NAIROBI, KENYA— When Kenyans go to vote in March general elections, they will, for the first time, be selecting candidates for newly-created positions including governor, senator and women's representatives.
The new positions were created as part of a process of "devolution" laid out in the new constitution to distribute power and resources from the central government to local constituencies.
'Tearing the country apart'
But recent violence in the country's Tana Delta region, and the chaos of Kenya's party primary contests, could signal that a process designed to bring people together could instead be tearing the country apart.
Ekuru Aukot, the head of the constitution writing team, said the point was to correct the wrongs left over from years of colonial rule and the legacy of former Kenyan leaders who consolidated power in the central government and in their own tribes.
He says one of the concepts of devolution is “that level of inclusiveness, making every part of Kenya relevant to the governance of the country.”
Bringing government down to the local level will provide better access to education and health services as well as infrastructure and development funds, according to Aukot.
“People wanted power to come close to them,” he says. “They wanted to be able to make decisions for [themselves].”
But problems have started to surface.
Last week, Kenya's party primaries for the newly created positions were marred by disorganization and allegations of vote rigging.
The International Crisis Group warns competition for these positions could increase the likelihood of violence around the election. In a new report on Kenya, the group says “candidates could exploit and aggravate local grievances and disputes to mobilize support.”
An example of this may already be playing out in Kenya's Tana River region, where back-and-forth raids between the Orma and Pokomo communities have killed more than 140 people since August. One of the suspects charged with instigating the violence, former member of parliament Dhadho Godhana, is running for governor.
The implementation of devolution has been problematic, according to ICG Kenya analyst Abdullahi Halakhe, who notes the boundaries of some of Kenya's 47 counties have been drawn in a way which groups populations by tribe or clan.
“Theoretically, devolution is looked at as a panacea for exactly the same problems that it's now exacerbating, if not carefully crafted,” he says.
Tribalism was a mainstay of Kenyan politics long before the new constitution was written.
Presidential candidates normally choose running mates from other tribes to help them shore up as much of the vote as possible.
The presidential nominee for the Amani coalition, Musalia Mudavadi, believes it makes sense for a candidate to focus on his tribal base.
“[We] have to be realistic that the trend has been that somebody, first of all, consolidates a certain groundswell of support and then moves over to try and link up with other people,” Mudavadi says.
A political moderate, Mudavadi comes from the Luhya community, Kenya's second-largest tribe. He draws much of his support from western Kenya, which is also the home turf of Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
Despite the current necessity for ethnic alliances, Mudavadi sees signs Kenya is slowly moving away from tribal politics.
“I'm not saying we're out of the woods yet, and perhaps we may not be for a fairly long period of time,” he says. “But we are gradually beginning to embrace politics that rotate around issues more and more.”
Kenyans have firsthand knowledge of the dangers of tribal politics.
More than 1,100 people were killed in inter-ethnic fighting after the last disputed election in 2007.
Keen to avoid a repeat of that post-election violence, Kenyans hope a new system of government will help heal old wounds, rather than create new conflicts.