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The Rift Valley’s deadly land rows

Fire guts down property that was allegedly set on fire by the rival political supporters during the on going post election violence in Kenya, Eldoret, Kenya. January 2008. Majority of people have been displaced following the post election violence that ha

Kenya's breadbasket Rift Valley Province has experienced some of the worst ethnic clashes since December's disputed polls. But there is nothing new to the violence in this volatile region.

More than 220 people have been killed in the province since the elections, according to police figures, including at least 30, many of them children, who died when the church in which they had sought refuge was torched on 1 January in a village near Eldoret.

Hundreds of homes and farms have been set on fire and recently harvested crops stolen.

The violence has prompted almost 170,000 people to flee to makeshift camps and, for those able to do so, to friends and relatives elsewhere in the country. Others have nowhere to go.

Most of those affected are Kikuyu, the country’s largest and most powerful ethnic group, and that of the controversially re-elected president, Mwai Kibaki.

Long-unresolved issues related to the shifting ownership and tenure of (and large-scale evictions from) the province’s more fertile land tend to erupt into violence around the time of elections as campaigning candidates pledge to correct past “injustices” to win support.

Root of the problem

The roots of the Rift Valley land rows lie with the former colonial power, Britain; post-independence land policies; and the tendency for all things political to be viewed through the lens of ethnicity. Clashes over land use and ownership have been fuelled by politicians for their own benefit since the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1991, say analysts.

Under British rule, vast arable tracts of the Rift Valley were designated as White Highlands, reserved for European settlers. The pastoralist communities, mainly Kalenjin and Maasai, were simply moved away.

UNOSAT map of active fires in a part of Rift Valley Province showing likely areas of post-election arson and clashes, 4 January 2008

In the run-up to independence in 1963, Kenyan political parties argued over whether the land should be returned to the indigenous population under a federalist system of government or kept firmly under the control of a centralised state.

Those who favoured the latter option, in the form of the Kenya African National Union (KANU), which went on to form a government under president Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, prevailed.

KANU “urged central control of the region in an effort to forestall local legislation restricting land transfer to those born in the area and to maintain the foothold of the party's Kikuyu supporters in the Rift Valley land market”, Jennifer Widner explained in her 1992 book, The Rise of A Party-State in Kenya: From "Harambee!" to "Nyayo!"

At independence, many settlers decided to return to Britain. Kenyatta was keen to reassure those who remained and did not repossess their land. Instead, land was bought from those who were willing to sell, using a loan from the British government, and sold to Kenyans.

The Kikuyu fared well from this arrangement. According to Widner, by 1971, more than 50 percent of the acreage under cultivation by large-scale farmers around the Rift Valley town of Nakuru was held by Kikuyu.

This was partly because there was a large Kikuyu squatter population in RVP that had been displaced from neighbouring Central Province by European settlers. Many Kikuyu also lost their land when they took up arms against the colonial regime during the Mau Mau rebellion.

"Using the political and economic leverage available to them during the Kenyatta regime, the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru groups, but especially the Kikuyu, took advantage of the situation and formed many land-buying companies. These companies would, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, facilitate the settlement of hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu in the Rift Valley," wrote Walter Oyugi in Politicised Ethnic Conflict in Kenya: A Periodic Phenomenon.

According to Oyugi, other new entrants included Kisiis, Luos and Luhyas. Foreigners also acquired more than 400,000 hectares of land in the first four years of independence, despite a ban on such transfers, according to Widner.

The province's earlier pastoralist inhabitants, such as the Maasai and groups collectively known as Kalenjin, were quick to protest. In 1969, Jean Marie Seroney, a leading Nandi politician – Nandis are a Kalenjin sub-group – issued the Nandi Hills Declaration, laying claim to all settlement land in the district for the Nandi.

Photo: IRIN
A woman running from a fire started by opposition surporters during the post election violence, Eldoret

His demands went unheeded. Taking a leaf out of the British colonialists’ book, the Kenyatta government used a policy of divide-and-rule to neutralise such opposition by parcelling out land to other ethnic groups and thus winning their allegiance. Daniel arap Moi, the then vice-president who went on to rule Kenya for more than two decades, "secured the settler farms of the Lembus Forest and the Essageri Salient for his own small subgroup in the face of competing bids by the Nandi", explained Widner. Moi is a Tugen, another Kalenjin sub-group.

Land (and votes) for the boys

For decades, corrupt political patronage allowed cabinet ministers and other influential personalities to acquire public or common land in Rift Valley and elsewhere in Kenya, some of which had been used for generations by pastoralist communities.

According to the (2004) Ndung’u Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Illegal/Irregular Allocation of Public Land set up by Kibaki, dozens of politically connected people had been unlawfully allocated public land.

Another source of bitterness has been tendency for large tracts of land in Rift Valley, especially those owned by absentee landlords, or where ownership is disputed, to lie idle.

"Some of the 'telephone farmers' hold that land to get collateral and don't use it. If you drive through Rift Valley, you see a lot of land that is fallow but it belongs to somebody who has a title deed for it. People are not benefiting from that land and so many Kenyans do not have any land to get subsistence crops from," John Oucho, author of Undercurrents of Ethnic Conflicts in Kenya (2002), told IRIN.

Precedents for unrest

In Divide and Rule: State Sponsored Ethnic Violence in Kenya (1993), the NGO Human Rights Watch argued that Moi's government had four main reasons for fostering ethnic clashes: to make a case that a return to multiparty democracy would lead to chaos; to punish Kikuyu, Luo and Luhya voters who were pro-opposition; to terrorise and intimidate non-Kalenjin and non-Maasai into leaving the province so that Kalenjin and Maasai could take over their land; and to support renewed calls for a federal system of government to empower Rift Valley’s original pastoralist inhabitants.

That the state had a direct hand in election-time RVP clashes is well documented in the 1993 Kiliku Report by the Parliamentary Commission on Ethnic Clashes.

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
Internally displaced people arriving at the Nakuru showground to seek shelter after their homes were destroyed in post-election violence

A fresh wave of dispossessions in the province took place even after Kibaki succeeded Moi in 2002, despite Kibaki’s election manifesto promising to assist people displaced from the province during previous clashes.

“Government-sponsored evictions have also aggravated ethnic tensions and in one area, the Mau Forest, led to the displacement of roughly 15,000 people,” according to ‘I am a Refugee in My Own Country’: Conflict-Induced Internal Displacement in Kenya, a report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), a Geneva-based organisation set up by the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Although the evictions were designed to protect water catchment and environmentally sensitive areas, they were “characterised by violence, forced displacement, and other human rights abuses”, according to the report, released in December 2006, which also noted that many of those forcibly moved held legal title deeds.

And while the evictions were recommended in the Ndung’u report, resettlement provisions in the same document have been largely ignored, according to IDMC.

Bishop Cornelius Korir of Eldoret Cathedral, which has been a sanctuary for many of those displaced in Rift Valley since the latest elections, said this inequality must be addressed if there is to be lasting peace in the region.

"You have rich fellows who took chunks of land. You have poor people who have nothing. The gap between the poor and the rich is growing. Most of the people doing violence are young and poor and they are being misused by the leaders. If the structures are not set for equality of distribution, this problem will grow," he warned.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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