News 2008


No Quick Fix for What Still Ails Kenya

Political Accord Skirts Huge Issue Of Land Reform

By Stephanie McCrummen

Washington Post Foreign Service

Friday, March 7, 2008

At Oljorai, a semi-arid stretch of land in western Kenya, the government had resettled about 10,000 people evicted from better land over the past 30 years. Three weeks ago, Kalenjins there drove out their Kikuyu neighbors after opposition leaders urged local militias to reclaim so-called ancestral lands. (Photos By Stephanie Mccrummen - The Washington Post)

ELMENTEITA, Kenya - After reaching a power-sharing deal last week, Kenya's rival political leaders are now confronting one of the most explosive issues underlying the post-election crisis, and one that every Kenyan government since independence has managed to avoid: land reform.

The country's political class, monied families and their associates have all acquired vast tracts of land under dubious circumstances over the years, which they stand to lose if serious reforms are undertaken. Today, about half of Kenya's arable land is in the hands of an elite 20 percent, while most Kenyans scrape a living off one acre or less, according to government and independent studies.

In the absence of real reform, politicians, especially here in the fertile Rift Valley region of western Kenya, have routinely exploited the sense of injustice surrounding the historic imbalance in land allocation.

Since the disputed Dec. 27 presidential election, opposition politicians have once again cast people from President Mwai Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe as privileged, land-grabbing outsiders and urged local militias to reclaim so-called ancestral lands.

Hundreds of thousands of Kikuyus have fled the Rift Valley, while Kikuyu militias have retaliated by chasing Luos, Luyahs and Kalenjins from areas considered Kikuyu territory. The pattern of displacement has essentially revived the colonial fiction of homelands that first served the British and now benefits the Kenyan elite that replaced them.

The competing land claims have also survived the tenuous political settlement designed to end post-election violence that left more than 1,000 Kenyans dead and displaced more than 600,000 others. On Monday, 13 people were burned and hacked to death in a land dispute in the Rift Valley, and others displaced since last week's peace deal continued to flee the area.

"People have continued to identify with these colonial boundaries," said Odenda Lumumba, national coordinator for the Kenya Land Alliance, which advocates land reform. "But we need to sober up and address the reality that we have a legacy of illegal land acquisition and dispossession in this country, and until we take stock of that, we will not move forward."

A 2004 independent report commissioned by the government listed prominent political families, ministers, judges and other former and current officials involved in shady land deals.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga, who campaigned on promises to more equitably distribute resources and tackle corruption, has been implicated in a questionable land deal in the Rift Valley. Kibaki, who has yet to approve a series of recommendations on land reform, is estimated to own hundreds of thousands of acres.

The family of Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, collectively owns about 500,000 acres.

The family of former president Daniel arap Moi is similarly flush with fertile land, including a vast swath near this Rift Valley town, where preelection local radio broadcasts urged "the people of the milk," a reference to the Kalenjin, to "clear the weed," the Kikuyu, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group.

'This Is Where I Belong'

The road to Maina Machiria's farm is a path through Kenya's troubled legacy with respect to land. It runs for miles along yellowy grazing fields belonging to the great-grandson of one of Kenya's first British settlers, a man infamous for shooting locals who cross onto his property.

It passes the immense, ill-gotten tract held by Moi's son and finally reaches Oljorai, a semiarid landscape of thorn bushes and little-leafed trees, where Machiria and about 10,000 other people evicted from better land over the past three decades had been resettled by the government -- "dumped like garbage," as Machiria put it.

About three weeks ago, local Kalenjin and other tribal militias finally heeded the populist rallying cry sweeping the Rift Valley and attacked Machiria's meager farm and 26 others also belonging to Kikuyus who had always considered themselves as luckless as their neighbors.

"I don't know why these people are chasing us," Machiria said. "The common enemy is not the poor man, it's the government and the rich people who took the land illegally. But we Kenyans do not know who the enemy is. "

At a row of low-slung shops at Oljorai last week, men who were gathered there happily admitted to expelling their Kikuyu neighbors, including Machiria.

"The Rift Valley is Kalenjin land -- this is where I belong," said William Kaitany, 55, a cattle keeper who had been Machiria's neighbor. "The Kikuyus, I don't know why they're here. Even the young ones must go."

