Identity threat to devolution success

Why was devolution (ugatuzi) such an important aspect of our constitutional reforms? While some people claim it was because we wanted to share national resources equitably, others think it was to bring services closer to mwananchi. These were definitions by politicians.

In my view, devolution is the statutory granting of powers from the central government of a sovereign state to governments at a sub-national level ideally to demonstrate political inclusivity.

One year into the devolved system, it has not achieved its intended purpose but rather opened up new levels of division like clanism that are likely to be more perilous than tribalism.

Already the encounters in Wajir, Tana River, Kajiado, Mombasa, Kwale, Lamu and Mandera counties are as a result of either clanism or religion.

Beneath the surface, clanism is the cause of the tremors in Embu, Meru, Kisii, Machakos, Narok, Marakwet and a dozen other counties. The tragedy is that we did not put any mechanisms in place to study the impact of devolution on peace-building in the country.


Inter-clan fighting between the Degodia and Garre in north eastern Kenya is largely precipitated by perceptions created by colonial boundaries that appear to make the Garre look as though they “own” Mandera while the Degodia “own” Wajir, hence a claim of exclusivity in both towns.

In Kisii the situation is more tragic since education has been reduced to a clan affair. Research by Prof Joshua Bagaka published in the International Journal of Education Development reveals that most teachers prefer to be posted within their clan.

Clan loyalty ensures security which in turn precipitates impunity as teachers resort to hiring untrained teachers to sit in for them as they run their private enterprises at the expense of students.

No one wants to fight clanism. Politicians look the other way or pretend to be doing something yet it is their bread and butter.

In Kisii, some parents have taken their children to private schools outside the county, leading to rifts between the haves and the have-nots.

The ideal situation is to encourage inclusivity but we are fueling exclusivity. Similar practices are happening in other counties. Where there is conflict, those who can afford it normally take off and leave the poor to tough it out.

Building on my earlier argument on tribalism, identities along clan lines are labels we must begin to discard as we get to the root cause of the problem.

Brian Ferguson’s work at Rutgers University notes that it is imperative to move beyond these misleading labels. If we are to find solutions to large-scale violence in Tana River and Wajir, we must understand its genesis.

Doing so requires first recognising that there are many different bases of identity. Geographic region, social class and place on the continuum from urban capital to country village all affect how people gain or lose as a result of government policies and national trends.

So can religion, ethnicity, race, or language, though these also provide broad and symbolically laden bases for calling people together.

Castes, clans and tribes have their own structures and leaders. Gender and generation are major filters through which broader social trends are translated into lived experience.

These different factors come together in kaleidoscopic combinations where identity and interest are not separated but fused together. Who you are largely determines how you are doing, and how you are doing largely determines your receptivity to leaders’ calls for violence.

Ferguson, using the Rwanda genocide as an example, believes most conflicts are artificially generated fault lines by foreign forces that become more tense and unstable.

In the years before the genocide, the market for Rwanda’s main export (coffee) collapsed, foreign military aid poured in, regional tensions increased, and international agencies took greater control.

Negotiated power sharing arrangements between the Tutsi and Hutu were on the verge of cutting out the northern Hutu clans that had previously been the main beneficiaries of state power.

The devolved governance system has magnified our different bases of identity. In all our differences, there are outside forces that precipitate a conflict that will enhance clan loyalty. Can we rise above this for the sake of future stability?

Michel de Montaigne said, “Valor is stability, not of legs and arms, but of courage and the soul.”

Dr Ndemo is a senior lecturer, University of Nairobi and a former permanent secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.