Kenya: land tenure fuels violence

Kenya has largely disappeared from the headlines, and what is reported generally has an optimistic slant—a new power-sharing accord is hoped to end the violence. Meanwhile, the situation seems to be escalating to open war. On March 10, the armed forces reportedly opened fire and launched aerial bombing raids with helicopter gunships on the Sabaot Land Defense Forces (SLDF) at Mount Elgon in the west of the country. The SLDF is a local militia representing the Sabaot clan of the Kalenjin community, which says it seeks to reclaim traditional lands and is accused of a massacre last week in which 13 people were burned alive or hacked to death. (BBC, March 11; AP, March 10)

In a rare example of insightful analysis from the mainstream media that goes beyond patronizing soundbites about “tribalism” and “ancient ethnic hatreds,” Stephanie McCrummen writes for the Washington Post March 7, “No Quick Fix for What Still Ails Kenya: Political Accord Skirts Huge Issue of Land Reform.”

ELMENTEITA, Kenya – After reaching a power-sharing deal last week, Kenya’s rival political leaders are confronting one of the most explosive issues underlying the post-election crisis, and one that every Kenyan government since independence has avoided: land reform.

The country’s political class, monied families and their associates have all acquired vast tracts of land under dubious circumstances over the years, which they stand to lose if serious reforms are undertaken.

Today, about half of Kenya’s arable land is in the hands of an elite 20 percent and most Kenyans scrape a living off an acre or less, according to government and independent studies.

In the absence of real reform, politicians have routinely exploited the sense of injustice surrounding the historic imbalance in land allocation.

Since the disputed Dec. 27 presidential election, opposition politicians once again have cast people from President Mwai Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe as privileged, land-grabbing outsiders and urged local militias to reclaim so-called ancestral lands.

Thousands of Kikuyus have fled the Rift Valley, while Kikuyu militias have retaliated by chasing Luos, Luyahs and Kalenjins from areas considered Kikuyu territory. The pattern of displacement essentially has revived the colonial fiction of homelands that first served the British and now benefits the Kenyan elite that replaced them.

Not surprisingly, the new political accord does not address this fundamental issue.

The competing land claims also have survived the tenuous political settlement designed to end post-election violence that left more than 1,000 Kenyans dead and displaced more than 600,000. Last Monday, 13 people were burned and hacked to death in a land dispute in the Rift Valley, and others displaced since last week’s peace deal continued to flee the area.

“People have continued to identify with these colonial boundaries,” said Odenda Lumumba, national coordinator for the Kenya Land Alliance, which advocates land reform. “But we need to sober up and address the reality that we have a legacy of illegal land acquisition and dispossession in this country and, until we take stock of that, we will not move forward.”

A 2004 independent report commissioned by the government listed political families, ministers, judges, and other former and current officials involved in shady land deals.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga, who campaigned on promises to distribute resources equitably and tackle corruption, has been implicated in a questionable Rift Valley land deal. Kibaki, who has yet to approve a series of recommendations on land reform, is estimated to own hundreds of thousands of acres.

The family of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, collectively owns about 500,000 acres and the family of former president Daniel arap Moi is similarly flush with fertile land, including a vast swath near this Rift Valley town, where pre-election local radio broadcasts urged “the people of the milk,” a reference to the Kalenjin, to “clear the weed,” the Kikuyu, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group.

And it turns out these “ethnic hatreds” aren’t so “ancient”—but were enflamed by British colonialism.

Before the British colonized Kenya, ethnic identity was a fluid concept. A Kikuyu living among Masai could assimilate and become Masai over time. But when the British began taking over land for plantations – the most fertile swaths of central and western Kenya – they created a rigid system of “ethnic reserves” to control the population they displaced.

Mutable boundaries became firm, with ethnicities suddenly fixed and stamped on identity cards. The system was never fully dismantled after independence in 1963 and, even today, Kenyans living in cosmopolitan Nairobi, for instance, carry a national identity card showing their so-called ancestral home, to which they would have been confined during British rule.

The account looks at the case of Oljorai, a semi-arid stretch of land in western Kenya, where the government had resettled about 10,000 people evicted from better land over the past 30 years. In the post-election violence, Kalenjins there drove out their Kikuyu neighbors after opposition leaders urged local militias to reclaim so-called ancestral lands. But it turns out the original inhabitants of Oljorai were neither Kalenjin or Kikuyu, but the indigenous Masai people:

Although the Kalenjin claim Oljorai as ancestral land, it was originally occupied by Masai cattle herders. Later, it was a ranch belonging to a wealthy white Kenyan hotelier named Block.

In the 1970s, the government acquired the ranch, as it did many other colonial-era farms that have since been used for various resettlement programs and for political patronage.

Far from being privileged land-grabbers, the Kenyans who settled at Oljorai are mostly an ethnically mixed collection of people with long family histories of being booted from one piece of land to the next by people with more power.”They came and said, ‘Whether you like it or not, we’re going to subdivide the land,'” said Veronica Kimitei, who was landless before Moi settled her at Oljorai in 1995. “But this is where we belong.” As happened elsewhere in the Rift Valley, that sense of injustice, compounded by accusations that Kibaki had stolen the election, was cast in ethnic terms.

For Kimitei and others, the enemy became not Kibaki’s Kikuyu-led government, but the Kikuyus in their midst.

As violence spread across the Rift Valley, so did fears that Kikuyu militias were poised to attack Oljorai.

The people there called a meeting and decided, Kimitei said, that “Kikuyus must go.” It was early morning when the mob came to the farms of neighbors Maina Machiria and James Karanja with bows and arrows and Molotov cocktails.

Machiria was away. But Karanja and others ran across the twiggy fields to the closest safe place – the farm of Moi’s son, which always has plenty of security.

Glimmers of political economy in the “MSM.”

See our last post on Kenya.