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Governors must stop populist politics with national assets

Wednesday October 17 2018

Murang’a Governor Mwangi Wa Iria,

Murang’a Governor Mwangi Wa Iria (left), county government officials and the officials of Muswasco at the company offices on October 16, 2018 when the firm’s board of directors handed over ownership to the county government. PHOTO | NDUNG'U GACHANE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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I accuse the Governor of Murang’a, Mr Mwangi wa Iria, of engaging in populism. He must be stopped from inciting and psyching the ordinary man and women in that county into believing that residents of Murang’a are entitled to special and superior rights over other Kenyans when it comes to water resources in their area.

The governor and his cronies are riding on the crest of a high-profile populist campaign branded ‘our water, our oil’ and couched as a fight for water rights. He has been on a roller-coaster campaign characterised by well-attended rallies — his supporters and local leaders turning out dressed in branded ‘our water, our oil’ T-shirts — as they take turns to mouth strident rhetoric about how foreign counties have been infringing on the water rights of the people of Murang’a.


Listening to remarks made at a rally at Ihura, what you hear and see are politically charged local leaders engaged in a populist campaign aimed at stoking what I would describe as a new strain of ‘Murang’a nationalism’ — all couched as a fight for water rights of the people.

I am surprised that the goings-on in Murang’a have not elicited national outrage. We are taking a big risk because such a campaign can easily be copied by populists from other parts of the country thus spiralling out of control into a national crisis.

Because water resources cut across borders of counties, water disputes between counties can explode at any time. Where does the water in Nakuru flow from? What if Baringo started to demand to charge levies on water flowing from there into Nakuru?



We have five main water towers in the country, namely, Mt Kenya, the Aberdare Ranges, Cherengani, Mt Elgon and the Mau Forest Complex. In addition, we have several other small water towers.

In initiating the campaign, the governor has approached a complex issue in a very simplistic manner. Indeed, the right to use a specific portion of the flow of a river — at a particular part of the stream- is a complex policy question that can hardly be approached by the theatrics we have seeing in Murang’a recently.

As East Africans, we have had to sign complex agreements with Egypt over the use of Lake Victoria - the source of river Nile. I read somewhere that under a benchmarks known as the Colorado principle, you are not allowed to injure water rights of others.


But what makes the happenings in Murang’a pose even more national risk is the fact that that the structure of the water sector itself renders it vulnerable to tacky jurisdictional disputes.

Courtesy of the World Bank-supported reforms, we ended up with multiple institutions — the Water Services, Regulatory Board, Water Resources Management Authority, Water Management Boards, Water Service Providers. Talk of functional overlaps.

The 2010 Constitution and the advent of devolution, complete with a new breed of local megalomaniacs in the name of governors, county ministers and county assembly members added to create an environment prone to endless fights and unnecessary power plays.


When Wa Iria and company compare the situation in Turkana, which has been allowed to earn oil revenues, they are engaged in comparing apples to oranges. Water resources, unlike oil, are shared between counties.

Still, it seems to me that we will have to encourage local elites to see the big picture and to refrain from saddling the oil exploration projects there with too many parochial demands.

Most of Kenya’s oil discoveries have been in Turkana. Yet, after that oil has been drilled and mined, it has to be transported by pipeline to refineries and by ships to markets where it is sold.

What if leaders from the counties that neighbour Turkana-namely- Trans Nzoia and Baringo - start mobilising communities to demand that a levy be paid to the county before they can allow the oil pipeline from Turkana to pass through their counties to Mombasa?


We must encourage our governors to approach issues with broad minds and to appreciate interdependence between the regions of the country.

The biggest risk we must fight is stopping the spread of populists who incite the public to make unwarranted parochial claims against national assets. If we don’t manage and deal with these issues urgently, it should not surprise if a populist pops out some day in Mombasa County to starts demanding a levy on the port of Mombasa?

Even the fight by Wa Iria to forcefully take control of the Murang’a Water Services Company, Muwasco, has serious national implications.

Were other governors to follow his example and start fighting to forcefully take over water companies, the circumstances will impede the flow of funds from donors and international lending agencies into the sector.

The Murang’a water sector has many international institutions, including the World Bank and the African Development Bank. International lending institutions abhor chaos.