Bad politics fuelled clashes in Rift Valley

Since the outbreak of post-election violence in Rift Valley, numerous reports in the local newspapers have claimed that the root cause of the conflict is ‘‘the land question.’’

But, without exception, these reports fail to inform and educate precisely because of their misrepresentation of history.

Given the scale and the urgency of the current crisis and its repeated association with the so-called ‘‘land question,’’ it is time for a complete unpacking of the history behind colonial and post-colonial settlement in the white highlands.

Only then will we determine with certainty whether land is at the centre of the ongoing systematic evictions in the Rift Valley.

The first argument that is normally presented is that the North Rift region (Uasin Gishu, Trans Nzoia, Nandi and West Pokot districts) exclusively constitutes the ancestral land of the supra-ethnic group we have come to term ‘‘the Kalenjin’’ i.e. the Nandi, Keiyo, Pokot, Tugen, Marakwet and Kipsigis.

A quick etymology of geographical names in the North Rift region such as Uasin Gishu, Eldoret, Sirikwa, Kipkarren confirms that the Maasai long lived in and named these places.

Indeed, it is the Maasai who were displaced from these lands by the colonialists and, therefore, any question of restitution to ancestral owners -- if at all it can be achieved -- must, of necessity, be resolved with the full inclusion of the Maasai.

In the early 1900s, colonial settlement in Central Kenya displaced many Kikuyu families. In their search for productive agricultural land, many of these families gradually moved west through Kijabe and into the Rift Valley. At the same time, white settlers moving into the Rift Valley aggressively recruited Kikuyu farmhands from Central Kenya who became their tenants at will. Between 1904 and 1920, 70,000 Kikuyus had migrated to the Rift Valley.

By the end of the 1930s that community had grown to more than 150,000 many of whom were second and third generation Rift Valley Kikuyus.

In 1941 the first government re-settlement scheme for Africans was established in Olenguruone, north of Nakuru, and it absorbed many of the Kikuyu squatters who were being driven out by their white landlords.

But the larger majority of the Kikuyu, numbering over 100,000, were forcibly repatriated to Central Kenya between 1946 and 1952.

Million Acre Scheme

The eviction of the Kikuyu from Olenguruone in the late 1940s and early 1950s made room for a new government initiated settlement of Africans in the white highlands. This 1955 settlement was conceived for purposes of benefiting loyal African farm hands.

Given that this re-settlement was taking place at the height of the Mau Mau uprising, the colonial authorities were quick to exclude the Kikuyu people from this scheme.

The question of loyalty was to determine another pattern of settlement in the run-up to independence and soon thereafter -- some departing white farmers chose to give their parcels to trusted farm hands.

This is the history behind the ownership of farms running to hundreds and even thousands of acres by some people of Teso origin in Trans Nzoia District.

The third wave of African settlement in the white highlands was the Million Acre Scheme which began in 1963.

On the eve of independence, the departing colonialists negotiated a scheme by which white settlers were bought out of their farms by the in-coming Kenya Government.

The money for this purchase was made available as a loan by the British Government hence the acrimonious dispute that pitted Jomo Kenyatta against Bildad Kaggia and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.

The argument of the latter two nationalists was that there was no justification for a people to buy that which had been forcibly taken from them.

The vehicle that the independent Kenya Government used to facilitate the acquisition and subsequent distribution of these lands was the Settlement Fund Trustees (SFT). SFT was a separate legal entity whose trustees were government ministers.

It is important to note that the SFT exists to this day and the records of all their transactions from 1963 to date, including those allocations that were made during President Moi’s reign, are available for perusal at the Ministry of Lands.

Through the 1960s and 1970s the SFT would, through the local dailies and village barazas, advertise and invite applications for allocation of land in recently created settlement schemes.

As individuals responded to the advertisements and applied for allocation of land, grassroots leadership and enterprise were ultimately critical to the ways in which communities organised to make the best of the emergent SFT opportunities.

Capitalists who conceived this scheme mobilised low income earners for the purchase of large scale white-owned farms. They set up land buying companies which became the vehicles through which they raised capital from the masses and then acquired farms that were being offered for sale on a willing-buyer willing-seller basis.

Political expediency

Alongside land-buying companies in the willing-buyer willing-seller resettlement model, were transactions between departing white settlers and individual members of the emergent African elite. This class had access to funding from the Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC) and was drawn from across the ethnic divide.

The wrath of the Kalenjin peoples over what they consider the appropriation of their ancestral lands is not a new phenomenon, neither does it have its roots in the 1991/1992 ‘‘land clashes.’’

As far back as 1969, Mr Jean Marie Seroney, then MP for Tinderet, had drawn controversy when he authored ‘‘The Nandi Declaration’’ that demanded all non-Nandis to vacate the ancestral land of this sub-tribe. The Kenyatta government reacted by imprisoning Seroney.

Borrowing from Kenyatta’s example of using land to reward cronies and in some cases emergent national heroes such as athletes and popular musicians, Moi expanded this other form of settlement in the Rift Valley.

Apart from this latter settlement by political protégés all other forms of post-independence settlement in the Rift Valley were essentially valid commercial transactions. They were, in fact, no different from the commercial transactions by which the coffee farms bordering Kiambu District came to be transformed into the residential areas that we now know as Runda, Gigiri, Loresho, Kitisuru, Nyari and Rosslyn.

Against this backdrop and contrary to what has so often been posited as an irrefutable fact, there are several reasons why the eviction of non-indigenous communities from the Rift Valley has nothing to do with the so-called ‘‘land question.’’

Indeed this systematic on-going violence is not about remedying of past injustices, land scarcity, growing impoverishment of the Kalenjin or protests against the outcome of the flawed December 2007 General Election.

To keep repeating that the Gikuyu got to the Rift Valley through presidential favour fails to explain how the Kambas, Luhyas and Kisiis, who have never produced a president, became land owners and flourished in the Rift Valley.

And if, indeed, it is the declaration of Mwai Kibaki as President that is the offending spark, then why are non-Kikuyus under attack?

Further, if this violence is about the pressure or scarcity of land, these issues would not wait to crop up every election year. Does it take one five years to realise that they have a neighbour whose presence prevents them from tilling a larger piece of land or using that land to pursue some other profitable business?

Rather, the clashes were instigated for political expediency.

The third reason why this aggression is not about the scarcity of land is that the huge tracts of highly productive agricultural land in the hands of a select caucus of the political class across the ethnic divide have never been the target of land invasion and redistribution.

Genuine pressure for land would not be so selective in choosing the enemy.

Fourthly, in the on-going crisis those targeted for eviction have been given no notice to vacate. Were it simply about land, one would have expected the matter to stop upon their expulsion.

It is clear that the passions and goals that have repeatedly fuelled these intermittent spates of violence emanate from somewhere else.

The much-needed process of unearthing the driving impetus of the evictions and murders; of finding lasting solutions and restoring harmony, is the rightful work of a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission.


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