The tribal violence that has swept through parts of Kenya during the past month has been blamed on a disputed election. But in fact it has been simmering for decades, ever since British colonialists unjustly carved the country up - and Kenya's own leaders followed suit. Chris McGreal reports
Thursday February 7, 2008
Charles Mugo never thought much about the history of his family. He knew that his ancestors were driven off some of the most fertile land in Kenya to make way for white settlers, and that for years after they lived in grinding poverty as little better than indentured labour for the colonists. His father told him that some fought with the Mau Mau to liberate the country and, more importantly, the land. But the Mau Mau later became a national embarrassment so not much was said about it.
He can't even say exactly where it is they all came from, just somewhere in what the British called the White Highlands beyond Nairobi, where many Kikuyu once lived. In any case, by the time Mugo was born 34 years ago, all that was regarded by the family as ancient history. His father had a one-and-a-half acre plot in the Rift Valley given to him in the late 60s by the first post-independence government of Kenyatta. Admittedly, it was far from where the Kikuyu had traditionally farmed but it was land, the key to economic and social advancement, and it fed the family. Charles Mugo inherited the plot and made his living growing watermelon, tomatoes and other vegetables, and selling what the family did not eat at a stall alongside the main road north from Nakuru. As far as he was concerned, a historic wrong had been more or less put right.
That was until last week, when his home was razed by the neighbours and his crops plundered in the violence that swept through the Rift Valley over the disputed December 27 election. All that is left is his father's grave.
Mugo doubts he will ever farm his land again. The people who burned him out were his Kalenjin neighbours who said he never belonged there in the first place, and that he was little better than a squatter planted on their land by Kenyatta, a Kikuyu favouring other Kikuyu. So far as they were concerned, righting the wrong against Mugo's family was at their expense.
Mugo suspected trouble was coming so he had already sent his wife and children out of the Rift Valley. Now living in a corner of a large Red Cross tent in a stadium in the town of Nakuru, he says the best hope of rebuilding his life is to return to what he calls his "ancestral lands", a place he has never seen. He doesn't know what he will find there, or who, but there is no turning back after the events of the past week.
"If they want the Rift Valley to be peaceful it is best for the Kikuyu to leave. They [the Kalenjin] do not want us here and as long as we are here they will try and get rid of us, there will not be peace," he says. "The British started this but we have not had good leaders. I used to think that we were all Kenyans and we could all live together. Now I think we all have to go back to where we were before the British arrived and begin again. That is the only way we can live together in Kenya."
Ask a Kalenjin who is to blame for the mess of Kenya's land crisis and they say the Kikuyu. Ask a Kikuyu and they say the British. It just depends where you choose to begin the history of land policies based on greed and tribalism - whether by the white tribe of settlers or Kenya's post-independence rulers - that continue to drive large numbers of Kenyans deeper into grinding poverty and to be the most divisive social issue in the country.
Mugo thought he had escaped all that but a century after his ancestors were turned off their land he too finds himself landless and destitute. He is not alone.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the colonial administration justified seizing land for European settlers on the grounds that with a population of just four million Africans there was sufficient land in Kenya for everyone, although the true nature of the confiscations is exposed by the fact that the Europeans took the best land for themselves.
More than 30 million people live in Kenya today, a high proportion of them concentrated on the lush Central Highlands, Rift Valley and western Kenya. The demand for land has grown because of the scarcity of paid jobs. The majority of Kenyans are like Mugo, scraping a living from the soil. Almost 60% of Kenyans live on less than a dollar a day. They include many of the others who have sought refuge in Nakuru's stadium, including Jeremiah Oiruria, 77, who got a one-acre plot in Moro in 1971. He was in his house when the mob set fire to it and has burns down the right side of his face and body. "I was saved by my wife who pulled me out," he says. "That land is everything we had. I don't know where we go or what we do but I don't think we can go back. They don't want us. They told us we don't belong here."
Jackson Mugo, 56, from Burnt Forest, only survived by hiding under his recently harvested corn cobs. From there he watched his neighbours haul off his four cows and raze his house. "They told me before they were going to do it. They told me Kenyatta should never have sent me here. They took everything, my cattle, my bicycle, my radio. I could see them searching everywhere for the Kikuyu," he says.
