Log into your member account to listen to this article. Not a member? Join the herd.

Even as the August 2022 general election approaches, the land question remains unanswered. And with the uncertainty as to who will win the presidency, which remains the centre of power despite devolution following the enactment of the 2010 Constitution, many Kenyans who migrated to the Rift Valley are anxious.

Already, there are land invasions in parts of Laikipia, a county in the Rift Valley, targeting the farms of migrant communities and those of White settlers.

In July, the media reported that herders had driven hundreds of livestock into private ranches, sparking protests from ranch owners in Rumuruti, Mugie, Laikipia Nature Conservancy and Suiyan.

According to Laikipia County Commissioner Daniel Nyameti, the herders were from the neighbouring Baringo, Samburu and Isiolo counties in search of water and pasture for their livestock.

While the invasions were—as in previous years—blamed on prolonged drought in the neighbouring counties, there seems to be a pattern that often leads to deadly conflicts.

In the mix is bad politics, land grievances and unresolved historical land injustices. “The invasions of ranches and farms and the resultant conflict have a historical and cultural context. The herders are most of the time used to invade Laikipia with the aim of driving out land owners and ranchers and claim land for themselves,” Rumuruti resident Charles Kimani told the Nation in July.

“Politicians sometimes provide arms to the morans and pay them to raid and occupy land. This is not about pastoralists escaping drought, because sometimes even after it rains, they still remain here. This is forcible occupation of land that belongs to other people,” Kimani added.

As has been the case before, the security forces intervened.

On 28 July 2021, Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i gave the herders one week to leave the farms or face forceful evictions by the police. “We are preparing a serious crackdown. It’ll be ruthless and merciless, and I plead with all illegal herders to move out within the period,” CS Matiang’i said at the Anti-Stock Theft Unit camp in Naibor in Laikipia County, where he was accompanied by the Inspector General of Police Hillary Mutyambai.

Matiang’i also appeared to blame local politicians for the violence saying, “We must put an end to this balkanization. We will not allow wananchi to be hurt due to political positions. We will immediately arrest those encouraging election rearrangements through forced movements.”

Former Laikipia North MP Mathew Lempurkel has been arrested by police on several occasions for inciting his community to invade private land to graze their animals. In 2017 Lempurkel was arrested following the murder of Tristan Voorspuy, a dual Kenyan/British national, was killed as he visited a site where two cottages had been set ablaze on the Sosian Ranch of which he was co-owner.

On 29 July Narok Senator Ledama Olekina, who comes from the pastoralist Maasai community, tweeted, “Good Morning @FredMatiangi you cannot order our people out of their ancestral lands! Those Ranchers -mostly colonials and former Government official stole our lands and you know that! Saying you will buy out own cows to ease pressure on pasture is killing our economy! No way!”

“When I become President of Kenya . . .  no single person will own more than 1,000 acres of land. All ranches in Laikipia will revert back to the original owners! Neocolonialism will end!” Olekina added.

The senator lamented that the Maasai of Laikipia have been made landless by the “British colonial and neocolonialism as well as their own government orchestrated by CS Fred Matiang’i who makes colonialists look more like philanthropists.”

The recurrent land clashes in Laikipia are just but part of a bigger problem.

Colonial land theft

The problem started with the stealing of land in the fertile areas referred to as the “White Highlands” by the British colonialists. Between 1902 and 1961, the colonial government reserved these areas exclusively for Europeans. They included Machakos, Nairobi, Thika, Mt Kenya region, Laikipia, Naivasha, Nakuru, Kericho, Sotik, Lumbwa, Songhor, Nandi, Uasin Gishu, Trans Nzoia and Mt Elgon.

How it happened

Towett J. Kimaiyo explains Kenya’s land policy since the colonial period in his book, Ogiek Land Cases and Historical Injustices 1902 – 2004. Kenya was declared a British Protectorate on 15 June 1895, which conferred on the British Crown political jurisdiction over the land from the Coast to the Rift Valley.

