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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