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Land Disputes Fuel Kenya Crisis


High-profile efforts to secure a lasting peace in Kenya are continuing. Conflict broke out after President Mwai Kibaki – of Kenya’s largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu – was declared the winner of December elections. Supporters of his rival, opposition leader Raila Odinga, a Luo, then went on a rampage. Almost a thousand people have been killed and thousands displaced. Some of Kenya’s leading intellectuals have formed the Concerned Writers Group to urge their countrymen to stop the violence and to educate Kenyans about what it says are the “real reasons” for the chaos. In the second part of a series on the crisis in Kenya, VOA’s Darren Taylor focuses on land and colonialism as major causes of the unrest.

Rasna Warah, a columnist for Kenya’s leading Daily Nation newspaper, says land – or rather the lack thereof – is one of the primary reasons for the tragedy in her homeland.

“Kenyans associate a lot of value to land, to land ownership. There are spiritual reasons for it, there are ancestral reasons for it, and a sense of identity is very much linked to land. So land has taken on far more importance than it would in other countries, for instance – simply because it has so much emotional value,” Warah explains.

She says this is particularly true in the Rift Valley, an area that’s seen some of the worst brutality in recent weeks.

“The so-called indigenous ethnicities there were perhaps feeling that the foreigners, who were (perceived to be) the Kikuyu, were taking over the land that rightfully belonged to them.”

After Kenya’s independence from Britain in 1963, the country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, allowed members of his ethnic group, the Kikuyu, to settle in areas that had previously been home to other ethnic groups – like the Luo and Kalenjin.

Kenyatta, did this, says Binyavanga Wainaina – a winner of Africa’s most prestigious literary award, The Caine Prize, and founder of Kenya’s premier literary journal, Kwani – after taking possession of most of the prime land left behind by the British settlers and keeping it for himself and his allies.

Wainaina is at pains to point out that the majority of Kikuyu never received any property.

“There’s a case from the Kikuyu side that can say that the Kikuyu lost more land during colonialism.”

Warah explains: “In the process of giving (the land) back to the Kenyan people, it got appropriated by a certain clique, or a certain elite, the Kikuyu elite. It was not equally distributed among all the Kikuyu people. So in a way the Kikuyu, they don’t control all of their own land either.”

Kenyan author Muthoni Garland adds, “Over the years, the Kikuyu have been transplanted in other districts and regions of the country, simply because they were squatters in their own land. Because after independence, the Kikuyu elite, rather than the Mau Mau rebels, inherited the land left behind by the British. Therefore the Kikuyus have been transplanted to other districts such as the Rift Valley, where they are perceived to be aliens who were brought there.”

Stan Gazemba, a winner of Kenya’s top writing prize, The Kenyatta Award, is convinced that land is the “defining factor” of the country’s present-day troubles.

“In the past, there were a lot of secret dealings aimed at moving the Kikuyu, who were too crowded in central Kenya, to other parts of the country that had been vacated by the colonial settlers. And this has bred tremendous animosity –the fact that Kenyatta took the Kikuyu into the Rift Valley made the Kalenjin, who were the original inhabitants there, feel like their land had been taken away from them. And this aspect is emerging once again in the skirmishes that are happening. The Kalenjin are claiming that they are repossessing their stolen land.”

Warah is convinced that the roots of the present crisis are also to be found both in colonialism, and the Kibaki administration’s adoption of a “colonialist constitution” and its repeated rejection of a draft constitution that addresses issues such as land inequality.

The Kibaki government has repeatedly argued that Kenya needs more time to formulate an adequate constitution.

Wainaina says some blame for the current Kenyan tragedy must be laid at the door of colonialism, but he says this “with a caveat: The same tactics of divide and rule that were employed by the British colonialists to rule Kenya have been adopted by the present rulers. It’s become fixed in Kenyan minds that this is how a political structure is made. In Kenya now, a weird kind of feudalism exists, where a certain class has simply replaced the white colonialists, occupying the same land and frequenting the same places in society, with the same politics – with the same strategies even – with even a similar brutal police force and riot squads.”

But Garland is reluctant to place a lot of responsibility on colonialism for what’s happening in modern-day Kenya.

“I just think that 45 years after independence, colonialism is just too easy an excuse,” she says.

Garland agrees that the British did “terrible things” but says it’s time for Kenyans to “stop looking backwards,” and to start taking more responsibility for the “mess” they’re in.

“We, and not the British, should be in charge of our future,” she says.

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