“Beyond that, the declaration of Protectorate did not confer any rights over land in the territory. Any rights over the land would have to be on the basis of conquest, agreement, treaty or sale with the indigenous people,” Kimaiyo writes.

But to overcome the problem of title to land in the territory, in 1899 the law officers of the crown advised that the Foreign Jurisdiction Act of 1890, which empowered the crown to control and dispose waste and unoccupied land with no settled forms of government and where land had been appropriated to the local sovereign individuals, be effected.

In 1901 the East African (Lands) ordinance-in-council was enacted conferring on the Commissioner of the Protectorate (later named Governor) the power to dispose of all public lands on such terms and conditions as he might think fit, Kimaiyo explains.

In effect, the land—now referred to as Crown Land—was vested in the Commissioner in trust for the British Crown.

The Crown Land Ordinance of 1902 followed suit and empowered the Commissioner to sell up 1,000 acres of Crown land in freehold to any person, or grant leases of 99 years, extended to 999 years in 1915.

The problem started with the stealing of land in the fertile areas referred to as the “White Highlands” by the British colonialists.

As a result, between 1902 and 1915, about 7.5 million acres—20 per cent of the best and most fertile land in Kenya—was reserved for the settlers as Crown Property.

In his book Kenya: A History Since Independence, Charles Hornsby explains that many of the first settlers came from the British aristocracy and military, accustomed to command, and with deeply engrained prejudices against foreigners.

“These imperial settlers were convinced that they were the natural rulers of Kenya (as of everywhere else) and that Africans were their feudal subjects,” writes Hornsby. He further observes that the inhabitants, many of them Kikuyu, resisted colonial rule but the colonialists employed large-scale violence.

History informs that between 1895 and 1908 other communities in the White Highlands, among them the Gusii, the Nandi, the Luhya, the Luo and the Teso, resisted colonial occupation. Colonialization displaced many inhabitants in the “White Highlands”, while others sold their parcels while understanding that they were merely ceding the right to use of the land.

Interestingly, the Maasai did not really resist. Why is this?

Hornsby says that 30 years before the arrival of the British colonialists, the Maasai had suffered drought, wars, and outbreaks of smallpox and rinderpest, which depopulated their land in Central Rift Valley and killed most of their cattle. They thus gave in to the colonialists and even became mercenaries for the British alongside the Kamba and the Luhya Wanga, finds Hornsby. The Maasai lost the entire Central Rift Valley.

According to John M. Lonsdale in The Politics of Conquest: the British in Western Kenya, 1894–1908, three-quarters of the alienated lands had been Maasai-controlled until 1890.

Hornsby says the British signed controversial land agreements with the Maasai, most of whom were illiterate, alienating them for colonial settlements. One of these agreements was the infamous Maasai Agreement of August 1904, a treaty signed by the colonial government and Maasai elders. The Maasai ceded possession of pastures in the Central Rift Valley in return for exclusive rights to a southern reserve in Kajiado and a northern reserve in Laikipia.

Many of the first settlers came from the British aristocracy and military, accustomed to command, and with deeply engrained prejudices against foreigners.

“The British moved the Maasai of Nakuru and Naivasha north to Laikipia ‘in perpetuity’. In 1911-13, to extend white farms and ranching north, the governor drove all 10,000 Maasai from Uasin Gishu, Trans Nzoia, Laikipia and Nakuru into the southern Maasai reserve, which later became Kajiado and Narok districts.”

“Both deportations were justified by agreements with [illiterate] Maasai elders but were repudiated later as having been signed under duress,” Hornsby finds.

This is what Senator Olekina means when he says the Laikipia land belongs to the Maasai. Settlers who remain in Laikipia still own large tracts of land of this alienated land.

The black colonialist

Wĩyathi na Ithaka (independence and Forests [land]) was the rallying call of the Mau Mau, the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru (Gema) resistance movement against the British.

