No Quick Fix for What Still Ails
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
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
'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
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
"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
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
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.