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Kenya Land Reform Could Become Election Issue - 2002-08-20

As Kenyans prepare for presidential elections at the end of the year, fear is emerging that unresolved land problems could explode into full-blown conflict similar to the violence in Zimbabwe. Political and religious leaders warn the land problem in Kenya is a time bomb with a short fuse.

The warnings come at a time when Kenyans are anxiously waiting for the release of a Commission of Inquiry Report on tribal clashes that occurred between 1991 and 1998 – including the so-called Kaya Bombo clashes of 1997. The violence – which consumed Kenya’s coastal region – was reportedly masterminded by raiders living in the near-by Kaya Bombo forest. The Commission that was appointed to investigate the violence completed its work within 11 months and submitted its findings to the government – but the document has not been released to the public.

Recently the High Court ordered the Attorney General to release the report following a petition filed by a farmer who was affected by the violence. Although the Government appealed the decision, the High Court has given it until August 19th to comply.

More than one thousand people were killed, thousands displaced, hundreds maimed and millions of shillings worth of property destroyed during the mayhem that rocked various parts of Kenya. The report highlights not only the violence itself, but also the land seizures that accompanied some of the rioting. Some accuse the government of backing the gangs who drove thousands of people from their homes. The victims often came from ethnic groups that did not support the president – but who had settled in the strongholds of the ruling KANU party.

A coalition of non-governmental organizations is demanding the release of the report – including the Kenya Human Rights Commission, Muslims for Human Rights, the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya and the Coast Rights Forum.

A joint statement signed by the organizations was read by Khelef Khalifa of the group Muslims for Human Rights: "Subsequent investigations and reports have shown beyond any reasonable doubt that this senseless violence was politically motivated, schemed and supervised by the Government of the day. This was pre-election violence meant to protect or achieve interests of a narrow and partisan political agenda. As we commemorate Kaya Bombo clashes (as 1997 tribal clashes are referred to), we are reminded how the Government has systematically suppressed information related to these pre-election clashes. The Akiwumi[Commission of Inquiry] report is a case in point."

The non-governmental organizations (or ngos) say without the report, those behind the what they call “heinous crimes against humanity” can not be punished. Mr. Khalifa explained the demands of the ngo community: "That all victims of politically instigated clashes be left free to seek justice through the legal system, and that Kenya , as a signatory of various international treaties on human rights, adheres to those treaties and takes concrete steps to entrench them into our legal system."

The ngo coalition now wants presidential aspirants in the coming elections to make a public commitment to fight human rights violations if they assume office.

The report may help clear up the violence behind politically motivated land seizures. But it leaves other questions unanswered – like land seizures where that may not have been motivated by the government, but where the government has become involved by refusing to take action. Such is the case of a former member of the ruling KANU party, Basil Criticos -- a former Assistant Minister in the Kenyan Government and large scale farmer.

Last year, he resigned from parliament after accusing the Government of condoning a Zimbabwe-style take-over of white-owned land following the invasion of his property by squatters. Mr. Criticos is a Kenyan of Greek descent and the owner of a 70 thousand hectare sisal plantation. No one knows if anyone was behind the squatters take over his land – which he holds legally. But Mr. Criticos was angered by the government’s refusal to take action against the squatters. He has since left Kenya and he is now living in the United States. The government has not commented on the case.

Unlike Zimbabwe, however, race is not usually a land ownership issue. Some of the land is owned by the state – which has distributed it to political allies. Other property is contested between competing ethnic groups. In Tana River District in Coast Province, hundreds of people have died over the past 10 years in clashes between Orma and Wardei pastoralists and Pokomo farmers. Contributing to the problem is the fact that the land has never been demarcated – either before or after independence.

The Law Society of Kenya, or LSK, recently released a report on the land problems in Tana River District. A spokesman for the group, Danston Mugatana, said the LSK will seek legal redress and relief for those affected by land skirmishes. He says in its report, the group names land tenure as one of Kenya’s most pressing national issues. Mr. Mugantana says it remains to be seen when or if the government will address the problem.