In his Mau Mau song, Wĩyathi na Ithaka, popular Benga artist Joseph Kamaru’s says,

Our people let us join hands, this country is ours and it is our share/ µGod shower us with blessings/We don’t mind being captured, being detained, being displaced, being taken to peripheries/ But we will never stop agitating for our independence until this land sees the light/ This is a black man’s land and our hope is independence.

Therefore, when Kenya became independent in 1963, there was hope among the inhabitants, particularly those who had fought against the colonialists, that they would get their land back.

They were disappointed.

Once he became President, Jomo Kenyatta betrayed the cause of restitution and redistribution of land.

In his paper, History of Land Conflicts in Kenya, Peter Veit notes that Kenyatta maintained the system of freehold land titles and did not question how the land had been acquired. Individual private ownership rights continued to derive from the president just as in colonial times.

“Government programmes to systematically adjudicate rights and register land titles persisted and continued to undermine customary tenure systems. After independence, much of the colonial-era “Crown Land” was categorized as government land. The native reserves became Trust land, but were still governed by statutory trustees—the County Councils and the Commissioner of Lands—rather than directly by traditional institutions,” he writes.

The Kenyatta government also established the Settlement Fund Trustees to facilitate the purchase and distribution of settler farms to landless Kenyans.

The high-density settlements provided some land to landless households, but the schemes were based on a market system and principally benefited Kenyans with the financial means to purchase land, Veit observes.

This, consequently, led to the commercialization of land, inequality, corruption and the continued dispossession of those who were displaced by the colonial government. This is because those who had customarily owned the land did not have access to the necessary capital, or were rightfully against the idea of buying land they had owned.

And those who bought such land—in the Rift Valley for instance —were viewed as foreigners. These were the landless Kikuyu, Luhya, Kamba and Kalenjin who sought settlement in the under-utilised areas in the Rift Valley, the Eastern region and at the Coast.

This was the beginning of displacement under the Jomo Kenyatta regime.

It is important to note here that during the negotiations for Kenya’s independence, Kenyatta accepted the colonialists’ demands that the White settlers remain on their farms if they wished to and that land be transferred only on the basis of “willing buyer, willing seller”.

After independence, land acquisition was largely through four methods: “willing buyer, willing seller”, settlement schemes, shirika schemes (cooperative or collective farms) and land buying companies.

Settlers who remain in Laikipia still own large tracts of land of this alienated land.

These methods, Hornsby says, favoured the Kikuyu because they were richer, had easier access to loans and had more leaders in the high echelons of government. They settled primarily in Nakuru and Uasin Gishu.

Mwalimu Mati of Mars Group, one of Kenya’s leading anti-corruption and fiscal transparency watchdogs, told The Guardian that the root cause of Kenya’s land crisis is that the land was not bought by the people who lost it but by the Kikuyu elite of the time.

“That was the situation in Central Province where the Kikuyu came from. Kenyatta then settled the poor landless Kikuyu in the Rift Valley on land that had belonged to the Kalenjin,” Mati said in February 2008 at the height of the post-election violence, which was largely blamed on land grievances.

Kenyatta allowed politicians and civil servants to buy farms in Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia from the Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC) which acquired and continued to buy farms from the settlers, further contributing to inequalities in land ownership. The Ndung’u Land Report lists the ADC lands that were allocated illegally on pages 134-135.

The wealthy Gema elite, most of them in the Kenyatta government, continued to acquire the good and fertile land, triggering protests from locals, particularly the Kipsigis. Kipsigis MP Moses arap Keino is on record saying in 1973 that the Ministry of Lands and Settlement had become the Ministry of Settling the Rich. The Minister of Lands and Settlement between 1963 and 1979 was Jackson Angaine from Meru.

Kenyatta, too, bought large tracks of land.

“Kenyatta himself illegally acquired large tracts of settlement land. By 1989, “incomers” comprised 35% of the Rift Valley population. Other ethnic groups were outraged, a source of long-term ethnic animosities,” Veit writes.

