Friday, February 12, 2010

What should we think of Kenyan government part II: Tribalism and politics

In my last blog, I offered our land dilemma in Busia as an example of the complicated relationship between corruption and good governance. Today’s example is somewhat different. It’s less clearly a case of corruption as in the land example, and more a case of political patronage or tribalism. It’s also probably a story that’s not quite over yet.

Kenya is governed in administrative districts, and there are smaller units within those districts called divisions. There is one Member of Parliament per district, and the number and boundaries of districts are therefore a subject of contentious political debate. The districts were recently redrawn, and may once again be redrawn in the new constitution that is currently being developed in Kenyan parliament.

The town of Busia is somewhat unhelpfully located between two districts. Busia township lies along a road that runs from the coast into Uganda and Congo. That road is the only paved road in Busia, and the town has largely developed on either side of the road. However, the road is also the district boundary. One side of that road is Nambale District (largely inhabited by the Luhya people) and the other side of that road is Teso District (largely inhabited by the Teso people). This means there are two Members of Parliament who represent Busia. One might think that is a good thing, but it introduces a great deal of politics into the way the town develops. Many Busia-ites think of the town as one entity, but since public resources are allocated according to that boundary, for some crucial purposes many think of it according to the political boundary. For example, the Nambale district headquarters are located on the Teso district side of the road—they were built in a time when there were different boundaries. The MP from Teso only half-jokingly told me that the entire Nambale District administration was squatting in his district.

How does this relate to the library? Another piece of Kenya- specific administration is necessary here. Some years back, the national government created a decentralized fund in order to promote local development called the Community Development Funds (CDF funds). These funds are administered at the district level. They have been subject to charges of rampant corruption and all of that—this will be the incorporated into my next blog, so for now I’ll leave a fuller discussion of CDF funds aside. The MP from Teso is very approachable and comes to Busia every weekend to meet with his constituents. The MP from Nambale is less so, and despite our efforts we have not been able to meet with him.

When we talked to the MP from Teso, he was excited about the library. He was full of ideas and was thinking about plots of land in his district that he could set aside for the library. When we told him that we were trying to get the title deed for the KNLS plot of land, which is on the Nambale side of the road, his attitude changed completely. “Oh,” he said, slowly shaking his head, “I can’t help you if you build there.” Maria reminded him that this is a community library, it’s not for any particular group and Teso will benefit just as much as all other parts of the larger Busia community. The MP was apologetic, but, he said, it doesn’t matter. If he allocates one single shilling to that side of the road, his Teso constituency won’t elect him again--why should "they" (the Luhya) benefit? He was quite frank about it and I respected his candid comments. He said he’d help us in other ways, using his political influence to push the land issue (before we had it settled) or think about ways to work with the MP for Nambale. But he could not openly support a community library located 50 meters from the Teso District boundary.

Again, we face a paradox. Clearly the MP's refusal to openly support anything on the wrong side of the street is anti-development. Is this an example of patronage, even a sort of tribalism since the Teso people are technically different than the largely Luhya Nambale? Or is this political reality? The administrative units are poorly drawn, yet this sort of democracy is really set up to be a patronage or tribalist system—and it’s based largely on the US system, with a legal code largely inherited from the UK. I have no reason to doubt that the MP from Teso is committed to the idea of the library. But what can he do to help? His incentive is to be re-elected, and a certain form of tribalism is necessary for that. I guess it’s not so different than Iowa Senators who advocate for agribusiness or Virginia Senators who can’t get over coal.

Can this be related to the 2007 stolen election and resulting violence that exploded largely on tribal lines? Of course there's no easy parallels, but at the same time how can it not be related? If political boundaries are drawn around tribal lines, than the politically disenfranchised will also be drawn around tribal lines.

As I said, the story of the MPs and the library in Busia is probably not over yet. I still hope to meet the MP from the other side of the street, and I still hope that we are able to work with both of them. Watch this space.


  1. Beautifully written, I learned a lot! Politics is sickening! Maybe 2 libraries, one for each side. :)

  2. Hello Eva,the project has positive response keep it up.