The stakes are high in contests for local power in Kenya’s August 2017 elections. There is still time for the government and international donors to help avert a replay of past electoral violence, notably by renewing support for local peace committees.
NAROK, Kenya – The county of Narok is one of Kenya’s most economically important regions, home to wildlife sanctuaries like the world-famous Maasai Mara reserve, vast agricultural plantations, and highways linking the East African coast to the interior.
Narok is also one of a number of Kenyan counties expected to witness heavily contested, potentially violent, local elections due in August under a system of devolved government that confers considerable power and resources to elected county-level administrators.
While a cut-throat competition for the presidency is garnering most attention, the subnational vote will be hotly contested and deserves more focus from the government and international partners. As a new Crisis Group report notes, significant violence could result from the political use of violence to influence county-level voting and acrimonious fallout from the winner-take-all polling for county governor position.
Devolution and Ethnic Contest
Kenya adopted a new constitution in 2010 as one response to the weeks of violence that followed the 2007 disputed presidential election. The fighting killed more than 1,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands. The new constitution sought to substantially remodel the government and reduce the concentration of power and resources in the presidency. The aim was to distribute the patronage power presidents enjoy more evenly, and by that means end the all-or-nothing battles for national leadership that contributed to violent elections in the past.
The new constitution created and endowed 47 new counties as primary centres of devolved power run by elected governors and county assemblies. County administrations now receive at least 15 per cent of all national government revenue to run local affairs. The county chiefs appoint cabinets that are in charge of services, including basic education, healthcare, agriculture and local infrastructure maintenance. They control a budget of millions of dollars with wide remit to decide where to channel the funds.
Perhaps because Kenyan elites have now witnessed the considerable influence and patronage resources counties command, the 2017 polls are expected to be more hotly contested than in 2013. Many national figures, including former presidential candidates and at least half a dozen senators, are running to lead these governorates. With many counties divided along religious, ethnic and sub-ethnic lines, there are concerns that candidates will play the communal card and exacerbate tensions and political violence.
The storm clouds gathering over Narok are partly national. The county is a key battleground in the contest between the ruling Jubilee Party and the opposition National Super Alliance (Nasa). Both are investing heavily in the presidential and governorship races.
" Numerous interviewees report political players are mobilising young people "
But the problem is also local. Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), a government agency promoting social harmony, has listed Narok as one of the counties vulnerable to an outbreak of electoral violence. A June 2015 commission communiqué cited “inequitable distribution of county resources, competition (for) scarce resources, cattle rustling and incitement by politicians” as destabilising factors here and in several other multi-ethnic ...................
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