No Quick Fix for What Still Ails Kenya

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 7, 2008

ELMENTEITA, Kenya -- After reaching a power-sharing deal last week, Kenya's rival political leaders are now confronting one of the most explosive issues underlying the post-election crisis, and one that every Kenyan government since independence has managed to avoid: land reform.

The country's political class, monied families and their associates have all acquired vast tracts of land under dubious circumstances over the years, which they stand to lose if serious reforms are undertaken. Today, about half of Kenya's arable land is in the hands of an elite 20 percent, while most Kenyans scrape a living off one acre or less, according to government and independent studies.

In the absence of real reform, politicians, especially here in the fertile Rift Valley region of western Kenya, have routinely exploited the sense of injustice surrounding the historic imbalance in land allocation.

Since the disputed Dec. 27 presidential election, opposition politicians have once again cast people from President Mwai Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe as privileged, land-grabbing outsiders and urged local militias to reclaim so-called ancestral lands.

Hundreds of thousands of Kikuyus have fled the Rift Valley, while Kikuyu militias have retaliated by chasing Luos, Luyahs and Kalenjins from areas considered Kikuyu territory. The pattern of displacement has essentially revived the colonial fiction of homelands that first served the British and now benefits the Kenyan elite that replaced them.

The competing land claims have also survived the tenuous political settlement designed to end post-election violence that left more than 1,000 Kenyans dead and displaced more than 600,000 others. On Monday, 13 people were burned and hacked to death in a land dispute in the Rift Valley, and others displaced since last week's peace deal continued to flee the area.

"People have continued to identify with these colonial boundaries," said Odenda Lumumba, national coordinator for the Kenya Land Alliance, which advocates land reform. "But we need to sober up and address the reality that we have a legacy of illegal land acquisition and dispossession in this country, and until we take stock of that, we will not move forward."

A 2004 independent report commissioned by the government listed prominent political families, ministers, judges and other former and current officials involved in shady land deals.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga, who campaigned on promises to more equitably distribute resources and tackle corruption, has been implicated in a questionable land deal in the Rift Valley. Kibaki, who has yet to approve a series of recommendations on land reform, is estimated to own hundreds of thousands of acres.

The family of Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, collectively owns about 500,000 acres.

The family of former president Daniel arap Moi is similarly flush with fertile land, including a vast swath near this Rift Valley town, where preelection local radio broadcasts urged "the people of the milk," a reference to the Kalenjin, to "clear the weed," the Kikuyu, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group.

'This Is Where I Belong'

The road to Maina Machiria's farm is a path through Kenya's troubled legacy with respect to land. It runs for miles along yellowy grazing fields belonging to the great-grandson of one of Kenya's first British settlers, a man infamous for shooting locals who cross onto his property.

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