Kenya’s problems are rooted in the land

Edmund Sanders

From his tented refugee camp, James Karanga Ngugi seethed as he scanned a vast horizon of fallow, unoccupied land -- most of it owned by two of Kenya’s most prominent political families.

“Why do they have so much and I have nothing?” he asked.

His grandfather once prospered here, before he was displaced by British colonialists. After independence, villagers regained control, but were soon forced out again, this time by a rich Kenyan businessman with ties to the president.

As compensation, Ngugi received 10 acres of land about 100 miles away, but residents there, from a different tribe, always resented his presence. During the election turmoil late last year and early this year that grabbed headlines worldwide, his house and business were burned down.

“Now I have to restart with nothing,” he said.

As this East African nation struggles with food shortages, a sluggish economy and wounds from post-election violence, there’s a growing consensus that one issue rests at the heart of Kenya’s woes.

It’s the land, stupid.

All across Africa, battles over land continue to simmer, largely a fallout of European colonialism. During most of Africa’s history, sparse population and tribal traditions meant land was plentiful and disputes were rare. Colonialists introduced alien concepts such as borders and private ownership. Since independence began to sweep the continent 50 years ago, fledgling African governments have struggled to unwind injustices, sometimes with disastrous results. The Zimbabwean economy was devastated by President Robert Mugabe’s campaign to seize and redistribute land owned by white farmers.


Kenya suffered a similar colonial legacy, but has taken a different route. As is the case in many African nations, more than half of Kenya’s land is owned by a minority of its richest families, including some white foreigners. But unlike Zimbabwe and South Africa, where the struggle has pitted whites against blacks, the land here is owned mostly by Kenyan politicians who have grabbed millions of prime agricultural acres in questionable real estate deals over the last 45 years.

“This is really an issue between us as Kenyans,” said Paul Ndungu, head of a landmark 2004 report that investigated more than 40 years of land fraud. “It’s Kenyan versus Kenyan.”

Tribal clashes that killed more than 1,000 people after the disputed presidential election last December, were rooted largely in historic disputes over land. As Kenya struggles to feed its people, vast swaths of its most productive terrain sit idle and underutilized -- and the land grievances remain unresolved.

“Peace, tranquillity and stability in Kenya is predicated on sorting out this land issue,” said Odenda Lumumba, head of the Kenya Land Alliance, a land-reform advocacy group.

Newly installed Lands Minister James Orengo, a former student activist who was once jailed for aiding a 1982 coup attempt, has vowed to take on Kenya’s rich and powerful with a progressive new land policy.

Among other things, he wants to reclaim stolen public lands, bar foreigners from owning property, introduce taxation on idle land and increase squatters’ rights.

Orengo also is pushing to computerize Kenya’s aging system of land records, which hasn’t changed since colonial times. Paper records have made forgery and corruption easier. When one shady developer was investigated recently, police believe he covered his tracks by burning down the local survey office where records were stored.

Opposition is quickly building. Critics have dubbed Orengo the “doyen of radicalism.” One group of landowners said his “Marxist ideologies” would lead to a “Zimbabwe-style economic meltdown.”

But Orengo’s biggest obstacle probably will come from within the government. Members of the political elite have been the nation’s biggest land grabbers over the decades, which is why Kenya never pursued land reform and redistribution, as other African nations did, experts say. Many of those leaders remain in power.

“The people responsible for this mess still find themselves in government and they’ve used their influence to delay [reform],” Ndungu said.

His report named some of the nation’s most powerful leaders as benefiting from illegal deals, including members of parliament, ministers, judges, military commanders and local councilors. Opposition leaders also were singled out, including Prime Minister Raila Odinga, whose family reportedly benefited from a suspect deal involving a molasses plant.

The study identified more than 300,000 titles as illegal and called for government seizure of as much as half a million acres. But the recommendations were never implemented. In fact, the previous lands minister initially tried to black out politicians’ names before releasing the report.

Glaring disparities in Kenya’s land wealth began with British colonialists, who forcibly removed thousands of families from lush highlands so white farmers could grow coffee and tea.

Rather than unwind the disputes after winning independence, Kenya’s founding fathers compounded the injustices, helping themselves to the departing colonialists’ spoils and even continuing forced resettlement schemes. Every Kenyan president has been accused of accumulating massive land holdings, diverting public properties to his tribe members and doling out real estate titles like candy to win votes.

The family of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s George Washington, sits on half a million acres, while his successor, Daniel Arap Moi, holds more than 100,000 acres, a government commission found. Current President Mwai Kibaki owns about 30,000 acres, according to local reports.

As long as the current crop of Kenyan leaders stays in power, Ndungu is pessimistic about reform’s chances. “I don’t see the political will,” he said.

Orengo acknowledged that he faces an uphill battle, particularly in pushing his plan through the Cabinet. But he vowed to start reclaiming public lands, beginning with buyers and lessees of government land who have not developed the properties in accordance with their contracts.

He is threatening to not renew 99-year leases with foreigners and descendants of white settlers, particularly if they are not maximizing use of the land or living up to lease commitments. He also wants to cancel all 999-year leases, which were negotiated by the British with unwitting tribal chiefs a century ago.

Orengo said he planned to redistribute seized property to the landless or displaced, and said he wouldn’t hesitate to shame or embarrass politicians who refuse to return ill-gotten land.

“It’s a political hot potato,” he said. “But some critics will find it difficult to talk too loudly. There are people in the government who benefited immensely. It’s obscene.”