The role of land issues in Kenya's rising insecurity

Land issues in Kenya should be addressed meaningfully and conclusively to curb increasing violence and ethnic animosity.

Recent violence in Kenya’s Lamu County left more than 100 people dead and resulted in thousands of people fleeing from their homes. There has been a lack of clarity on the causes of the violence in the area, and Kenyans are yet to know whether terrorist group al-Shabaab or local militias were behind the massacre. In the past 10 years or so, violence has been witnessed in many parts of the country, including the Coast province, Rift Valley, Western and Northern provinces. What has been driving the insecurity in Kenya?

According to a survey conducted by National Crime Research Centre in 2012, there are 46 organised criminal gangs in Kenya. Lack of employment among the youth was seen as a catalyst for their induction into the organised criminal gangs. In addition to unemployment, land issues have also been a significant factor. Some of the criminal gangs include the outlawed Sabaot Land Defense Force, Mungiki and Mombasa Republican Council. Land and continued marginalisation have been at the centre of their grievances.

A recent report by the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) concludes that there is a close link between land injustices and ethnic violence in Kenya. Land-related injustices can take many forms, including the illegal takeover of individual and community-owned land by public and private institutions; members of specific ethnic groups being favoured to benefit from settlement schemes at the expense of others; forceful eviction; and land grabbing by government officials. All post-independence government regimes have failed to address these injustices in an honest and adequate way.

Land has always been a very emotive issue and a source of conflict in Kenya

From the country’s colonial past to the present day, land has always been a very emotive issue and a source of conflict in Kenya. Most of the white settlers established themselves in central Kenya and parts of the Rift Valley, displacing local communities. The political elites took the land from white settlers after independence; still at the expense of the landless original displaced owners. Today, 50% of the arable land in Kenya is in the hands of 20% of the population. Some 13% of Kenyans are landless, while 67% own less than an acre per person.

The colonial period brought with it new European-style political, social and economic policies, which completely altered the African pattern of land use and set in motion competition for land. The Swynnerton Plan of 1954 further complicated the land question after it ignored the realities on the ground while subdividing land to Kenyan families. As this was happening, Mau Mau fighters were in the forest, where they had been fighting since the declaration of a state of emergency in 1952. During this time, the land was divided and dished out; and the Mau Mau came out from the forest only to realise there was no land for them.

No substantial changes were made to the colonial socio-economic system on attainment of independence in 1963. Locally defined problems and solutions were largely ignored or discredited, because they did not fit into the framework of the self-serving economic plans that had been prepared by the new elites. The failure of colonial and post-independent governments to address landlessness has caused individuals and communities to turn to violence.

The remaining Mau Mau joined hands with the landless and moved in groups to settle mostly in the Rift Valley and Coastal provinces of Kenya in government settlement schemes. These schemes were seen as a move by elites to legitimise land acquisition and divert local attention. These two areas in Kenya have continuously witnessed ethnic violence over the years, especially in 2007/08, when more than 1 000 people were killed and thousands fled their homes. Today, some of these are internally displaced people (IDPs) after the post-election violence, patiently waiting for justice through the ongoing International Criminal Court cases. They have nowhere to go; and nowhere to call home.

With natural resources being discovered in various parts of the country, especially oil and gas, Kenyan elites – in collaboration with government officials – have acquired vast areas of land in these areas for speculation.

The new constitution provides an opportunity for redress on land issues

In Turkana, for example, the situation in terms of land ownership and the demographic mix has changed significantly. The changes to the culture and social fabric affect mostly the local community, but this is a time bomb that just keeps ticking. The government, as usual, has remained silent. No one is there to protect the local communities from the ‘investors.’

Following the new discovery of oil and gas in the region, in addition to the The Lamu Port Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) project, interest in land around Lamu has heightened – putting the local communities at risk. Approximately 70% of land in the County, all public land, is finding its way into private ownership, with government officials facilitating the process. This raises more questions than answers. The process through which the 22 companies whose titles were recently revoked by the president ended up acquiring that land, effectively turning the locals into squatters, needs to be clearly investigated, as this might heighten conflict in the region.

To address this recurring problem, which seems to drive the nation towards a failed state, the best strategy will be to begin addressing the land question in Kenya comprehensively. The Lamu case should just be the beginning and not the end. This should be expanded to cover all regions in the country, and should take into account land issues during colonial times, independence as well as the post-independence period.

The land question should be addressed meaningfully and conclusively. The new constitution clearly provides an opportunity for redress on land issues. The National Land Commission needs to move rapidly and all stakeholders – including IDPs and those who lay claim to land based on historical injustices – should be given a platform. Kenyans should avoid politicisation of the land question. Implementing various commissions’ reports – including the TJRC and Ndung’u Land Report – should form the basis of addressing these matters once and for all. This will help bury the ethnic animosity that has caused havoc in this country. The process could be painful, especially to the landed aristocrats, but worth the national unity, peace and reconciliation.

Sebastian Gatimu, Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Nairobi

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