The Guardian 2008 article reported,

The extended Kenyatta family alone owns an estimated 500,000 acres (2,000 sq. km). That represents a large chunk of the 28m acres (113,000 sq. km) of arable land in Kenya. The remaining 80% of the country is mostly semi-arid and arid land. The Kenya Land Alliance says more than half the arable land in the country is in the hands of only 20% of the population. Two-thirds of the people own, on average, less than an acre per person. There are 13% who own no land at all.

What were the implications?

More and more Kenyans were rendered landless and became squatters. Those who were economically able joined hands to buy their own land back from British settlers through the aforementioned means. Settlements became popular in the Rift Valley, the Coast region and Central Kenya.

In their Promised Land: Settlement Schemes in Kenya, 1962 to 2016, Catherine Boone, Fibian Lukalo and Sandra F. Joireman identify 73 schemes in the former Coast Province, 32 in Eastern Province, and 13 in Nakuru in Rift Valley Province.

They include Cherangani, Kabisi, Lugari, Kipkaren, Ndalal, Elgeyo Border, Lesos and Keben, Ainabkoi East, West and North, Kibigori, Muhoroni and Tamu, East Sotik, Sabatia, Kilombe, Ol Kalou, Wanjohi, Malewa and Kipipiri areas, South Kinangop and Njabini, Eburu, Mweiga/Amboni, Naro Moru and Warazo, Island Farms, Maragwa Ridge, Sigona Estates and Machakos (Mua Hills, Koma Rock and Lukenya).

Peasant farmers also saved and pooled resources together to buy shares in companies that bought land from settlers. Among them was Ngwataniro-Mutukanion Land Buying Company led by former Nakuru MP Kihika Kimani.

Coast region

Land as a historical injustice at the Coast is always an issue on the Kenyan presidential campaign trail during elections.

The land in the region was first grabbed by the Arabs, later by the British and by powerful individuals in post-independence governments, particularly that of Kenyatta.

“In 1970s, to help move ownership of these [beach] plots to Africans, Kenyatta issued a presidential edict that barred the sale of all beach plots without his permission. The result was to move control of these assets entirely into presidential favour, a process administered by Coast PC [Provincial Commissioner] Eliud Mahihu who could decide who could and could not buy coastal plots,” writes Hornsby.

The beach plots were taken over by top government officials, including Kenyatta, further dispossessing the inhabitants.

Quoting the Sunday Times, Hornsby says Mama Ngina bought land at the Coast to build two hotels, while Kenyatta built Leopard Beach Hotel, “which was registered in a Swiss company’s name”. In 1972, it was revealed that the Mombasa County Council had waived all rates on companies and properties owned by the Kenyatta family. 

PC Mahihu owed the Bahari Beach Hotel, while Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner Isaiah Mathenge owned The Coral Beach Hotel.

“The extended Kenyatta family alone owns an estimated 500,000 acres (2,000 sq. km). That represents a large chunk of the 28m acres (113,000 sq. km) of arable land in Kenya.”

Kenyatta also acquired large sisal farms in Taveta in 1972 jointly with the Greek Criticos family, pushing more inhabitants to become squatters.

In 2016, the Kenyatta family “voluntarily gave out” 2,000 acres of “its land” to squatters in Taita Taveta (essentially returning or relinquishing land to the original owners).

Reacting to the move, Raila Odinga—then Opposition leader and now President Uhuru Kenyatta’s ally—said the president should issue more than 2,000 acres.

According to Fr Gabriel Dolan, a human rights activist, hundreds of families were evicted from Gicheha farm in 2018 —land believed to be the property of the Kenyatta family—and resettled on adjacent land popularly known as Sir Ramson land. This became the Ziwani Settlement Scheme in Taveta Sub-county.

There is also the unpopular Lake Kenyatta Settlement Scheme formed in 1973 in the Coast region.

By 1979, Lamu District – now Lamu County – had an 80 per cent population increase, among them nearly 10,000 Kikuyu (including ex-Mau Mau veterans), says Hornsby. The indigenous Bajuni ended up becoming the minority as the Kikuyu became more influential economically and politically.

