Nairobi — The national unity meeting at Nairobi's Bomas of Kenya got its first real test Wednesday after elders openly differed over provisions on land in the new Constitution.
The flare-up started between elders John ole Maitai and Major John Seii. First on the floor was Mr Maitai, who pushed for the new Constitution to sail through saying it was the long-awaited answer to the land problems in the country.
"There are those among us who are going wrong and are now worried about what they'll do once the new law comes into place This is because their brains moved from their heads to their stomachs..." Mr Maitai said in reference to those opposed to the proposed Constitution.
But as he sat down, Mr Seii rose on a 'point of order' saying that it was wrong for the elders to politicise the cohesion meeting. "As elders, we are referees. We must be careful with the statements we make here, because we ought to be neutral," said Mr Seii. "It is obvious that the proposed Constitution and the referendum are emotive issues, so let's not go there. Let's do what brought us here, to unite the country!"
The spark in the was set forth by discussions on land, with most of the elders terming it as the crux of the country's woes. Mr Samuel arap Ng'eny had set the ball rolling with a quick solution to the landless menace: Compensate all the squatters and displaced, resettle them and you'll achieve national healing.
"The disputes over land in Rift Valley are not going to stop unless those without land are compensated," said Mr Ng'eny. He blamed successive regimes of marginalising people who had been deprived of their land by the settlers.
"When the settlers came, that land was not empty, they displaced some people. When we got independence, these people (displaced from their land by settlers) were not considered. They have remained squatters four decades after independence," Mr Ng'eny noted. But as he sat down elder Solomon Wanguru said it will be "impossible" to address national unity if land issues are left unchecked.
"I was allocated land in Olenguruone, but then I was evicted in 1948 and taken to Yatta. I came back and found that it had been taken away by some connected people; I have never gotten it back," he said. The elders seemed to agree that the land problem worsened during the Kenyatta and Moi regimes as "only political sycophants" benefited from land allocations. These people close to the seat of power, the elders said, had huge tracts of land in the settlement schemes under the Agricultural Development Corporation in Transnzoia, Uasin Gishu and Nandi.
"Some of us don't have land, yet the government is doing nothing," said Mr Ng'eny. Mr Samuel Bosire and Ms Dorothy Awino lamented that the ethnic clashes in 1992, 1997 and in 2007 had aggravated the land problem. "Some of us had taken loans and used our pension to buy land in Rift Valley on a willing-buyer, willing-seller basis. We had lived very well with our neighbours. Then the politicians arrived and everything went south," said Mr Bosire.
Ms Awino added: "The people involved are the politicians, they make mothers and their children landless...we need to till our land (and not live as squatters)." Mr Burudi Nabwera and Mr Talat Naibei blamed the leadership in successive regimes for the land clashes and rampant corruption in the country. "You can't eat as a minister and expect your driver, who sees you taking bribes everyday, not to seek bribes from people who want to see you," said Mr Nabwera. "Corruption won't end until we fight it from the top."
Moderators had a hard time trying to calm the elders as nearly every one of them wanted to contribute. Former Judge Effie Owuor, the chair of the National Elders Committee, had to step in to steer the debate.