The Elephant


Kenya’s Internally Displaced: An Enduring Colonial Legacy

By Betty Guchu

Kenya’s Internally Displaced: An Enduring Colonial Legacy

The long-awaited rains are finally here and yesterday’s dry, cracked black cotton soil that we here call kagenyo has turned into a gluey, slippery mess that sticks three inches thick to the soles of your shoes. I am struggling to keep my sneakers on as I make my way up the path to Wanjĩra’s* homestead.

Wanjĩra greets me at her gate and stands there, not showing any signs of inviting me in. Her handshake is firm and her manner brisk, a big woman in a body fed mainly on stodge. Clearly, Wanjĩra is waiting for me to get to the point of my visit so, in the manner of country people, and to break the ice, I begin by observing that, thank God, the rains are finally here. Wanjĩra turns her head, points her chin at the field behind her wooden cottage and says that she’s wondering whether she should bother to start over again. She had planted the early-maturing Pioneer variety of maize seed in anticipation of the long rains but nothing had come of that and the shoots had died in the ground, beaten down by the unyielding sun. Will the rains be sufficient this time round? There follows an awkward silence; where does one begin when one is intruding on the already difficult lives of those displaced by politically instigated violence?

I had learnt only recently that there were internally displaced people living not five kilometres down the road from me, further inland, and I determined to find out their circumstances, concerned that there could be desperate cases—like those I had found at Shalom—living within my community. That is how I ended up at Wanjĩra’s gate, led there by her orphaned niece, a twenty-something young woman with an infant strapped to her back.

Wanjĩra was born and raised in Londiani, Kericho County. Like many Kikuyus of his generation, Mũreithi, Wanjĩra’s father, had been uprooted from his home in Mũrang’a and moved to a colonial village under the colonial government’s villagisation programme that, by the end of 1955, had “relocated some one million Kikuyu into 804 fortified, policed and concentrated villages from their scattered homesteads that were in turn demolished”. From here, having been fingerprinted and with a mbugi around his neck, “no longer a shepherd but one of the flock”,  Mũreithi was removed from the kiugũ, the cattle pen, as Wanjĩra sardonically described the village, shoved onto the back of a lorry and transported to Londiani on the other side of the country, never again to return to Mũrang’a. Mũreithi’s final destination was a settler’s farm where he earned a monthly wage of two shillings and fifty cents as a farm labourer. He married and brought up Wanjĩra and her siblings on that pittance but was never able to find the wherewithal to buy land of his own when independence came. A son had done well enough to purchase a quarter-acre in Karamton, Nyandarua County, and this is where Mũreithi was buried when he died.

Born in 1958 and now with a family of her own, Wanjĩra worked in the Londiani Forest planting trees in exchange for permission to grow crops in the clearings, while also slowly building up a herd of 38 cattle that she would graze in the forest. But the violence that broke out following the 2007 general election would prove to be the final straw for Wanjĩra and her family; she and her husband gathered up their eight children and fled Londiani. When the couple married, Wanjĩra’s father-in-law had made room on his one-acre piece of land for the couple to establish a home and raise a family. But beginning in early 1992, the family’s hold on life became increasingly tenuous as the clashes that broke out in late 1991 in Tinderet in Nandi District spread like wild fire to Londiani and other parts of the Rift Valley. The family hunkered down and survived the onslaught but found their lives once again threatened by the politically motivated ethnic violence that followed in the wake of the December 1997 elections. They survived that spate of violence too and carried on with their lives.

But a decade later, starting in April of 2007, Wanjĩra says that they began receiving anonymous written demands that they move away or face certain death. Living under constant threat of violence took its toll on Wanjĩra’s parents-in-law and both died within months of each other. Hardly were they buried on their one acre but Wanjĩra and her Kikuyu neighbours were surrounded by hostile youths blowing cow horns and wielding bows and arrows. The herd she had so painstakingly built over time was driven away before her very eyes and her home was razed to the ground. Wanjĩra and her family fled without a backward glance, her husband with three arrow wounds in his side.

