The first time Francis Mwangi’s Kikuyu family tried to bury him beneath the green grasses of Kenya’s Rift Valley, they were ambushed by Kalenjin men who claimed the land as theirs. Fighting broke out, and the body was kept in the police station overnight. In the end, it took dozens of policemen and a grave filled with cement to secure Mwangi’s final resting place last year near the village of Banita.

“When we look back into our history we find that all violence, all politics has been based on land, and indeed the worst violence in 2007-08 — still we have land issues,” said Hillary Ogina of the Kenya Land Alliance, referring to post-election violence five years ago that left more than 1,100 people dead and more than 660,000 displaced.

As President Mwai Kibaki prepares to step down and Kenya’s politicians gear up for presidential polls March 4, land has again become a divisive electoral issue, exacerbating ethnic divisions that sometimes erupt in violence.

At stake are competing land claims dating back more than 50 years. Many Kalenjin allege that land was taken from them by white settlers under British rule and given away or sold to Kikuyu newcomers, under schemes run by the last colonial rulers and then newly independent politicians. Land title can be hard to establish, because competing ancestral claims sometimes stretch back for centuries. Deadly strife over land tenure and title occurs not just in the Rift Valley, where many people were pushed off their land after the last polls, but across the country.

Land is so sensitive that the heads of both the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, formed after the post-election violence, and the police force this month urged politicians not to campaign over land, but to no avail.

“People are using [land] just to win votes,” says Mohammed Swazuri, head of a National Land Commission, set up under the 2010 constitution to rectify abuses.

Third-time presidential challenger Raila Odinga suggests that his rival, Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the country’s founding president, a Kikuyu, should donate his family’s land, which the Kenya Land Alliance says runs to half a million acres, to the poor. Kenyatta, who has described land as “the running sore that has poisoned relations between communities,” says he will instead ensure that slum dwellers and squatters, a term for those who do not possess land, get their own land. He does not explain how he will do this.

Detractors question whether a member of a family that owes its power and capital to post-independence land titles can solve Kenya’s land problems. “The re-Africanization of the white highlands increased focus on the Kikuyu, ethnicized the land question and cultivated conditions for mobilizing ethnicity as a means of accessing land rights,” said Karuti Kanyinga, an academic. Kenya’s presidents — to date, two Kikuyu and a Kalenjin in a nation of 42 ethnic groups — have always relied on land as a reward for political loyalty, say campaigners.

The persistence of such divisions may trump a new Kikuyu-Kalenjin electoral platform led by Kenyatta, who, along with his Kalenjin running mate, William Ruto, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity for his role in post-election violence.

“The big negative for Uhuru is land,” said an adviser to Odinga. Kenyatta’s mother was in court this week defending herself against claims that her husband, the first president, Jomo Kenyatta, was involved in land grabs.

Although Kenya has conducted several investigations into unfair land allocation, little has been done.

“There is virtual chaos in land administration in Kenya at present,” said Michael Aronson, a former member of the colonial administration and later vice chairman of two such commissions of inquiry.

The latest efforts have been delayed, as President Kibaki appointed Swazuri and his eight commissioners this week, despite parliamentary approval in August. “It is impunity on matters relating to land that generated the historical injustices that have cost our beloved country so much anguish and bloodshed,” said Charles Nyachae, head of the commission for the implementation of the constitution.

Any efforts to reallocate land are likely to be fraught. Swazuri’s commission may have to reassess land claims relating to more than two-thirds of the country. It is unclear whether those who have to give up their land will be compensated.

“I do not think they’ll be able to take land from a community and hand it over to another community — it would put claims on land in every corner and village of the country,” said Kanyinga, the academic. The land problem, he said, “may well ignite recurrence of violence.”

— Financial Times