Pockets of instability in Kenya are underpinned by unequal development

Kenya’s impressive economic gains have ushered in large investments from multinational companies, yielding a boom in infrastructure development. High-rise buildings are mushrooming everywhere, with new malls, hotels, bypasses and expressways becoming the norm. Nairobi has become a construction site. Elsewhere, the promise of economic growth is visible in places such as Nakuru, Mombasa, Lamu, and Kisumu. In the latter two, new ports have begun operating. 

But a recent policy paper by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) shows that this growth has not been equitable, with many marginalised people excluded from its benefits. In some instances, infrastructure development has even been found to further alienate some groups by pushing them deeper into semi-arid and ungoverned spaces. 

Marginalised groups have also been subject to underinvestment from the state. This includes lesser investments into education and healthcare. Growth has failed to pave the foundations for equitable human development. 

Informal settlements such as Kibera in Nairobi, arid and semi-arid regions of northwest and northeastern Kenya remain subject to deprivation and growing competition borne from scarcity. Millions are left vulnerable to shocks and open to manipulation by devious political actors. These are sites of simmering tension and instability. 

The drivers of these conflicts can be traced to the political and economic marginalisation of certain groups and regions. Without addressing these needs and advancing the basic capabilities of all Kenyans, competition over scarce resources and opportunities will continue to breed pockets of instability. 

In the case of political violence, young Kenyans with few prospects to offset their material desperation become weapons of use and destruction by the political class. In informal settlements such as Kibera, they are often hired to disrupt and thwart efforts of their political opponents. 

But the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the dynamics of informal settlements and predictable political violence. In consultations with the IJR, an expert in Kenyan migration patterns noted many people are leaving Nairobi for other urban centres to look for work or even returning to rural areas where they might take up subsistence farming. 

Many of the gangs that operate in Nairobi’s informal settlements have relocated to other urban county informal settlements where vulnerable youth remain easy targets for recruitment. Devolved gangsterism at local county level might draw other urban centres into election violence in the 2022 general elections. 

A second underdeveloped and marginalised area of Kenya is the northwest, home to pastoralists such as the Pokot and Turkana. This area is characterised by people often in conflict with each other over natural resources such as grazing land and water. The climate crisis is expected to exacerbate this scarcity and may further intensify this conflict. Worryingly, pastoralist conflicts have the potential to become regionalised as raiding and grazing is often a cross-border activity.  

More recently, the conflict has spilled over into the labour market as employment opportunities in the growing oil sector offer pastoralists income opportunities. But, with low levels of education, people are competing for low-wage, unskilled jobs in the absence of other options.  Devolution and oil resources have transformed the conflict dynamics between the Pokot and Turkana. The need to access political power at the local level, associated with access to jobs and resources at the county level, is a prominent feature in the conflict.

With little government presence in this region, pastoralists are increasingly in possession of small weapons to defend their assets. There has been a sharp increase in the frequency of conflict in this region, which has become deadlier as more arms penetrate the ungoverned area.

In addition, one researcher in the region observed that people are not involved in the government pillar projects that pass through the region. This has in some cases increased grievances against the state, especially where development has not been for the benefit of local residents. 

Whereas governments are interested in big infrastructure projects to spur regional economic growth, residents have their own immediate development and material needs such as having access to clean drinking water, schools, and hospitals. Through IJRs research, a mismatch between local needs and central government priorities has emerged as a critical threat to both inclusive development and stability. 

Women in ungoverned areas face further marginalisation as their communities struggle to stay afloat through shocks like the Covid-19 economic downturn and climate induced scarcity. In consultation with the IJR, a gender expert in Kenya said women are increasingly being sold into marriage for their dowry. 

But, during the Covid-19 pandemic, some women in the northeastern region have devised methods of resilience against both the effects of slowed economic growth and growing unemployment. These women have created income-generating opportunities by supplying solar power to the region. This presents a solution for the effects of the current economic downturn and adverse effects of global warming. It also exemplifies that there are many avenues for inclusive development to take hold in marginalised groups. 

Ultimately, human-development deficits have exposed the marginalised 

to forms of material desperation that work to drive conflict systems. Without meaningful and far-reaching investment that progresses the basic capabilities of society, vulnerability to capture by the political elite remains a considerable threat to stability. 

Without inclusive consultation, development projects risk further alienating marginalised people, ultimately compounding their grievances with the state. And, finally, without intersectional policy considerations, shocks such as the climate crisis and economic downturns risk further diminishing the agency of women. At the heart of these considerations is the importance of upholding equity, one of the core values espoused in the Kenyan Constitution.  

Find the full research report from the IJR here.

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Jaynisha Patel
Jaynisha Patel is a project leader for inclusive economies at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. She is the recent co-author of an Afrobarometer paper on how South Africans perceive the cash grants systems, and holds a master’s in politics, philosophy and economics from the University of Cape Town
Moses Onyango
Moses Onyango is a political scientist and lecturer of international relations at the United States International University-Africa

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