Small Wars in Marsabit County: Devolution and Political Violence in Northern Kenya
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When the elections of 2013 devolved budgetary and legislative powers to 47 counties in Kenya, there was nationwide relief when they passed off peacefully. The new county governments settled down to bargaining over local powers and appointments, delivering on their new institutional mandates, spending money and dealing with recentralisation manoeuvres. Now with the 2017 elections looming, the question has been raised, will there be violence? Based on qualitative interviews with citizens of the northern town of Marsabit shortly after the 2013 elections, this article presents citizens’ views on how devolution affected political competition, including how familiar repertoires of violence were used to influence not only the vote but also the construction of the new country government. To explain what concerned voters in the newly devolved county, the article explores the role played by colonially constituted ‘ethnicity’ in control of land and citizenship in the pastoralist north of Kenya and in the evolution of politics and the state after independence. It shows how the new configuration of power brought by devolution in 2013 has not yet resolved people’s feelings of deep insecurity over territorial tenure. It offers insight into the task faced by devolved institutions in relation to land, adding texture to current literature on the politics of devolution.