Kenya’s 2010 Constitution and the devolution of power to 47 new county governments was meant to reduce competition for the country’s top seat and help address Kenya’s chronic ethnic conflicts.
In the words of Migai Akech, “The new Constitution establishes national values and principles of governance that seek to diffuse, if not eliminate altogether, the ethnic tensions fuelled by perceptions of marginalisation and exclusion”.
In this regard, devolution has clearly been found wanting.
In short, the ongoing brinkmanship between Jubilee and the National Super Alliance reveals how control of State House remains the ultimate political prize, while, if anything, political debate is getting more (rather than less) ethnically polarised.
But this does not mean that devolution has had no impact.
On the contrary, devolution has led to the decentralisation of significant powers and resources, and created new layers of political activity.
This has had complex and contradictory effects, which ensure that devolution is a critical, if unpredictable, factor in understanding contemporary Kenya.
First, devolution has reproduced, rather than transformed, a political culture whereby politicians are evaluated (at least in large part) by their ability to provide assistance by channelling resources to constituents and defending local interests.
This logic has helped to foster real development in many counties – from new roads and street lighting to new hotels and restaurants.
However, it has also provided strong incentive for county-level politicians to accumulate resources through large salaries and allowances – as well as through more nefarious means – to pay off campaign debts, meet constant demands for assistance, and build up a ‘war chest’ ahead of 2022.
At the same time, this logic of assistance has encouraged county-level politicians to act as a check on central government.
This is particularly obvious in areas with a strong local narrative of historical marginalisation where ability to stand up to the centre is a popular stance to take.
However, just like a pressure to channel development, the pressure to defend local interests, has had mixed effect.
On the one hand, it helps to ensure that county governments are not mere proxies of the national government.
On the other hand, it can help to fuel contentious politics as local politicians gain popularity from public spats with the centre.
Devolution has also exacerbated inter-communal tensions in some areas by providing a new layer of jobs and resources that people struggle to access with mixed success.
For these reasons, devolution can fuel both national and local-level tensions.
However, such tendencies are checked by two others.
First, the devolution of real power arguably helped to contain local frustration over the presidential race in some opposition areas in 2013 and 2017, as many of those who ‘lost nationally, won locally’.
Second, county-level politicians have reason to contain violence and insecurity at the local level as many seek to walk a fine balance between standing up to the centre, whilst simultaneously being seen to deliver locally.
Finally, but not least, devolution has created an important group of political actors who – due to the resources that they control, the action that they can help to mobilise or contain, and the media attention that they can attract – can play a critical role in national-level politics.
This is particularly important given the two-term limit for governors, which means that many high-profile individuals – such as the Governor of Mombasa, Hassan Joho, the Governor of Uasin Gishu, Jackson Mandago, and the Governor of Turkana, Josephat Nanok – will likely play an important role in future presidential races as candidates, running mates, or members of Nasa-style alliances.
To summarise, devolution has fuelled development in many areas, but simultaneously led to the localisation of corruption and exacerbated ethnic tensions.
It has also produced a group of influential actors who can stand up to the centre, and who sometimes have reasons to actively struggle against it, but who simultaneously need to work with the centre to meet everyday demands for security and development.
Devolution has thus changed Kenyan politics forever, but not in the ways envisaged by some of its early proponents.
The lesson: Institutions help to shape politics, but in ways that are simultaneously shaped by political culture, ensuring that political change through institutional design is a difficult and unpredictable affair.
Gabrielle Lynch is a Professor of Comparative Politics, University of Warwick, UK. [email protected]; @GabrielleLynch6