Beneath bitter Uhuru-Joho battle lies discontent with devolution

President Uhuru Kenyatta (right) with Mombasa Governor Hassan Ali Joho (left) watch Airforce parachuters as they made their way to the ground during the opening of the Mombasa International ASK Show at Mkomani grounds in Nyali, 01, 09, 2016. [PHOTO BY GIDEON MAUNDU/STANDARD].

The latest salvo in the on-going tiff between Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho and the Jubilee administration was a written request by the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) asking Diamond Trust Bank to furnish them with Joho’s bank statements since 2011.

This came a few days after Joho was dramatically barred by the police from attending a re-launch of the Mtongwe ferry channel in Likoni presided over by President Uhuru Kenyatta.

While addressing residents of Likoni, Uhuru did not only fail to distance himself from the actions of the police, signalling that they were not acting independently, but went ahead to express his displeasure at Joho’s unending criticisms of the national government.

Since early 2016, what had begun in the Coast region as a series of disagreements over functions and responsibilities between the two levels of government (national and county) seems to have morphed into a personal (and increasingly publicised) show of might between Uhuru and Joho; as Mr Nelson Marwa enthusiastically steps in on the side of the national government to perform his prefectural role as Coast regional coordinator.

Lost to many is the fact that in August 2013, Joho led other coastal politicians in a rare show of approval for Uhuru after the president cleared a back-log of 60,000 uncollected land titles at the Coast land’s department. It only took a few months for a number of factors to intervene and draw away this nascent broad-based political support for the new regime. Many of these factors are related to a wider disenchantment with the initial experience of devolution in Kenya in general, and at the Coast in particular.

At the Coast, it was widely hoped devolution would address historical injustices and communal narratives of marginalisation. The results, four years later, have been disappointing. Governors from the region have found themselves constrained in addressing this role, a consequence of at least two factors. Firstly, the legal design of devolution as enshrined in the 2010 Constitution, and secondly, behaviour of the national government, which has, quite noticeably, exercised hostility towards county governments, especially those led by governors loyal to Raila Odinga.


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The outcome of the nature in which the constitution has allocated these functions is that issues that have driven coastal politics for a considerable period of time (such as control over local minerals and ports, land, historical injustices, education provision, infrastructure development and jobs) largely fall under the ambit of the national government.

As a result, county governors are finding themselves in a difficult position: with an electorate that expects them to address more popular expectations than devolution has permitted.

The language in 2014 contained in a policy framework for ‘strengthening the delivery of national government functions at the county level’, issued by the Jubilee administration when a number of governors — Joho being the most prominent — were demanding a constitutional amendment to the provisions touching on devolution, was quite striking and revealing. The policy document sought to rationalise national government departments at the county level that exist parallel to county administrations, bringing them under the control and supervision of powerful county commissioners.

The creation of the position of county commissioner, like that of local government managers in Ethiopia and district executives in Ghana, is evidence of the contradictions of an expanded local government arena and the concomitance and continuity of hierarchical intra-governmental relations and practices that undermine the very principle of devolution.

The existence of county commissioners has, at the Coast, worked much to the aggravation of county governors. For instance, it is county commissioners – not governors – that are responsible for a number of key government functions and chair the important county security committee. In a region that has suffered an escalation of incidences of insecurity, the question of who should be responsible for security provision continues to dominate much political discussion.

A series of corruption scandals at the county level, like the recent case in Kilifi County where it was reported that more than Sh1.18 billion could have been lost, have been driven by sheer greed and theft on the part of county officials. However, this rent-seeking behaviour can also be related to the constrained political position county leaders have found themselves in. Most have to show that they are able to protect local interests in terms of both immediate assistance and communal narratives of injustice, and as such, have been pursuing a public language of ‘development’ while concealing a politics of informal patronage.

The gauntlet was probably thrown in May 2014. Joho accentuated his demands for more power, autonomy and control over local resources, and rallied other coastal leaders in a special session of the Mombasa County Assembly so as to pressure the national government to release control of the Port of Mombasa. In fact, he threatened a forcible takeover. In this meeting, which I attended, terms like “our jobs”, “our port”, and “our land” dominated political speeches.


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In the following months, senior coastal politicians would variously be recorded on video issuing verbal attacks against the President during political meetings — a feature that has become associated with Joho — who then rose to become deputy leader of ODM.

Since then, a number of actions by the Jubilee administration that have been legitimated on the basis of fighting corruption and dismantling drug cartels seem to be targeting the core of the economic base that has supported the ODM party in Mombasa since 2007.

For a long time, these businessmen have used their financial clout to cultivate suitable official networks so as to sustain and expand their business interests in the region.

In the regional campaign for ODM in 2013, some were led by Joho’s older brother, Abubakar, and Raila’s ally, Mohamed Jaffer, to mount an onslaught that defeated a vigorous Jubilee which, in actual sense, brought Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto to the coast more times than Raila visited.

Uhuru captured fewer votes, and a much smaller proportion, than Kibaki in 2007. In rural coastal constituencies, where the Mijikenda communities dominate, Uhuru received almost no votes at all, but in constituencies with a high proportion of the Kikuyu community, such as Lamu West, Uhuru outpolled Raila.

The closure, in 2016, of container freight terminals belonging to Joho’s family, and the reshuffle at the port and at the regional Kenya Revenue office that followed, has threatened to seriously curtail the extent of Joho’s business networks and contacts.

In Uhuru’s strategy to court the Coast for the August 2017 elections, he has elected to work, not through these pre-established local power brokers, but by directly appealing to the numerically larger Mijikenda community and supporting careers of political novices shunned by Joho.


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Uhuru has traversed the region touting his development record. However, local disappointment at the experience of devolution — which was to many coastal communities seen as a bulwark against domination by other Kenyans in land, public sector jobs and control over minerals including equitable revenue sharing — stands in his way of achieving broad-based coastal political support.

Recent publicised duels with Joho only serve in accentuating this disenchantment, and might push more support on the Coast for NASA in the August 2017 elections.

The writer is a PhD candidate at Durham University in the U.K. His research explores the contemporary history of Kenya’s Coast.

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