A decade later, starting in April of 2007, Wanjĩra says that they began receiving anonymous written demands that they move away or face certain death.

Unlike the many displaced who ended up at the Nakuru Show Ground where disease was rife and the hardship beyond endurance, Wanjĩra and her husband took their family to Gatundu North. Someone had told them that they could live and grow their food inside Kieni Forest in exchange for providing labour to plant trees. From 2008 to 2013, the family joined those who had moved into the forest following the 1992 clashes, living under plastic sheeting in a river valley inside the forest, co-existing with marauding elephants as best they could until the government sent in the General Service Unit to evict them. Following a stand-off, the 805 families squatting in the forest were eventually paid 400,000 shillings each by the government in lieu of land, and it is this payment that enabled Wanjĩra and her husband, together with four other families that had also taken refuge in Kieni Forest, to buy land in Ndaragwa in Nyandarua County.

Like much of the land in this part of Nyandarua County that borders Laikipia East, the land on which Wanjĩra and her family finally settled had been occupied by a British settler in colonial times. The 3,400-acre ranch was eventually sold in 1964 to a group of Kenyans who ran it commercially for almost two decades, growing wheat and keeping livestock, before they subdivided the land among themselves. Over time, some of the owners have further subdivided their farms, bequeathing the parcels to their offspring or selling them to those like Wanjĩra’s family looking for land on which to (re)settle.

Just a kilometre or so down the road from Wanjĩra’s homestead, one such landowner sold some 30 acres of his land to the government to be subdivided amongst victims of the 2007/2008 post-election violence, each family receiving two and a quarter acres. Waithiageni does not know exactly how old she is. Ndiathomire, she tells me, I did not go to school. But she thinks she was about eight years old when her father moved the family from Mũrang’a to what was then Kisumu District. Waithiageni’s father had left his family behind and moved to Nakuru to work on a settler’s farm. Come independence, he applied to be resettled on the Koru Settlement Scheme and moved his family there.

Waithiageni now lives by herself in a corrugated iron shack by the side of a dusty track, having been chased off her father’s 20 acres at Koru and losing her only son in the 2007/2008 post-election chaos. To survive, the now elderly Waithiageni depends on casual work, when it can be found, and on the kindness of her neighbour Nyagũthiĩ, a mother of two grown-up daughters who escaped the violence at Londiani in late 2007.

A government vehicle dropped Waithiageni and her neighbours off in this shrubland in 2014, leaving them to get on as best as they could with no shelter and nowhere to relieve themselves. The closest source of water is a trek downhill to the Pesi River, the nearest school miles away and the health centre further beyond. No matatu comes this way and a boda boda ride to the trading centre along the Nyeri-Nyahururu road will set you back 300 shillings, a day’s wage in these parts. The 25,000 shillings they had each received to build a home and the 10,000 shillings start-up capital did not stretch far enough and eight of the twelve families left within the year to find a more hopeful livelihood elsewhere.

Kenya is a state party to the Great Lakes Pact, one of the few international agreements that address displacement in a comprehensive and holistic manner. Kenya domesticated the Pact’s Protocol on the Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons through an act of parliament on 31 December 2012. It establishes a legal framework for the protection of IDPs through the incorporation of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement into domestic law.

A government vehicle dropped Waithiageni and her neighbours off in this shrubland in 2014, leaving them to get on as best as they could with no shelter and nowhere to relieve themselves.

Specifically, Section 9 of the IDP Act foresees that “The Government shall create the conditions for and provide internally displaced persons with a durable and sustainable solution in safety and dignity. . .” and that, among others, the following conditions for durable solutions shall apply: long-term safety and security; enjoyment of an adequate standard of living without discrimination; access to employment and livelihoods; and access to effective mechanisms that restore housing, land and property.