Nakuru's town clerk, Albert Leina, a Masai, says it was tragic to watch Kenyans killing each other but that it has happened before and will go on happening until there is a government that chooses to address the legacy of the country's history. "We voted almost in a tribal, ethnic kind of way. You're talking about human beings. That's facts. But if all this was not triggered by the elections it would have been triggered by something else. We are talking about historic injustices and the national cake," he says.
Colonisation in Kenya was one long campaign of dispossession. "The British idea of land ownership was in total contradiction with the African idea," says Odenda Lumumba, coordinator of the Kenya Land Alliance, a network of organisations campaigning for land reform. "The British deemed that Africans didn't own land, they merely used it, and so any land lying fallow was deemed to be unused and the British took it. This made Africans essentially tenants of the crown. This was never understood by Africans. Who was this crown? Whose grandfather was it? Because all landownership was traced to grandfathers."
The Kalenjin and Masai lost more acreage but it was the Kikuyu who were hardest hit because they were robbed of almost all their land and suffered the biggest displacement, mostly from fertile areas beyond Nairobi that the colonists called the White Highlands.
A growing population of Kikuyu was crowded on to the remaining land - "native reserves", as the white people deemed them - that were little more than labour pools to provide workers for land they had once farmed themselves. On top of that Kenyans were deprived of the land they needed to move on in life with dowry payments that would help them climb up the social scale.
"The British took the land promising employment, but unemployment started soaring. Slums started developing in the urban areas. Africans were put in a helpless situation," says Lumumba. The situation was exacerbated after the first world war with an influx of former army officers in search of a better life that they found on yet more expropriated land.
The settlers weren't particularly productive - many had never farmed before - so to maintain the illusion of white superiority, the colonial administration stacked the odds against African farmers even further by banning them from growing cash crops that competed with the settlers, particularly tea and sisal.
The colonial administration introduced a "tribal chiefs" system that came to wield more power than the traditional councils of elders. The chiefs were foremost loyal to their paymasters, the British, and enforced colonial edicts with an iron fist.
Mwalimu Mati, head of Mars, an anti-corruption group campaigning to call Kenyan leaders to account for past abuses, says that at independence in 1963, Kenya inherited what has been described as one of the most skewed patterns of land distribution in the world, comparable with countries such as South Africa, Zimbabwe and Brazil. "The struggle for independence and the Mau Mau rebellion were primarily a land grievance. The white settler population had a system of apartheid. We ended up with a situation where the best land was in the hands of a very small section of the population. The rest of the population was driven on to dry, rocky, waterless areas," he says.
Kenyans looked to the first post-colonial government under Kenyatta to put the situation right. But in the hard-fought negotiations for independence he bowed to British demands for white settlers to remain on their farms if they wanted and for land only to be transferred through a "willing buyer-willing seller arrangement", also the source of the present wrangle over land in Zimbabwe.
Some white people did remain but enough left that large tracts of land came up for redistribution. The Kikuyu, Kalenjin and Masai prepared to go home. But, says Mati, that wasn't Kenyatta's plan. "The root cause of our crisis is that the land did not get bought by the people who lost it but by the Kikuyu elite of the time. That was the situation in Central province where the Kikuyu came from. Kenyatta then settled the poor landless Kikuyu in the Rift Valley on land that had belonged to the Kalenjin," says Mati.
Mugo's father was among the poor Kikuyu resettled on Kalenjin land. He was a minor beneficiary. Others did much better. What evolved in the following years was little more than a land grab by Kenya's new elite, which used British land law and Indian colonial statutes introduced to Kenya as a mechanism to distribute land as political patronage while keeping a large slice of the pie for themselves.
The largest landowners in Kenya today are the families of the only three
presidents the country has had since independence - the Kenyattas, the family of
his successor, Daniel arap Moi, and the present president, Mwai Kibaki, who
served in the Kenyatta and Moi administrations. A little further down the scale
are a residual group of white settlers, senior politicians and businessmen with
The extended Kenyatta family alone owns an estimated 500,000 acres (2,000 sq km). That represents a large chunk of the 28m acres (113,000 sq km) of arable land in Kenya. The remaining 80% of the country is mostly semi-arid and arid land. The Kenya Land Alliance says more than half the arable land in the country is in the hands of only 20% of the population. Two-thirds of the people own, on average, less than an acre per person. There are 13% who own no land at all.
