The Nation (Nairobi)

9 February 2008

Kenya: How State Land Policy Shaped Conflict

Nairobi — Relentless violence in the Rift Valley seems to have been sparked by more than last year's disputed presidential election, according to interviews by a cross section of local people.

Judging by the form the violence has assumed in recent days, it appears evident that the poll outcome explosion was just but a cover for animosity by communities in the region against one another.

Interviews by the Saturday Nation revealed that the increased population in the region had put pressure on available land, forcing some of the indigenous people to seek ways of recovering land that was "irregularly" allocated to non-indigenous communities.

"Yes, we were unhappy about the election outcome," says Mr Paul Yego, a resident of Uasin Gishu. "But more importantly, the presidential election result presented us with a good chance to 'right' some of the historical wrongs committed against us as a community."

Topping the list of these "injustices" is the emotive issue of land ownership in the cosmopolitan Uasin Gishu District.

Ten years ago, the Justice Akilano Akiwumi-led Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Tribal Clashes during the 1992 and 1997 general elections said that land disputes fuelled the violence in Rift Valley.

And like this year, Uasin Gishu District was hit hard during those clashes. Other areas included Molo and Nakuru's sorrounding areas.

In Uasin Gishu, the area that experienced the worst violence in the latest ethnic attacks, the land issue spans the two major phases of Kenya's history: the colonial and the post-colonial eras of Presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi.

Upon arriving in the country, the British sent Africans into reserves to find huge tracts of land, which they transformed into estates and plantations for cash crops like tea and coffee as well as food crops such as maize and wheat.

Due to their suitability, Central province and parts of Rift Valley province such as Uasin Gishu, Nakuru, Trans Mara, Trans Nzoia, Kericho and Nandi were greatly affected by this uprooting.

Consequently, what used to be the open grazing and farming lands of the Kalenjin and Kikuyu were transformed into coffee, tea, wheat and maize plantations.

"Instead of restoring our lands that we lost to the white settlers, a few individuals benefited, relegating the majority of us to squatters even with the attainment of independence," says Peter Kaburu, a settler in Uasin Gishu.

To deal with the new problem, the government resettled the new squatters in trust lands in far off places such as Rift Valley and the Coast province.

"We were unhappy when the government plucked us from our ancestral homes," says Mzee Simon Kamenya, whose family settled in Uasin Gishu in 1967. "But who were we to challenge Kenyatta's government? And since we had no lands of our own, we had little choice but to do as the government said," he adds.

A number of people from Central province were given the opportunity to buy land in the Rift Valley through land-buying companies.

Because of this, the Kikuyu in particular, found themselves owning land in the heart of Kalenjinland which they renamed after the villages and towns they had come from. That is how villages such as Rironi, Kiambaa, Munyaka, ya Mumbi, Kimumu, Gatonye and many others came to be in Uasin Gishu.

This did not go down well with some of the indigenous people as they perceived this as an act of dispossession.

"Independence did not do justice to us," says Alfred Kiptum. "Instead of giving us back our lands, the government went ahead and handed them over to foreigners," he says.

When Moi became president in 1978, the community had hoped that he would reverse what they perceived to be an injustice perpetrated against them by the Kenyatta regime. "Disappointingly, President Moi did nothing. Instead he went ahead to carry on from where his predecessor left," says Mr Kiptum.

On taking office, President Moi had made it clear that he was going to follow in the footsteps of the Founding Father. "With this edict, President Moi not only protected the migrant community, he went ahead to dish out the lands for which our fathers had fought and died to his friends in government," says Mr Jonah Kimaiyo.

The community alleges that Mr Moi sidelined the villagers to whom the land originally belonged.

The community often cites the disposal of the East Africa Tanning and Extract Company (Eatec) land in 2001 as an example of the injustices that continue to be perpetrated against them. "The rich people of this country benefited from the Eatec land. We got nothing," says Mr Kimaiyo.

The community says that the 80,000-hectare Eatec land should have been given back to them since it was their ancestral land. "And if it were to be sold, this should have been at reduced prices and we should have been given priority," said Thomas Koross, a resident of Turbo.

However, the company and the government rejected both proposals. They stipulated that the land would be sold to any willing buyer and the price of an acre was set at Sh50,000.

The local community saw this as a calculated move to sideline them since most of them could not afford the price.

"Where were we going to get that kind of money considering that period was a difficult one for the community economically?" asks Mr Koross.

Mere spectators

"We became mere spectators as our land was partitioned to people from other areas," says Mr Koross.

During the collapse of major industries in the area, including the once vibrant Kenya Cooperative Creameries, the economic fortunes of the local people went down drastically.

Price of maize and wheat slumped in the wake of an influx of cheap imports.

Thus the majority resorted to selling parcels of their land from time to time to meet the cost of basic needs. And since most people in the community were impoverished and could not afford to buy this land, it was simply sold to anyone who could buy irrespective of their origins. It was also in this way that other communities including those from Central and Kisii came to own parcels of land in Uasin Gishu.

Whereas it can rightly be argued that these deals were legal since they were done on a willing-buyer willing-seller basis, a majority of the indigenous people argue that they were forced by external forces to do so.

"We sold our lands to educate our children in the hope that they would get good jobs and buy back these lands. But look at them; most of them are vagabonds, living far worse than we did. There is little to show for the lands we sold," says Mzee Richard arap Mosbey.

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