In November 2013, Nelson Ributhi Gaichuhie, then Chairperson of the Departmental Committee on Administration and National Security, made a statement in parliament to the effect that the government had fully complied with Section 9 (3) of the IDP Act, saying that those affected had been provided with relief food and decent housing. However, to put it in Kenyan parlance, things on the ground are different. Eight years after they were dumped by the government in their new “home”, Wathiageni and her neighbours still live in what can only be described as hovels lacking even the most basic of amenities. Eight long years on, the government has yet to undertake the necessary surveying to allow for subdivision of the land into individual parcels and so, unable to work their land, and without title, they live huddled together on a bare patch by the roadside, walking miles each day in search of casual labour on other people’s farms.

As for Wanjĩra’s family, the 400,000 shillings that it finally received in compensation was just about enough money to buy two acres of land and put up a small wooden structure to house the family of ten. After years of ill health compounded by the hellish living conditions in Kieni Forest, Wanjĩra’s husband died in 2016 and was buried on his land. Her first-born son followed soon after. Her seven surviving children are now grown and two have established their homes on the family’s land. Wanjĩra says that, having lost everything in Londiani, rebuilding what the family lost without resources seems like an insurmountable challenge. On a neighbouring farm is a neatly tended field with onions planted in zai pits. Wanjĩra tells me the land is leased by a farmer with the means to bring water up from the Pesi River about a kilometre away. Wanjĩra hasn’t those means; she must wait for the rains.

The second of the Great Lakes Pact’s ten protocols that is particularly relevant to the internally displaced is the Protocol on the Property Rights of Returning Persons that requires member states to provide legal protection for the property of the displaced and establish legal principles on the basis of which they are able to recover their property. But while the IDP Act requires it to ensure “access to effective mechanisms that restore housing, land and property”, the government appears to have thrown in the towel even before it has started. The following statement from Gaichuhie to parliament makes clear that the government has no plans to ensure that those who lost land and property recover them or are adequately compensated:

“Some of them have title deeds. Very few of them have not been able to go back to where they were living. But I can tell you that most of the IDPs were business people in major towns. That is why the Government has decided that rather than wait to buy land and give it to somebody who had a big supermarket in town, it would give such individuals Kshs400,000 to start businesses. So, not all the IDPs had land. Some of them were businessmen. Some had land for which they did not have title deeds”

The IDP Act became operational in 2013 but the constitution of the National Consultative Co-ordination Committee (NCCC), the body tasked with implementing the Act, was only gazetted in October 2014 and the Chair of the committee appointed in November 2014. Patrick Githinji, who had been appointed to the committee as one of the two IDP representatives foreseen in Section 12 (3)(i) of the Act, and with whom I spoke at length on the 3rd of August 2022, explains that the committee commenced its work in April 2015, and its first task was to vet the internally displaced still living in 65 camps across the country with a view to compensating them and shutting down the camps. This task was accomplished by mid-2016 and—with the exception of Muhu Camp in Nyandarua County and Donga Farm in Subukia in Nakuru County, because the land bought by the government for the resettlement of these IDPs is in dispute—all the camps were closed and 11,000 households were paid 200,000 shillings each, the government having argued that it could no longer afford the 400,000 shillings it had paid to Wanjĩra’s family and others in 2014.

While the IDP Act requires it to ensure “access to effective mechanisms that restore housing, land and property”, the government seems to have thrown in the towel even before it has started.

The next task of the committee was to ensure the compensation of the so-called Integrated IDPs (that is, those living dispersed among communities, whether with relatives or friends or in rented accommodation in urban or peri-urban areas) who numbered 193,000 households according to government records. They were offered a paltry 10,000 shillings in compensation which they turned down. Further negotiations raised the sum to 50,000 shillings but in the end, the government reviewed the list, reducing the number of integrated IDPs to be compensated to 83,000 households. Of these, 30,000 households were never paid, the government having recalled the funds from the disbursing banks. As it turns out, Wanjĩra and Waithiageni are the lucky ones.

According to an undated confidential report of the Refugee Consortium of Kenya available online, the NCCC is no longer operational. This is confirmed by Githinji who says that although the term of the first NCCC was to end in December 2017, by September of that year the NCCC secretariat had been shut down and seconded staff recalled to their respective ministries.

