Land holds key to Kenyan rivalries

Disputes over land are said to be root cause of ethnic tensions that many remain wary about during latest elections.

Fatuma Abdulrahman
Fatuma Abdulrahman said Kenya's post-election violence in 2007-08 'was all about land' [Zoe Flood/Al Jazeera]

Nairobi, Kenya – In a small office across the street from Kibera’s main mosque, as the muezzin issues the call to prayer, Fatuma Abdulrahman unfurls a copy of a hand-drawn map showing a large area west of what is now the city centre of Kenya’s capital Nairobi.

Dating back to 1932, the map shows “Kibra” – as it was named by Nubian soldiers from Sudan who were settled there – with Nubian homesteads and shambas, or allotments, neatly demarcated.

“This was all Nubian land,” Abdulrahman said, pointing out areas on the map that are now well-heeled Nairobi suburbs. “The British gazetted over 4,197 acres in 1918 as a military reserve. But over time, the colonial power took land back, then post-independence chiefs allocated land to their people. And finally we saw politicians bringing their supporters in to Kibra to boost their electoral base.”

Abdulrahman, a forceful and articulate human rights activist who was born and raised in Kibra, asked one of the few audience questions in Kenya’s second televised presidential debate, inquiring what guarantees candidates would offer to minority communities like the Nubians.

Kenya’s Nubian population is small, numbering 100,000 countrywide. Twenty-four thousand of them are estimated to live in an informal settlement in Kibera. But the Nubians’ unsuccessful struggle for title deeds for land they have occupied for more than a century is a clue to the centrality of the issue to the country’s politics.

A long-standing problem

 Kenyan farmers fighting over scarce land

Land injustice in Kenya stretches back far into the colonial era, with each new post-independence government adding yet more layers of complexity and inequity.

Communities from the Indian Ocean coastal region to the Rift Valley struggle with the misallocation of public land, land dispossession and post-colonial land resettlement programmes. Since the reemergence of multi-party democracy in Kenya in 1992, politicians have used unresolved land disputes as rallying points during election campaigns, said Jacqueline Klopp, who works on land and displacement issues in Kenya at Columbia University.

“In 2007, we saw politicians claiming that some communities had privileged access to land, meaning that simplifying and distorting complex land issues became part of playing the ethnic card for winning elections.”

“The post-election violence in 2007-08 was all about land – the vote was just the trigger,” agreed Abdulrahman.

That land could again prove a critical issue in Kenya’s current elections, deepening existing ethnic divisions, was a source of real worry. The topic is so charged that police and Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission warned politicians against discussing land during their campaigns.

“In Kenya, land is the source of economy. If you have a title deed you can access finance, but without one, you cannot access any kind of empowerment,” Abdulrahman explained.

The Nubians are not the only group laying claim to Kibera’s land, demonstrating the huge challenge in unravelling competing claims fairly.

“In Kibera, the candidates had to be very careful about the issue of land during the campaign,” said Raphael Omondi, a youth activist in Kibera. “There was fear that it would bring back violence between communities.”

Beyond the crowded acreage of Kibera, a complex patchwork of claims and disputes – each flavoured by their own particular brand of resentment and disappointment – pepper Kenyan soil, from the fertile hills of the Rift Valley to the palm-fringed coastal plains.

Some land claims date from well over 50 years, caused by unfair administrative systems adopted by the British colonial authorities, which allocated choice arable land to white settlers and communities seen as loyal, but often failing to involve the original inhabitants.

‘The majority never benefited’

But Kenya’s first post-independence government preserved colonial legislation that protected title owners. It also opted for a “willing buyer-willing seller” land resettlement programme, in which many of those who had lost land during the colonial period could not afford to participate. And corrupt members of the elite themselves acquired land that was meant for the landless.

“Instead of dividing up the land post-independence, it was appropriated by the political elite,” said Abdullahi Boru Halakhe, an independent Horn of Africa analyst. “The majority never benefited.”

Illegal and irregular allocations of public land in particular continued under Kenya’s second president Daniel arap Moi, with the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights describing this as perhaps the regime’s “most pervasive corrupt practice”. According to the Ndungu Land Commission, established in 2004 to investigate land allocation, more than 200,000 illegal or irregular title deeds were created and registered between 1963 and 2002.

“Since freedom of expression improved in Kenya, concerns about land really came to the fore,” said Klopp. “People have been pushing for land policy reform for some time, but violence in the last election, sometimes justified by land grievances, helped make crystal-clear the need to change laws and institutions dealing with land.”

The National Accord, which was signed in late February 2008 and brought an end to the post-election crisis following the controversial 2007 vote, specifically mentioned land reforms as central to long-term reconciliation in the country.

Kenya’s new constitution, adopted in 2010, guarantees equal access to land and protects public land from those in positions of power. And the transition to a devolved government under the new constitution will help to bring land administration closer to the communities it affects.

After some delays, a National Land Commission was sworn in last week and will be the sole administrator of public land in Kenya.

But as candidate Peter Kenneth put it in the second presidential debate, the real issues about land concern “enforcement and implementation”.

“One of the greatest challenges to land reform is budgetary support,” said Ibrahim Mwathane, Chair of the Land Development and Governance Institute (LGDI). “It is the loudest message we need to send the incoming government and donor partners if we want to achieve these reforms.”


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Kenyans remain unconvinced that the current generation of leaders is fully committed to addressing past land injustices.

Presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta, of the Jubilee Coalition, has faced especially strong criticism, as many Kenyans believe his family is the largest landowner in the country.

When baited with an allegation during the second debate that his family owned half the land in the country, Kenyatta refused to specify how much land his family owned. Instead, he said evasively: “I own land, my family owns land as well.”

He later admitted that he owned 30,000 acres of land in Taita-Taveta in Coast Province. Earlier estimates by the Kenya Land Alliance suggest the Kenyatta family’s could own as much as half a million acres.

Kenyatta’s chief rival, current Prime Minister Raila Odinga and three-time presidential challenger, has not escaped criticism either. “We have been advocating to the prime minister – Raila, who is our member of parliament – for the past 20 years,” said Abdulrahman. “But he has been lying to us, he promised we would be compensated.”

According to a recent poll carried out by the LDGI, 69 percent of Kenyans believe that those seeking elective office at the national level have not prioritised the land agenda and will fail to deliver in the long-run.

“The gains in land reform so far, including the attainment of a land policy, a constitution and the new land laws, have not happened in an environment of generous good political will,” said Mwathane. “An example is the recent intransigence in gazetting the members of the National Land Commission. Land reform threatens the interests of some of the political actors and the executive in Kenya.”

But campaigners are optimistic that land concerns are firmly on the national agenda and that leaders know they are now under scrutiny.

“If the presidential debate showed anything, it was that Kenyans are beginning to rise up and hold the leadership accountable – the leaders can be sure that any questions people have will be revisited,” said Mwathane.  “Those who lead this country will need to be very careful from now on about how they manage land distribution.”

Source: Al Jazeera