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The pastoralist rangelands of northern Kenya, including Marsabit, have historically been associated with marginalization and structural inequality, inter-communal conflict, and adverse human development indicators.

Some of the typical stress factors have been studied and documented, and they include climate change and environmental degradation; drought, famine, and other natural catastrophes; resource and land-related conflicts (some relating to administrative and electoral boundaries); the proliferation of small arms and light weapons; and human-wildlife conflicts aggravated by competing uses of land for private conservancies and wildlife conservation.

With a surface area of 70,000 sq. km, Marsabit County is almost half the size of the entire US State of North Carolina (pop. 10.5 million), but with only roughly the same population as Raleigh, the state capital. But that is where this comparison ends. Marsabit faces a myriad of worsening human development and ecological challenges. It remains one of the poorest counties in the nation, characterized by unsatisfactory education and health indicators, limited infrastructure and a substantial portion of the population categorized as either food-poor or chronically hungry. The town of Marsabit, the county headquarters, has few streetlights and paved roads and no running water or basic sanitation system.

In Marsabit, devolution has become a moniker for conflict, death, and despair. Over the last few years, these conflicts have become increasingly insidious and sporadic violent incidents involving the three major ethnic groups have steadily moved away from traditional resource-based tiffs to more sinister criminal acts fuelled by efforts to sustain long-term economic and political gain.

Sadly, the onset of devolution has also been accompanied by politically charged erosion of trust and intolerance amongst these groups. The attacks and counterattacks have been both vicious and wanton. Armed, ragtag militias maim and kill indiscriminately and disappear. The injured are hospitalized, the dead are buried, politicians issue the same platitudinous statements and the police promise investigations. No arrests, and if any, no successful prosecutions. Too many grieving families are left traumatized and permanently scarred, with no closure. And the cycle continues.

The question on most observers’ lips is, what is fuelling this tragedy and what can be done to stop it?

First, we need to frame the challenge and articulate it clearly and truthfully, as factual analysis is not partisan. What is happening in Marsabit is the direct result of a catastrophic failure of leadership and self-governance since 2013. Visionless politics of ethnic supremacy, politics around land and development projects, coupled with weak land tenure rights and the chronic failures of policing and justice, have generated a perfect storm of militia activities under the guise of inter-communal violence. Politicians and their elite capture acolytes have perfected the cruel art of weaponizing ethnicity, amplifying mendacity, and parroting emptiness, instead of policy options, as an effective platform for political mobilization, and violence as the means to that end.

In Marsabit, devolution has become a moniker for conflict, death, and despair.

The obstacles that the county faces may sound daunting and impossible, but they can be fixed. All you need is an accountable and compassionate crop of new county leaders and managers who put people first and implement a long-term, evidence-based County Development Plan. For example, improving health indicators for mothers and children or even cleaning up Marsabit town requires not just targeting financial resources at the right priorities like life-saving maternal and child health interventions and improvements in public sanitation. It also calls for a new generation of leaders who believe that transparency is the principal ingredient of public accountability. But it would help if you also had enlightened citizens who hold public officials to account, demand essential services and stop accepting sub-human living conditions. All these governance dynamics, incentive structures and human behaviour need to be carefully aligned to get out of the current morass that only serves the small corrupt elite while everybody else continues to lose out.

How do we do that? The first step is for the county government to acknowledge the complexity of its operating environment. There is a real danger of failure when any governing structure ignores the complexity and operates as if all challenges are amenable to catchy slogans and naïve prescriptions often aimed at building and sustaining ethnic coalitions, buying loyalty, or placating different interest groups. This is a significant challenge in our local political economy that needs to be addressed as it perpetuates a culture of governance impunity. At the heart of this challenge lies the nexus of ethnicity, identity, and governance – often a volatile cocktail. Just to cast this in some historical perspective, Daniel Arap Moi, the late President of Kenya, once described ethnicity as a “cancer that threatens to eat out the very fabric of our nation”. Ironically, ethnicity and corruption epitomized more than two decades of his rule – and the state was often the only visible route to wealth, fame, and glory. Fighting over access to state resources along tribal lines was considered an entirely rational and legitimate pursuit.

A hangover from that period is still with us. It seems to be shaping the emergence of tribal coalitions that illustrate the role of ethnicity rather than purity, expertise, and integrity in determining where power lies during every election cycle. And its results can be frightening, especially in multi-ethnic counties like Marsabit, where lack of trust and tensions have always been lurking under the surface. That is why any coalition whose key win theme is to lockout a substantial portion of the county’s ethnic population is not only patently absurd but also dangerously stupid.

What is happening in Marsabit is the direct result of a catastrophic failure of leadership and self-governance since 2013.

There are many questions and thorny issues that need to be tackled. In this short article, I do not attempt to answer these questions in detail. Instead, my goal is to give some directional advice and illustrate what it looks like in practice. There are at least four foundational dilemmas that must be continuously addressed for Marsabit to morph into a viable county that nurtures peace, growth, and prosperity for all and avoids degenerating into a rolling calamity: The accountability dilemma, the policy dilemma, the capacity development dilemma, and the diversity dilemma.

In my work with various ministries of health and education in Africa over the last two decades, I have learned that nothing wastes precious and scarce public resources more than bad management, poor leadership, and unaccountable governance arrangements.

The key to understanding accountability is to realize that no system of public governance primarily shaped by greed, mediocrity, or ad hoc simplistic targets can deliver any valuable common goods. Therefore, the county needs to be led and staffed by thoughtful policymakers and human development practitioners who can design, monitor, and improve systems that ensure built-in accountability in all its operations. For example, an electronic, web-based dashboard with revenue and expenditure information that is regularly updated and publicly available would be a suitable standard operating procedure of public accountability. The idea is to achieve forms of accountability based on both internal commitments to the users of the system and fidelity to the public they serve – this is non-negotiable. Also, effective accountability is a function of good data-driven policies that inform strategies and activities for improvement and widespread transparency about results and about what is working and what is not working. Human development cannot be advanced without data and evidence.

Nothing wastes precious and scarce public resources more than bad management, poor leadership, and unaccountable governance arrangements.

The centrepiece of any successful system of human progress is capacity development—the development of an individual, team, and institutional effectiveness in terms of new skills, resources, motivation, and results. In other words, the county government should not underestimate the need for developing the capacity of teams and institutions or try to address it in weak, individualistic ways. The core county development plan and all departmental plans must focus on thorough and widespread capacity development, especially the collective capacity of county teams and groups to deliver results.

Marsabit is more variegated and diverse than most other counties in the country. Despite the many differences in the beautiful tapestry of languages, traditions, and cultures of the communities, the regular wananchi have the same basic needs concerning their health, their children’s education, their security and safety, fairness and justice, and access to basic services. Additionally, we all benefit when we work together and take advantage of our diversity. In other words, diversity is a virtue to be celebrated and promoted, not a fault-line to be exploited or weaponized to feed the outsized egos or short-term agenda of the political class.

Finally, no good can come from ignoring the challenges looming so ominously over Marsabit County. These are extraordinary times that require extraordinary leadership and declaration of conscience. A system that serves everyone is easy to build – but it requires not only implementable ideas that are based on sound evidence and practice, but above all, competent, purpose-driven leaders with a clear heart – a heart that loves and treats all people equally and fairly, all the time. But if the voters of Marsabit County do not collectively reject politicians who do not value human life, lie to them repeatedly, and waste or abuse their resources with impunity, then they deserve their fate, and they will continue to embrace their self-inflicted trauma and humiliation.