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Kenya, betting on decentralization to unite the country


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The Conversation

David Soler

researcher junior at the Navarra Center for International Development (Institute for Culture and Society, University of Navarra)

The discussion of centralization or decentralization for the organization of a State transcends all subject of countries in the world. In very diverse nations, the question is clear: is it better to opt for centralized control from the capital to achieve the unity of the country or is it preferable to recognize and support this diversity to ensure peaceful coexistence? In Kenya, a country of some 50 million people and 45 official ethnic groups, this question has been asked since independence in 1963.

At first, they agreed to a federal organization known as Majimbo, which was short-lived. The country's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, reversed the system and imposed centralization after winning the first post-independence elections in 1964.

Kenyatta considered the federal system, which put the focus on local government and left a smaller central state, a danger. He feared that the project Majimbo would prevent the creation of a Kenyan national sentiment and rejected it as a tribal idea and against the interests of the country.

However, after more than 40 years of a largely centralized state, Kenya has reversed course in an attempt to evolve. In 2007, post-election violence left more than a thousand dead, 600,000 displaced and one conclusion clear: Kenya was divided, unable to unite over ethnic differences.

Without power, peripheral regions complained of investment preferences around Nairobi and the central province. Political conflict in 2007 raised fears of civil war and opened the eyes of political leaders, who enacted a new constitution in 2010 that promoted decentralization.

The new Magna Carta radically changes the initial premises by which the country had been governed: it recognizes diversity instead of hiding it and promotes the rights of minorities. It seeks to reduce ethnic tension and build a stable nation, empowering ethnic minorities to develop their regions. Forty-seven counties have been created, each with its own assembly, regional government and decentralized powers in important areas such as agriculture, health and infrastructure.

The new model, far from the old seven provinces, promotes direct empowerment of minority ethnicities. 40 of the 47 counties have more than 75% of their population of the same ethnicity and 11 are virtually mono-ethnic, with a group representing 95% or more of the population. Only 7 counties do not have a majority ethnic group reaching half of their population. Thus, as many as 18 governors from 12 ethnic groups outside the five largest communities have come to power for the first time in their regions. However, this shows that ethnicity continues to play an important role in Kenyan politics. To understand why, it is worth looking at the country's history.

Politics in Kenya has been mobilized since independence around alliances between ethnic groups. Five are the largest: the Kikuyu, Luhya, Kalenjin, Luo and Kamba. None represents more than 20% of the population and they have had to make pacts to come to power. To date there have been three Kikuyu presidents -Jomo Kenyatta, Mwai Kibaki and the current president, son of the first, Uhuru Kenyatta- and one Kalenjin -Daniel Arap Moi.

To understand the ethnic importance, it is worth looking into the past. Even before British colonization, the different communities were already organized by tribes around the territory of what is now Kenya. With colonization, the British imposed a centralized model but divided the country into native areas where they separated each community to ensure their control.

This division has fueled the current lack of unity and ethnic mobilization for votes. Politicians whip up fear that someone else will govern them and promise benefits for their peers if they come to power.

In order to analyze whether decentralization has helped to develop the country, one has to look at decentralized powers. If we look at the parameters, they have all benefited from devolution broadly speaking. All counties have improved their regional GDP, the country has increased its health centers, roads have been built in disadvantaged areas and poverty has decreased by more than thirteen points since 2006.

However, there is still a huge gap between the much poorer north and east and the rest. This gap coincides with the places where ethnic minorities live. Decentralization promised to empower their areas but has ended up benefiting the majorities more, leaving the country far short of the goals set out in Vision 2030.

Only 6 of the 47 counties have met the UN's requirements sanitary staff minimum standards. In infrastructure, the country is far from goal to make all municipalities accessible by road by 2030. In nine counties in the north and east of the country, not even half of the population has a paved road within five kilometers of their homes. The northeastern county of Wajir is the least connected with only 15% of its people within five kilometers or less of a paved road.

For its part, the agricultural drive promoted by the government has benefited the country, which has overtaken Angola as the third largest in sub-Saharan Africa Economics . However, this has mainly benefited the fertile lands in the central and western parts of the country. The counties of Nakuru, Nyandarua, and Elgeyo Marakwet have the highest agricultural production and have grown the most in terms of regional GDP, and in all of them the majority ethnic group is Kikuyu or Kalenjin, which make up the government. Eighty-three percent of the country's land is arid and only 2% is irrigated.

This difference is reflected in poverty levels. All counties in the former Central Province and Nairobi, inhabited mainly by the larger ethnic groups, are below the national poverty levels. In contrast, the 10 counties with the highest poverty levels all have a majority of their population from a minority ethnic group : the Borana, Somali, Orma, Samburu and Turkana.

Kenya has made more progress on the other main goal of the new constitution, that of uniting the country. Two-thirds of citizens consider themselves more Kenyan under the new system and a majority believe it is uniting the country. The introduction of regional elections has reduced the likelihood of conflict by spreading the political award and creating regional leaders with a genuine interest in avoiding violence in the areas where they govern.

An Afobarometersurvey reveals that 90% of citizens feel at least as Kenyan as part of their ethnic group , while 54% say they feel more nationally attached than they do to their community. However, what is interesting is that almost half, 46%, also say they feel more attached to their ethnicity after decentralization. This shows that recognizing diversity and having a sense of community is not at odds with creating national unity, something that founding father Kenyatta rejected.

Polls show that Kenyans broadly support decentralization, with 84% in favor. This sample that the health of the new model is strong. This favorable view is even higher in areas traditionally excluded from national power, such as the former Coast Province (90%), Nyanza (88%) and Eastern Province (85%).

Although there is still a long way to go and injustices to be corrected to reduce inequalities in the country, decentralization is moving Kenya forward.