triggers; one of the central ones being ethnic conflict. In this paper, I explore the implementation process in the context of historical Kenyan ethnic divisions. My research investigates the question: What are the implications of Kenya’s devolution for ethnic conflict? I will address this by answering the following secondary questions: What is the history of the nation-state formation in Kenya? Why devolution now and how is it being implemented?  In what important ways is Kenya’s system different from or similar to other devolved systems in Africa? Based on specific case examples, is it likely that devolution will achieve its objectives?

This paper contains five sections: First, I hope to provide a historical background to better understand why devolution is happening now. Situating devolution in history of the Kenya posits the state as a versatile formal structure that takes different shapes at different historical moments, and uses different instruments at different stages of its formation. Second, I explore the concept of devolution, its functions, implementation, and some trends in Africa. Third, I do a theoretical analysis of the Kenyan State, and ethnic conflict – informed by its historical formation. Fourth, I zoom in on two regions in Kenya as my case studies – the county of Isiolo and the coast of Kenya. My focus in these case studies will center on the role of ethnicity in politics at the center (national or central government) and the periphery (regional semi-autonomous authorities) of Kenya. I will especially focus on land politics, political leadership, and the tribal-ethnic socio-political relations in the regions.  Leading from the case studies, I will highlight current political trends as Kenya prepares for its general elections in 2017 August 2017 elections. Fifth, I will argue for the need to pay attention to Kenya’s constitutional practices (constitutionalism), which has long been ignored across the political spectrum.  

Literature Review

The academic debate on decentralization has long pitted enthusiasts against skeptics. Both views have proven useful and informative during the process of my research. In Decentralisation in Kenya: The Governance of Governors, N. Cheeseman, G. Lynch, and J. Wills analyses the positives of decentralization. They write:

“Enthusiasts have focused on the theoretical benefits of decentralization, both intrinsic and instrumental; their intellectual lineage stretching back to de Tocqueville’s argument that it was the ability of Americans… to participate in local government that enabled them to experience political freedom” (7).

These authors view decentralized power to the periphery as the ultimate democratic freedom. They emphasize the benefits to democratic decision-making of having a population that feels that they have a stake in the political system. Others argue that decentralization could offer a potential end to regional or religious tensions. I see all these aspects of decentralization unfold in the case studies I analyze later in this paper. Cheeseman, Lynch and Wills highlight that decentralization has also been posited as one of the most effective ways to protect democratic gains in Africa and beyond.

In contrast, D’Arcy and Cornell’s Devolution and Corruption in Kenya: Everyone’s Turn to Eat? argues that although decentralization has often been proposed as a solution to a range of problems facing developing countries, and in particular, African countries. Yet, few have achieved a meaningful transfer of power because central governments have refused to transfer resources and authority, and local elites have co-opted the process. The local elites here refer to the new regional leaders in the new devolved system. In Devolution in Kenya’s New Constitution, Othieno Nyanjom argues that “the people’s representatives at virtually every level of government easily become a new class of professional politicians and then into parasites on society… For the new breed of professional politicians, national interest is the last priority” (Nyanjom, 16). Politics at the national level get replicated at the local. There is a general trend among scholars that entails expressing fear about the local elites, creation of local minorities/majority among ethnicities that might not have had the numbers to initially create an impact, manipulation by the national government, and fear that conflict at the center was being devolved to the periphery. While both ends of decentralization strive for efficiency and conflict reduction, they also have their potential pitfalls as seen in most global trends.

Despite the challenges facing decentralization, there is a continued global trend- in Africa and elsewhere- to seek to decentralize. So, why and how do African countries decentralize? In Comparative Assessment of Decentralization in Africa: Ghana and Mali Desk Studies, a USAID report by Dickovick, J.T. and Riedl, R.B., the authors seek to answer this question.  This is a comparative report that draws on 10 national level desk studies to assess the status of government decentralization in Africa. Among global trends, Ethiopia peaked my interest due to the country’s choice to decentralize based on ethnicity.  In Ethnicity and Power in Ethiopia Sarah Vaughan examines why ethnicity was introduced as the basis for the reconstitution of the Ethiopian state in 1991, examining the politicization of ethnic identity before and after the federation of the country’s ‘nations, nationalities and peoples’ was instituted. Vaughan argues that ethnic federalism in Ethiopia has ‘ethnified’ Ethiopian politics, in the obvious sense that, amongst those who are aware of its provisions, federalism has made the ethnic group (‘nation, nationality or people’) a salient category – a ‘prominent solution’ – for the mediation of access to state resources and decision-making (Vaughn). In Decentralization as a tool for resolving the nationality problem: The Ethiopian Experience Beyene argues that while the ultimate success of Ethiopia’s ethnolinguistic-based decentralization is uncertain, local self-determination has not resulted in mass secessions because administrative accountability has not yet been significantly institutionalized must thus remain on the policy agenda. the Ethiopian case as a trend helps situate my understanding of  decentralization (in this case, devolution) in a state that has been constantly hit by ethnic conflict.

Adit Malik’s Devolution And Electoral Violence: Has Kenya’s County System Created New Arenas For The Organization Of Election-Related Conflict? calls into question the impact of decentralization on intercommunal relations and levels of national cohesion. He argues that while there might be a sense of national cohesion, there is a chance that new arenas for ethnic conflict ought to/could be created at the local level. For instance, in contrast to the hope that decentralization will decrease spatial inequalities, some researchers, such as M. Robinson actually believe that it might increase the gap between the rich and poor  at the local level, and end up creating new minority groups. Communal tensions already exist in Kenya due to the existence of a polarized winner-takes-all politics. The growth of regional inequalities would likely facilitate ethnic politics and consequently undermine efforts to foster national unity and cohesion. This concern is particularly important for Kenya, a state still recovering from ethnic-based the 2007-08 post-election violence. Additionally, there have been cases of conflict in some of the newly created counties. These tensions are often remnants of local tribal-ethnic conflict that has not been dealt with.

The phrase “decentralized despotism” – meaning indirect rule – comes from Mahmood Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Mamdani provides an enlightening account of colonialism’s legacy – a bifurcated power that mediated racial domination through tribally organized local authorities. Mamdani notes that many scholars on colonialism have understood colonial rule as either “direct” (French) or “indirect” (British), with a third variant – apartheid – as exceptional. Mamdani shows that all these terminologies mask the fact that these were actually variants of despotism. While direct rule denied rights to subjects on racial grounds, indirect rule incorporated them into a “customary” mode of rule. Indirect rule (decentralized despotism) set the pace for Africa, and became a popular mode of governance because it masked the authoritarian nature of the central colonial government by giving the governed a false sense of representation. Apartheid, Mamdani shows, was actually the generic form of the colonial state in Africa. It is against this background that Kenya attempted the Majimbo system after independence, but it failed because it was an institution set up for the purposes of colonialism. The new local elites were accustomed to certain systems of incentives, such as land as reward for loyalty to the colonial administration that had to change at independence. Chome uses Mamdani’s analysis to raise similar concerns about the new devolved government. Is it too rushed? What are some detrimental aspects of the old regime that are being carried over? Mamdani has helped change the way the effects of colonialism are understood, particularly as a legacy that continues to be at the core of present-day conflicts. Mamdani argues that some of the instabilities among African states in the 1990s were a direct consequence of having kept in place the same government structures as under colonialism, even with the changing time. Mamdani’s analysis acts as both a critique and an analysis of the process of democratization and the different instruments used. He insists on the importance of a detailed historical analysis so as to view regimes as a continuation of one process of state formation to the next…. which is what we shall do next (A historical analysis)