Three years ago the government launched the Ndungu commission to investigate the illegal distribution of publicly owned land. The commission found that Kenyatta and Moi both grossly abused their powers to grab public land and former white-owned farms, and parcelled it out "as political reward or patronage".
"As a result a large number of the genuinely landless ... remain locked in a cycle of poverty," the commission said in its report. The commission members included Lumumba, who says, "The land belonged to the government or was in trust for the people but the trustees, particularly the presidents, behaved as if they were estate owners. They handed out individual titles to parts of national parks and gave trust land as political favours."
After Moi came to power in 1978 the land grabs evolved away from the vast tracts of farmlands that had already been parcelled out to all kinds of other publicly owned land. State corporations such as the railways, airports authority and power company have been plundered of land at a cost of "colossal amounts of money" to the public.
"Under Moi you used to get people turning up at a piece of land and they'd both have titles issued by the same government, sometimes by the president," says Mati. "If Moi wanted to give someone $1m, he didn't give them cash. He gave them the title deed to land and they'd sell that using the government land registry. Moi gave lots of people land. That was his way of governing." Other high officials, such as successive commissioners of lands and private interests such as bankers, lawyers and architects, contributed to this "unbridled plunder".
The commission said: "In every corner of the country today, there is a significant number of squatters who trace their landlessness to historical injustices and the failure of the post-independence governments to undertake a comprehensive resettlement programme. Their status as squatters has also left them in grinding poverty and vulnerable to all manner of human rights violations, including incessant evictions. This historical failure has given rise to a deep seated sense of grievance."
This is not the first organised violence over land. Moi unleashed a form of terror and ethnic cleansing against the Kikuyu in the Rift Valley 15 years ago because it was Kikuyu politicians who were pressing hardest for the introduction of multi-party democracy. No one knows how many were killed, but it ran into the thousands. Moi repeated his assault ahead of the 1997 general election, targeting Kikuyu communities on the coast as well as in the Rift Valley. That helped unleash regular localised violence over land grievances separate from the immediate politics. For instance, a low-level insurgency in the Mount Elgon district has pitted rival clans against each other over land with 22 people killed in an assault on Kimama village on December 31 alone, and another 50 in the areas around in the following week. Many of them were hacked to death as they worked in their fields.
A group calling itself the Sabaot Land Defence Force has targeted specific communities in order to drive them off their land. Human rights groups say they have documented nearly 400 deaths during the violence in the area in the past six months. About 80,000 people, a third of the district's population, has been displaced. "The violence was going to happen so long as the original grievance was not addressed. It never has been," says Mati.
The Ndungu commission agreed. "Forty years of independence is a long time during which any historical injustices regarding land should have been resolved. The fact of the matter, however, is that there are certain deep-rooted injustices that still rankle whole communities in Kenya ... The politically ignited land clashes of the 1990s are a manifestation of deep-rooted grievances that cannot be glossed over in a reform process," it said.
Kibaki came to power in 2002 promising reform. Little has happened. Mati says the only way to address the issue is to break up the vast land holdings of the Kenyattas, Mois and others. "There is a massive youth population that doesn't have land and that is unlikely to get it the way things are. And yet land is ingrained to them as the key to life. We have to address this or live with the consequences," he says.
The upheaval of the past month has created the greatest ethnic migration since the end of British rule. "To say you are taking people to their ancestral homelands is ridiculous," says Lumumba. "It's like you are going back to the native reserves because what will they find when they get there? There is no room for them there. They will end up on the periphery of the urban areas trying to survive. It will be another time bomb," he says.
Charles Mugo says there is no future for him or any other Kikuyu in Nakuru, and it is best just to go. "There were good Kalenjin. Some of our neighbours tried to protect us but they were threatened and told that next time their houses would be burned. That is when I knew that we wouldn't come back.
"The good people have lost out to the bad. We can never feel safe
here again," he says.