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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Au Kenya, la soif de terre alimente les violences

by Camille Bauer

Thirst for Land Fuels Violence in Kenya

Translated Saturday 29 March 2008, by Isabelle Métral

The land grabs and population displacements characteristic of the colonial era have since intensified under the successive régimes, causing deep-running resentment and crystallizing ethnic identities.

“They use the election as a pretext for driving us away. They say that this land is their ancestral land,” Evans Manoti explains, his green chequered jacket stretched tight on his bulging tummy. A few weeks ago men from the Kalenjin ethnic group, which claims to have been the first to settle this area north of the Rift valley, came and burnt down his house and the other Kissi houses. “If I could, I’d go back there, and resist. This land is mine by right, I bought it,” he maintains. He’s left five acres of land behind.

Like seven thousand other displaced persons after the recent violent eruption, most of them members of the Kissi ethic group, he has found refuge in the Charangani camp in western Kenya. Like many of the Kenyans that were displaced as a result of the violence that followed the publication of the election results on December 27, 2007, he puts the attack he suffered down to a very old history of competition for access to land, rather than the current political division.

Conflict over land in Kenya has its roots in the colonial era. In the early twentieth century, the British encouraged the settling of white farmers whose investment farms were meant to make the Mombasa-Kisumu railway line profitable. A few dozen thousand settlers took the best land, the White Highlands in the Central province around Nairobi, and in the south and centre of the Rift valley.

In the Central province they grabbed Kikuyu land – as early as 1903 some Kikuyu families had lost from 30% to 70% of their arable land to the British, according to historian Atieno Odhiambo. The dispossessed Kikuyu, being considered as better farmhands by the white settlers than the Rift valley nomads, settled near the whites’ farms - a convenient labour pool. They were parked in “Native Reserves” where they were given small plots.

The Kikuyu presence in the Rift valley on land that had so far been farmed by other groups increased after independence. In 1963 Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first post-independence president, and a Kikuyu, chose to preserve a highly centralized system in which the State retained absolute control over the allocation of land. So he was in a position to keep his Kikuyu supporters in control of the land market in the Rift valley, Jennifer Widner explains in her book on the party-State in Kenya.

In conformity with the “winner-take-all” principle, the State bought back a large part of the big Rift valley plantations from the white settlers and redistributed them to Kikuyus in the 1960s, to the detriment of the native pastoral communities. Those land distributions were meant – at least in theory – to satisfy the Kikuyu squatters that had made up the bulk of the Mau Mau army, an armed resistance movement against colonization that was savagely quelled during the 1950s.

In real fact, the method used for redistributing the land was skewed: so as not to alienate the British, Kenyatta opted for the consenting-buyer-consenting-seller principle, which actually disqualified the poor, notably the former Mau Mau militants. The Kikuyu elite who had maintained their status in the colonial era by making the best of the system and had consequently been the Mau Mau’s main target got the lion’s share. So that in 1971 51% of the land farmed by big landowners around Nakuru was Kikuyu property according to J. Widner’s estimate.

The increasing Kikuyu presence in the Rift valley has alienated Kalenjin and other native ethnic groups. In 1992 these tensions were exploited in a series of political machinations. Kenya then suffered its first series of violent outbreaks - very similar to the current violence.

Daniel Arap Moi, who succeeded Kenyatta as Head of State in 1978, was pressured at home and abroad into setting up a multi-party system and organizing elections. A Kalenjin himself, he mobilized the “majimbo” ideology to neutralize the opposition. "To put it simply, majimbo was first inspired by the small ethnic group leaders’ fear lest their groups should be dominated by “large ethnic groups”, Mutuma Ruteere of the Kenyan Institute for Human Rights explains.

Majimbo tacitly took up the organizational principle adopted by the British, which consisted in considering each ethnic group as a “natural” entity entitled to a strictly defined territory. As invoked by President Moi in 1991, majimbo was “a ploy to demand the expulsion of all ethnic groups from the Rift valley, except for the pastoralist groups – Kalenjin, Masaï – who had been there before independence”, Human Rights Watch explains.

The electoral weight of the Rift valley is decisive, since it represents 44 of the 128 seats in the Kenyan Parliament. It has become the centre of a “foreigners” hunt organized with the blessing of those in office, to whom it is a convenient way of getting rid of hostile electors. The same methods generated similar scenes during the 1997 elections.

During the campaign for the 2007 election, the controversy over majimbo was fierce: the opposition invoked it to press for federalism and a fairer distribution of the country’s resources, the incumbent president Kibaki’s term having been marked by rampant corruption and favouritism in favour of the Kikuyu, while others accused him of playing the card of ethnic clashes. Although opposition leaders do not seem to have been implicated in this year’s violence, some party officials have.

If some political leaders have therefore made the most of the thirst for land to fuel ethnic conflicts, by far the most important factor in this respect is the corruption and clientelism that have always prevailed in the distribution of land. From Kenyatta to Kibaki, all Kenyan presidents have regularly used land distributions to reward their supporters and friends. “In the late 1980s and in the 1990s, what had begun on a small scale became standard practice. Portions of common land were given to the president’s elect, and he always chose them, it seemed, among his supporters”, explains lawyer Paul N. Ndungu who chaired one of the numerous committees investigating the illegal allotment of public land.

Despite his promises to that effect, President Mwai Kibaki, who came into office in 2002 at the head of a great opposition coalition, did not put an end to these abusive practices. In an article published in 2002, the Sunday Standard drew up an impressive list of dozens of important estates that belonged to politicians, businessmen or officials connected with either of the Kenyan régimes. According to the Kenya Land Alliance, a NGO that specializes in these questions, the estimation is that above half the arable land belongs to less than 20% of the population. The method used (whereby the State buys large plots at heavy prices and sells them at a loss to private individuals) has been a severe drain on the national budget. Some of these plots are not even farmed, political analyst Jérôme Lafarque explains, as “land sales are often mostly a way of circulating money” in a vastly corrupted system that “involves public and private companies, provincial administrations and State services”. The vast majority of transactions are illegal, which is no problem for the powerful, but makes the poor even more vulnerable - many of whom lost land which they thought was theirs and which they had farmed, under the pretext that their purchase, supervised by the local authorities, had not been sanctioned by the granting of a title deed.

As a result of the violence and abuse of power the landless in Kenya have multiplied. In a report published in mid 2007, the International Federation for Human Rights and the Kenyan Commission for Human Rights estimated the number of displaced persons in Kenya at 380,000. Some of them have had to move several times and most “are in dire straits, as they cannot afford to rent even a small house”, the organizations said. Others, at Kieni near Naivasha for instance, live in shelters put up with planks and canvas in the thick of the forest, without jobs, land, or assistance. The last three months’ violence is bound to make matters worse and turn an additional 300,000 people out of their homes.

As fear is general over the country, the displaced do not intend to go back to the places from which they have been expelled. They demand to recover their “ancestral land”, a notion of an ethnically pure region now largely phantasmagorical in view of the fact that Kenya has been radically transformed and integrated by decades of migration, personal and professional inter-relations. Their demand contributes to sanction the ethnic division of the country at a time when public services have also been threatened into transferring the officers that did not work in their native parts.

Significantly enough, for groups that side with the opposition like the Luo and Kenjin, the “ancestral land” is often a place which “they left precisely because life there was difficult.” The International Crisis Group recently explained that “inevitably, a lot are going to settle down in the urban centres where they will aggravate the tension”.


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