Together with other members of the National IDPs Network-Kenya, Githinji eventually petitioned the Senate in October 2020, alleging that there were attempts to repeal the IDP Act. In their petition, the group also claimed that land bought by the government to resettle IDPs had been illegally allocated to non-IDPs or grabbed by individuals, and that many IDPs continue to languish in makeshift tents. They also accused the government of refusing to release the funds due to Integrated IDPs because of identification errors introduced into the records by the government’s own officials, and lamented that there was no government authority at whose door they could lay these claims.

Further negotiations raised the sum to 50,000 shillings but in the end, the government reviewed the list, reducing the number of integrated IDPs to be compensated to 83,000 households.

Upon receipt of the petition, the Senate invited the group to appear before the Senate Committee on Lands, Environment and Natural Resources chaired by Sen. Mwangi Githiomi in November 2020, where, following a two-hour meeting, they were advised to table a fresh petition using the Senate’s guidelines. This they did and it was agreed that the group would again meet with the Senate Committee after the Christmas recess, in February 2021. They have no news since.

By the time the IDP Act was enacted in December 2012, another 112,000 people had joined the ranks of the internally displaced, followed by a further 55,000 in 2013, over 220,000 in 2014 and over 216,000 by mid-2015 (even as the NCCC was finally sitting down to its task), most of them victims of inter-communal violence. Meanwhile, as recently as October 2021, members of the National IDPs Network-Kenya were appealing to President Uhuru Kenyatta to finalise the resettlement and compensation process for those IDPs that were forced to flee their homes in 2007/2008 before the end of his term. Both President Kenyatta and his Deputy William Ruto had made numerous promises on the campaign trail in the run-up to the March 2013 general election—while facing charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in the Hague—that all the displaced would be resettled within the first 100 days of their administration if they were elected.

In the face of government inaction, some of the Integrated IDPs who were denied compensation in 2017 have converged on Kianjogu, in Laikipia County, occupying land that was purchased by the government for IDP resettlement but never subdivided. They arrived in March/April of this year from Nyeri, Nairobi, Uasin Gishu and other counties across the country and are living in Kianjogu much as they did when they were first forced to flee their homes, massed together in unsanitary conditions and refusing to yield to threats from the government.

It would appear that the IDP Act was cynically enacted for the sole purpose of creating a vehicle—the NCCC—to facilitate the closure of the tens of camps strewn across the country and disband their residents; out of sight out of mind. If that is the case, then the government has circumvented its duty not only to address the plight of generations of IDPs, but to also provide assistance and protection to the newly displaced, and to put in place structures and measures to prevent further internal displacement. The outgoing government of Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto has instead chosen to perpetuate the generational suffering of Kenyans who were first forcibly evicted or were caused to leave their homes by the brutal and inhumane rule of the British colonial government.

Over the century since the Maasai were forcibly removed from their lands in the central Rift Valley in 1904/1905 to make way for white settlers, successive regimes have overseen the destitution of hundreds of thousands of Kenyan families. In the post-independence era, many have been forced to leave their homes by politically instigated violence where community is set against community, or by drought, famine, man-made disasters such as the Solai Dam tragedy and development-induced displacement. These hundreds of thousands of our co-citizens exist in the shadow of our lives and many lie in unmarked graves awaiting increasingly illusive justice.

The new government must, therefore, and with great urgency, operationalize the IDP Act and revive and properly reconstitute the NCCC so that it can continue with the arduous task of ensuring that durable and sustainable solutions are found for all the internally displaced. In finally beginning to properly address the plight of the internally displaced, the incoming government will not be without resources: in particular, a policy paper drawn up by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre dissects the IDP Act and makes concrete recommendations that, if applied, will equip the nation with an internal displacement response system that is fully operational.

It is unacceptable that over the almost sixty years of Kenya’s independence, successive leaders have built on the colonial legacy of dispossession and destitution of Kenyans. Whoever takes the helm after the 9 August general election must find the moral courage to put an end to the suffering of these Kenyans who, as much as anyone else in this country, have a right to expect a life lived in safety and in dignity.


Published by the good folks at The Elephant.

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