But historians say that the prevailing sense of belonging to a homeland is rooted more in Kenya's colonial past than in any legitimate ancestral claim.

Creating 'Ethnic Reserves'

Before the British colonized Kenya, ethnic identity was a fluid concept. A Kikuyu living among the Masai could assimilate and become Masai over time. But when the British began taking over land for tea and coffee plantations -- the most fertile swaths of central and western Kenya -- they created a rigid system of "ethnic reserves" to control the population they displaced.

Mutable boundaries became firm, with ethnicities suddenly fixed and stamped on identity cards. The system was never fully dismantled after independence in 1963, and even today, Kenyans living in cosmopolitan Nairobi, for instance, carry a national identity card showing their so-called ancestral home, to which they would have been confined during British rule.

Although the Kalenjin claim Oljorai as ancestral land, it was originally occupied by Masai cattle herders. Later, it was a ranch belonging to a wealthy white Kenyan hotelier named Block.

In the 1970s, the government acquired the ranch, as it did many other colonial-era farms that have since been used for various resettlement programs and for political patronage.

Far from being privileged land-grabbers, the Kenyans who settled at Oljorai are mostly an ethnically mixed collection of people with long family histories of being booted from one piece of land to the next by people with more power.

Machiria and his neighbor James Karanja were for most of their lives landless, their families having lost their farms in central Kenya to the British in the 1920s and '30s.

Both men lived for years in a slum in the central Kenyan town of Limuru, where Karanja, who is 58, worked as a driver and Machiria worked odd jobs. In the 1980s, they joined a cooperative and managed to buy a few acres in the lush and cool central highlands.

But the land soon became the object of a dispute between the cooperative and a wealthy adjacent landowner, who claimed the property as his own.

Instead of siding with the small farmers, the Moi government told Machiria, Karanja and the others that they could settle on several dry acres at Oljorai. Instead of titles, they received so-called allotment letters, which have expired.

"If you have nothing, you accept anything," Machiria said.

Oljorai had by then become government land intended for use in resettlement programs to help poor farmers.

But when Machiria and Karanja arrived in 1988, just about the only person with land there was Moi's son and a handful of people who had worked for the Block family.

Piece by piece, the two men transported their lives to Oljorai. They trucked in the timbers and metal sheets for their homes, and Machiria built a water tank to irrigate the dry fields.

Karanja planted a small grove of orange and lemon trees. He sank his life's savings into a generator and an old truck engine he modified to run a mill. He built a wooden gazebo where he and his neighbors, including some who eventually attacked him, often sipped tea on hot afternoons.

"I am feeling very bad in my brain when I remember it," Karanja said. "Even the birds, they were building houses in my trees. That was my happiness."

'Kikuyus Must Go'

Over two decades, the government settled thousands of people at Oljorai. Some were former employees of Moi's; others came for reasons similar to Karanja's and Machiria's. Few have any sort of legal title, meaning they could be swept away again at any time.

Kaitany, the Kalenjin cattle keeper, said he arrived after Moi's government evicted him and his neighbors from better land elsewhere in the Rift Valley. They were given five acres each at Oljorai.

Then last year, Kaitany said, it began to look as if they might all be evicted again.

Officials from Kibaki's government came to Oljorai and began dividing their five-acre plots in half, he said. Those who resisted were beaten and jailed.

"They came and said, 'Whether you like it or not, we're going to subdivide the land,' " said Veronica Kimitei, who was landless before Moi settled her at Oljorai in 1995. "But this is where we belong."

As happened elsewhere in the Rift Valley, that sense of injustice, compounded by accusations that Kibaki had stolen the election, was cast in ethnic terms.

For Kimitei, Kaitany and others, the enemy became not Kibaki's Kikuyu-led government, but the Kikuyus in their midst.

As violence spread across the Rift Valley, so did fears that Kikuyu militias were poised to attack Oljorai.

The people there called a meeting and decided, Kimitei said, that "Kikuyus must go."

It was early morning when the mob came to the farms of Machiria and Karanja with bows and arrows and molotov cocktails.

Machiria was away. But Karanja and his other neighbors ran across the twiggy fields to the closest safe place -- the farm of Moi's son, which always has plenty of security.