In a brief for the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, David M. Anderson notes that this caused tension between the immigrants and the indigenous local community during the 2013 elections.

“Candidates representing the outsiders at Mpeketoni did well, supported by a well-financed campaign. Local Bajuni feared that their interest might be sacrificed to the entrepreneurial skills of these outsiders,” Anderson writes in Why Mpeketoni Matters: al-Shabaab and violence in Kenya.

A year later, in June 2014, came the Mpeketoni attack in which at least 60 people, mostly men, were massacred by al-Shabaab militants.

The Ministry of Lands and Settlement had become the Ministry of Settling the Rich.

Anderson writes, “Mpeketoni was a legitimate target. The victims were not Muslim, and none were local Bajuni people: those killed were Kikuyu from the far-distant highlands of central Kenya, members of families that had come to Mpeketoni in the early 1970s, taking up land on a government settlement scheme. Mostly Christian, they were in every respect “outsiders” in this coastal district.”

It was not the first spate of violence in the area. In the run-up to the 1997 elections, violence erupted at the Coast, killing over 100 people and displacing over 100,000, mostly pro-opposition up-country people. At the time, the Kikuyu were in the opposition.

Incidents of violence sparked by the land issue are arguably a consequence of these inequalities, grabbing and disenfranchisement. And while the violence that followed in the wake of the 2007 election is widely viewed as the worst, the 1992 land clashes were in reality far worse.

In those clashes that took place between late 1991 and December 1992, at the height of the general election, some 5,000 people were killed and another 75,000 displaced in the Rift Valley Province, with the Molo area being the epicentre of the violence.

According to the Kenya Human Rights Commission, between 1991 and 1996, over 15,000 people died and almost 300,000 were displaced in the Rift Valley, Nyanza and Western Provinces by politically instigated violence.

The clashes were largely between the Kalenjin and the Kikuyu, with land ownership cited as one of the key triggers.

Commissions of Inquiry

After he came to power in 2002, President Mwai Kibaki, who won the election on an anti-corruption platform, formed the [Paul] Ndung’u Land Commission, a Commission of Inquiry into the Illegal/Irregular Allocation of Public Land, in June 2003.

In its report, the Ndung’u Land Commission found that President Kenyatta and his successor, Daniel arap Moi, who had been his Vice-President, abused their presidential powers by grabbing land and that there had been “unbridled plunder”.

The 20-member commission found that in many instances, presidents Kenyatta and Moi made land grants to individuals without any consideration of the public interest, for political reasons, and without proper pursuit of legal procedures, whilst there was also extensive illegal allocation of alienated land. An accusing finger was also pointed at Commissioners of Land for various illegalities.

Among other recommendations, the commission directed that all illegal allocations of public utility land be nullified, and that such lands be repossessed and restored to the purpose for which they were intended and the culprits be prosecuted.

The report is yet to be implemented.

The report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) also found that the colonial administration used irregular and/or illegal methods to acquire land from the Kenyan inhabitants.

It was revealed that the Mombasa County Council had waived all rates on companies and properties owned by the Kenyatta family.

The report also found that top officials in the post-independence government of President Kenyatta turned the settlement schemes into cartels for their own benefit.

The report said the officials bought land in the Rift Valley, and in other parts of the so-called White Highlands, and in the process swindled communities that were supposed to benefit from the settlement schemes after having been displaced by the British.

It also identified the “willing buyer, willing seller” policy as one that exacerbated the problem.

The TJRC found that there is a close link between land injustices and ethnic violence in Kenya, and that the failure by successive governments to address landlessness has caused individuals and communities to turn to violence. Landlessness has in previous cases, such as in 1992 and 2007, been used as a political tool, causing further displacements.

The TJRC report was published in May 2013 and tabled in the National Assembly in July 2013 but there has not been any substantive progress, mainly because of lack of political will and also because those identified as responsible for the injustices are politicians occupying top government positions.