In an excellent piece over at African Arguments Sheekh and Mosley give a comprehensive discussion of the recent outbreak of violence in the Tana Delta region of Coast Province, Kenya. According to the authors:
“Long-standing competition and conflict over access to pasture and water resources were important factors, but did not alone provide the trigger for violence. A range of political and economic factors have fed into the local dynamics in Tana Delta. These include longer-term trends related to alienation of local people from land due to large-scale government and private sector purchases, and shorter-term impacts related to the process of delineating electoral constituency boundaries and county districts in line with Kenya’s new constitution. The ready availability of small arms has also seen such conflicts intensify in recent decades. Lack of livelihood opportunities for the youth is also a major factor.
As such, the recent clashes are emblematic of wider trends. Although the Tana Delta (along with the rest of Coast Province) has tended to be politically marginalised, tensions in other areas – such as Mt Elgon and parts of the Rift Valley including Eldoret, Nakaru and Naivasha, and counties in northern Kenya – could also be exacerbated by the same political factors. Some of these areas were flash-points in the post-poll violence of late 2007 and early 2008, with major national and regional ramifications.”
The Tana Delta conflict is symptomatic of a larger dynamic that will play out in anticipation of the March 4th 2013 elections in Kenya. The new constitution has created 47 county governments, many of them multiethnic or otherwise diverse, that will each have three county-wide elected officials (a governor, deputy governor, and a senator). Ethnic and communal rivalries will inevitably surface in these county contests, with potentially disastrous outcomes such as what we’ve seen so far in Tana River County.
The potential for decentralized violence in Kenya’s 47 counties is a real cause for concern.
In order to limit the potential for violence, the national commission charged with policing ethnic harmony has initiated talks in potential flash-points to broker inter-ethnic power-sharing deals with the hope of avoiding a situation in which certain communities are totally excluded from county-wide elected offices. Sadly, so far there is no sign that these initiatives will work (Not to mention how un-democratic such back room arrangements will be). Plus the violence will not necessarily be exclusively of the inter-ethnic variety (which is what the commission is fixated on at the moment). Even ethnically homogenous counties might experience inter-clan violence.
While most of the attention in the next few months will be on how to avoid a repeat of the aftermath 2007-08 election, Kenya watchers should be warned that the problem will be much more complicated. If nothing is done, many counties will experience inter-communal violence. The new county governments will have real resources (about a third of national revenue) that will generate real patronage networks worth fighting for.
Given the nature of Kenyan politics, the race for the presidency (more blog posts on this soon) will inevitably hog all the attention in the next five months. I hope the contest for State House and its own risks for violence will not overshadow the county-level contests which will also be just as intense and likely to result in violence.