issue-based politics

Devolution can give birth to issue-based politics in Kenya

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This article first appeared in my column in the Business Daily on January 15, 2017

As the election season begins to heat up with various aspirants vying for seats at national and county level, the electorate should begin to think about how to ensure to their issues and concerns are addressed by the next crop of leaders. As we all know, at national level, political alignments are defined by tribal groupings and affiliations. This formula of politicking is unlikely to change at national level, however this need not be the case at county level. Although in some cases, tribalism has been devolved to the county where there is a growing obsession with clan-based politics, such trends can be stopped and be replaced by issue-based politics.

Outside the major metropoles of Nairobi and Mombasa, relative tribal homogeneity dominates most of the other counties, especially rural counties. Ergo, in most cases, the direction of how that county will vote at national level will be informed by tribal political affiliations. However, for county posts the possibilities are more fluid as many of those who will be vying for office, particularly in rural areas, will be from the domicile tribe. This provides the opportunity for issue-based rather that tribe-based politics to dominate at county level. Devolution has provided an opportunity for the electorate to ensure that, at the local level, their issues, concerns and priorities take precedence over tribe or clan-based political jostling. It is at county level that Kenyans can make sure all aspirants talk about issues, rather than copying the tribe-based political back and forth dominant at national level. It is at county level that Kenyans can force aspirants to get off the ‘tribe’ pedestal and instead stand on the ‘issues’ pedestal.

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Now, as mentioned, in some parts of the country, devolution is leading to the devolution of tribalism. Some Kenyans are now voting, at county level, based on which clan different aspirants belong to. This is pure folly that dangerously mimics tribally aligned politicking at national level, the damage of which Kenya has seen in the past. Thus, the time is now for Kenyans at county level to insist on aspirants speaking to addressing issues rather than focussing on clan-based affiliations. Kenyans have a window of opportunity to make certain that the culture of selecting county leaders on issues takes root.

Indeed, once the election period is complete and the new administrations at national and county level have been selected, Kenyans can truly exert pressure at county level for the issues to be the focus of the incoming administrations. At national level, there will continue to be tribe-based political tensions, this need not be the case at county level. Kenyans must leverage the power that has been afforded them through devolution and organise themselves at county level into issue-focussed caucuses that pressure county leadership and technical executives to communicate how county issues will be addressed.

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Finally, devolution can enable issue-based fiscal policy formulation at county level. At the moment, budget making at county level is haphazard and disorganised defined more by personal agendas than county needs. Kenyans can follow the lead of Elegyo Marakwet county and devise budget formulas that prioritise county needs, not personal agendas. The Elgeyo Marakwet County’s Equitable Development Act 2015 creates a budget formula that distributes the county budget based on equality and equity. Such strategies ought to be encouraged in all counties as they are a first, crucial step to ensuring equity and equality inform county budget making and fiscal policy formulation.

In short, there is ample room for Kenyans to use the upcoming elections to ensure that their issues take precedence at county level. And in encouraging issue-based politics to take root at county level, such thinking may trickle up and direct national politicking to be focussed on issues, not tribe.

Anzetse Were is a development economist;