a divided land

Kenya: A land divided

Ethnic tensions threaten the country ahead of presidential and parliamentary polls.


As crucial elections loom in Kenya, Al Jazeera finds it is the fight over land that is at the heart of the country’s violent ethnic tensions.

Kenya is a nation of 37 million people that stretches from the Indian Ocean to the Great Rift Valley, where despite record economic growth, poverty remains endemic.

As Kenya’s rapidly increasing population vies for scarce land resources, some have begun to see themselves not as Kenyans but as tribal members – divided from their compatriots by language, custom and blood – and it is along these tribal lines that many Kenyans are expected to vote in the December 27 presidential and parliamentary elections.

‘Land and freedom’

When Kenya gained its independence from Britain in 1963 there was little real change from the status quo.

Koigi Wamwere proposes Zimbabwe-style
land reforms for Kenya

Koigi Wamwere, the assistant minister of information and a long-term land reform activist, says: “When we fought for independence it was actually for land and freedom. After independence we discovered we had won our freedom but not the land, at least for the majority.”

Many discovered that in ridding themselves of the British they had only replaced one land-owning class with another.

“People who have been presidents, who have been permanent secretaries, anything you can call anybody, they have huge tracts of land. It really seems obscene that you can have so few people having so much land when millions are going hungry,” Wamwere says.

Bitter legacy

A bitter legacy of tribal violence has surfaced before every local and national election since the Kenyan parliament rescinded a ban on political parties and paved the way for multi-party elections in 1992.

With plurality came a rise in tribal tensions which Human Rights Watch blamed on the government of Daniel Arap Moi, the then president, citing his selective rewarding of some ethnic groups, such as the Kalenjin, with land appropriation.

Dozens died in ethnic conflict in 1992 and hundreds were left homeless in the aftermath of rural riots. It was a pattern that would be repeated in some parts of the country in 1995, 1997 and 2005.

An internal investigation by the parliament’s select committee on ethnic clashes said the violence was often incited by provincial officials but the government denied the committee’s findings and threatened its authors with imprisonment.

Ethnic tensions

The region of Kurosoi typifies the ethnic tensions emerging across the country ahead of the upcoming elections.

In the last two months 27 people have been
killed in tribal clashes in Kurosoi

On the western ridge of the Rift Valley, it is part of what was once Kenya’s ‘White Highlands’, where Europeans took advantage of the fertile soil. The white farms are long gone but the problems remain.

The area is now predominantly inhabited by members of the Kalenjin tribe but the town of Mung’etho, in the heart of Kurosoi, is a Kikuyu enclave.

In the last two months, 27 people have been killed and more than 10,000 made homeless in tribal clashes.

Richard Leakey, a former MP and veteran campaigner for political rights under the previous government of Moi, says: “There’s a grudge, there’s a bad feeling. The late-president, Jomo Kenyatta, allocated and encouraged settlement of the Kikuyu in that area. Traditionally it had been an area that was largely non-Kikuyu.”

Wamwere explains: “Many people think they are landless because other Kenyans have come there and taken their land. So they think that the way to get land is by evicting those so-called foreigners. Politicians have played this up because it is an easy vote-getter. The result is people attempt to fight each other.”

Settling scores
Samuel Mugusu is one of Kurosoi’s ‘settlers’. He moved to the area with his family 17 years ago. He got on well with his Kalenjin neighbours until a few days ago when this peaceful co-existence was shattered.

“I heard the cry. It was Kalenjin. The room was full of people. They came with grass, then they lit a fire. Then they saw me. They said ‘here he is’ and they started to shoot arrows,” he says.

He blames the violence on the elections: “If they can move us away then it will be easy for them to go through the election. So that the man they want, he can go through.”

Samuel’s Kalenjin neighbours were attacked and killed two days later by the Kikuyus.

Jeffrey Beat from the farm next door was woken by the family’s screams. He says the murders were politically motivated – a settling of scores ahead of the election.

“This area is not a congested area. There is enough land here. The problem is the politicians,” he says.

Scarce resources

Tribalism is not the only problem facing Kenya’s small farmers.

Kenya’s resurgent economy, based mainly around the flower industry, which employs 40,000 people and brings in $700 million a year, and tourism, is now competing for the country’s scarce resources of land and water.

This is a particular problem for the nomadic Masai who for centuries have grazed their cattle wherever the rain fell.

The area around Lake Naivasha in the Rift Valley was once Masai land. Taken from them in 1905 by a controversial agreement with the British, it has never been returned.

The Masai way of life is threatened by their
dwindling access to grazing land and water

It remains a precious resource for the nomadic herders but also for the flower farms and tourist lodges that now ring the lake.

Karanja Ole Chole, a Masai elder whose homestead perches on a rocky outcrop above the lake, still remembers a time when access to the lake was free to all.

“When I was a child, all this land used to be ours. When the settlers came they reduced our ancestral land. Now they have fenced off all routes and we can’t access the lake.”

