Devolved government in Kenya’s newly formed north-eastern counties, designed to address decades of political marginalisation and underdevelopment, has been undermined by dominant clans monopolising power and growing corruption. Violent clan competition and antipathy between elected county elites and the remaining national administrative structures have allowed the violently extremist Al-Shabaab movement to expand and operate with relative impunity across large areas of the North East. Its attacks exposed security-service disarray and caused a sharp reversal of already stretched state services in this vast and poor region that shares a porous 680km border with Somalia. To end the violence and capitalise on devolution’s potential, county elites must be more inclusive of minorities, cooperate across local boundaries for inter-county peace and recognise the continued role for neutral national institutions. National government should recognise where pragmatism can trump convention and back new security approaches that combine national and county responses.
Rampant criminality, inter-clan animosities and small-arms proliferation stretch policing and render highly insecure the sprawling refugee camps that host more than 350,000 Somali nationals fleeing the conflict in their country. This is compounded by Al-Shabaab infiltration, radicalisation and recruitment – especially in a borderland region where the inhabitants’ national identity is historically contested and suspect. As relations between the refugees and their Kenyan Somali host communities fray, demands for the camps’ closure are becoming more strident.
After lengthy bureaucratic infighting and knee-jerk initiatives that smacked of political score-settling and risked alienating many Kenyan Somalis, a new security approach is finally in place, led by senior national security officers who vitally have local roots (ie, Somali heritage) but are directly accountable to the national executive. This has temporarily helped bridge a breakdown in cooperation, especially in local intelligence-sharing, between county commissioners appointed by the president and newly-elected county governments that resented their security oversight. Whether this approach is applicable to other insecure areas with historically-strained relations with the centre is yet to be seen.
A purely security-focused approach, however innovative, is in any event not a panacea. The new devolved county governments must share responsibility for chronic insecurity instead of continually deflecting blame to the centre. Most importantly, the inclination, with some notable exceptions, for a winner-takes-all approach to county politics will only generate further insecurity, as will the deepening problem of graft. With the second “devolved” elections in 2017 promising to be even more competitive than those in 2013, consensus on minimum provisions for cross-clan inclusion is needed now.
New county elites underutilise existing peace-making structures (“local peace committees”, community-based organisations and clerics) and prefer “county-owned” forums dependent on – often compromised – clan elders, while keeping the national government and its good offices at a distance and ignoring or sidelining women and youth networks. The government should establish an independent commission of national and local experts to offer solutions on the contentious issues at the core of the inter-clan frictions, such as borders, land, wells and justice and restitution for losses.
Finally, the national and county governments urgently need to reestablish social services (especially health and education) at the same time as they strengthen the security sector. Education can help reduce poverty, promote integration among ethnic and religious groups and fight extremism; and, at least in the medium term, more resources should be allocated to lift its standards. Donors, multilateral and bilateral alike, have clear incentives to give developmental aid that supports successful devolution and enhances Kenyan and regional security.
Nairobi/Brussels, 17 November 2015