The Masai have seen their access to grazing and the lake gradually dwindle – of the 17 access corridors to the lake they once had, only three remain.

The problem has been exacerbated by drought, which has led many farming communities to attempt land grabs – leading to tribal clashes – with the aim of securing access to the water vital to their livelihood.

Cholmondeley trial

The trial of Thomas Cholmondeley, the heir to the 55,000 acre Delamere estate which borders the northern edge of the Lake Naivasha, has reignited Masai anger over the loss of their land.

He is being tried for the killing of a Kikuyu man caught poaching on the estate. 

It was the second fatal shooting Cholmondeley had been involved in two years. The first was the shooting of a Masai man but the case was dropped for lack of evidence in 2005. The Masai seized upon the incident to re-launch their bid to reclaim the Delamere estate, which they say is their ancestral herding ground.

Andrew Ole Koisamu is a Masai who has recently formed a group to campaign for the rights of herders whom he believes have been ignored by successive governments.

He says: “What happened is that a few individuals, numerous individuals, very dominant communities took the land from the British, on behalf of their communities. And what that means is that the pastoralists were again pushed to the periphery. And this meant that they were marginalised. Even more than when the British were there.”

For those who have been driven off the land, there is little choice but to move to the cities. For most this means moving to one of Nairobi’s two super-slums – Kibera, the largest in Africa, and Mathare.

Estimates put the population of Nairobi’s
Kibera slum at more than one million

Kibera has swollen in size in the last decade. No official figures exist but estimates put its population at over a million.

The last decade has seen the emergence of the Mungiki – a Kikuyu group which moved into the slums with the migrants from the Rift Valley.

They have been accused of forcing Kikuyu culture on other tribes, including the circumcision of men and women, and of killing those who refused to pay for protection.

The Mungiki leadership see themselves as a resistance movement but to their critics they are little more than an armed band of thugs.

Eric Kiraithe from the Nairobi police says: “Those individuals who resisted their extortionist threats, those who resisted their designs were executed in a very brutal manner.”

John Mugunda has worked as a barber in Mathare since 1988. He says: “When this Mungiki people first came, they came to help with security, but soon they asked for protection money. If you refuse to pay, they would kill you. I found a dead person on the street, you would always know who had done it.”

‘Police work’

The Mungiki say that it is the police who precipitated the violence to allow them to silence the group ahead of the election.

Stories have begun to emerge about young
men going missing

In June the police moved into the Mathare slum in a crackdown on the Mungiki, even though that meant a Kikuyu-led government taking on their own tribesmen.

In the months since the crackdown on the Mungiki, stories have begun to emerge about young Kikuyu men being picked up by the police, never to be seen again.

Both of Lucas Kimama Raishigi’s sons ‘disappeared’. His first son left the junkyard where they worked together with two men he had never seen before in June. Fours days later Raishigi found his body at the mortuary.

His second son disappeared in September. When his body was found the people at the mortuary told him it was “police work”.


N’gong, an hour outside the sprawling suburbs of Nairobi, is Masai land. In recent months it has also become a popular place for dumping bodies.

The Kenyan national commission on human rights has investigated the killings and last month published a report calling for an official investigation.

Maina Kiai, who heads the commission, says: “We went to the mortuary and we found that from June, until the time we were going in, in October, there had been 554 bodies that had been brought in by the police.”

Janet Wanjuko’s son disappeared from Mouchatha, a small village half an hour north of Nairobi, after being taken away by the police.

“[The district officer] told me the police dropped him off on the road. I asked where and he said he was a missing person but the police arrested him, how can he be missing?”

The police do not deny making the arrests, but they claim that the many young men who were arrested have run away to escape the Mungiki.

Kiraithe says: “A lot of those people who initially had been recruited, the minute you tried to co-operate with the police or even the chiefs – the provincial administration, they would go back and they [the Mungiki] execute you. So, that one caused quite a few of them to run away. But you see our intention to prevent crime is achieved.”

Land reform

For Wamwere, the answer to Kenya’s land problems is nothing short of the sort of land reform being undertaken in Zimbabwe.

Candidates promise an end to corruption but tribal affiliations are likely to be key to success

“What is happening in Zimbabwe although it is directed largely against whites, people would like to see here despite the fact that such land reform would be addressed against the whites and blacks. Poverty knows no colour, hunger knows no colour. The problem is we don’t have the sort of leaders who are prepared to push for it.” 

But for Leakey, the former MP, the problem goes far deeper than just the shortage of land.

“The sense of nationhood as the Kenya state which was developed during the attempts to get Britain out,… that has largely given way to what was here before which was a series of mini-nations or mini-states,” he says.

Leakey says: “They think white, they think black, they think Muslim, they think Christian, they think Kikuyu, they think Masai. They don’t think Kenyan. That is the challenge for the future.”

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