Kenya’s Unresolved Historical Injustices -- Coming Home To Roost -- Again!

04/01/2017 04:24 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2017

The over 1 million squatters who got title deeds for a patch of land for the 1st time in their lives...they have plenty of respect for their president. And they don’t, repeat don’t see him as Mr. Prevarication.

The quote above was part of an exchange on a colleague’s Facebook wall and was offered as justification re: why President Uhuru Kenyatta deserved “respect” from Mombasa County Governor Hassan Joho in an on-going spat between the two politicians:

The colleague went on to characterize the issuance of titles to the “landless” (ostensibly in the coastal region) by Mr. Kenyatta as a “noble” gesture that deserved “respect” by a president who vowed to “teach (the governor) a lesson.” The governor for his part responded by opting to weather the onslaught of accusations, investigations, threats of persecution and actual freezing of his assets by the Kenya Revenue Authority – all over allegations of “forged” (academic) documents.

Suddenly the man, who according to Wachira Maina, beguiled Kenyans with “his charm, his youthful dash and his hi-five regular man on the street’s joy of life — what the French aptly call joie de vivre” has morphed into “a troubling and deeply unpleasant” less-than-presidential persona.

Did Hassan Joho touch the “third rail” of Kenyan politics: Decry “land injustices in the (coastal) region?”

Anyone who knows anything about land ownership in Kenya, indeed in the country’s coastal region knows that the Kenyatta family owns some of the choicest pieces of land — in the region and throughout the country. President Kenyatta himself offered that his family acquired close to 30,000 acres of land in the Taita-Taveta County through “will-buyer/willing-seller basis.”

The Report of the Ndungu Commission on Illegal and Irregular Allocation of Public Land; one of several reports commissioned to get to the bottom of (fill in the skirmish de jour) also writes that:

The post-colonial government of Jomo Kenyatta used the land formerly held by settlers for patronage purposes-to solidify support and build alliances.

Effectively, the colleague, along with supporters of President Uhuru Kenyatta are praising him for giving some of the land his father Jomo “acquired,” back to the indigenous owners! This sequence of events has some significance given recent events:

That over the last several months, an on-going and severe drought in Kenya has forced Laikipia County’s (indigenous) pastoralists communities to “encroach” (grazing) land owned by conservationists; mostly descendants of colonialists who opted to stay in Kenya after independence.

The hitherto low-level simmering tension has become a deadly boil with the murder of British rancher Tristan Voorspuy prompting the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to visit the Northern Rangelands Trust in the county, a UK supported program working with communities to tackle the illegal wildlife trade and the epicenter of the conflict.

Efforts by the Kenyan Government, via deployment of its armed forces (Kenya Defense Forces - KDF) to the area of conflict have done little to assuage the locals and stem the violence as evidenced by the recent razing of a luxury safari lodge owned by Italian-born conservationist and author Kuki Gallmann - by suspected cattle herders.

The issue of land (ownership) in the country has morphed beyond the benign and politically palatable and expedient factor of production narrative (back) into the murky and emotional realm of racism and nativism that was the raison d’etre of Kenya’s fight for independence. And as is wont to be the case, a Kenyan with an unmistakable agenda is taking it there.

Appearing on one of Kenya’s main TV channels, Mr. Collins Wanderi, described as a “retired captain and lawyer” offered that the violence was/is a function of scarce resources i.e. grazing land for the pastoralists and the tension and animus between the land-owning (European ranchers) and indigenous pastoralists that has built up since independence.

The retired captain/lawyer argued, albeit tangentially, that legal ownership of the land was up for debate because the actual owners (Europeans) were “non-indigenous” albeit naturalized Kenyans citizens who were also “racist.” One can make a case for the racist language used by the besieged landowners. However, prevaricating legal ownership of land on the basis of one’s origin is a dangerous analysis by someone who should know better but for the irresistible xenophobic red herring that provides for a convenient narrative. It also explains why Kenya cannot resolve an issue that was partly responsible for the post-election violence of 2007/8 – land ownership.

Like the non-indigenous “foreign” ranchers, the few African landowners such as the president’s own family own land in areas “outside” their traditional home. Every time the issue is politicized or used as a rallying cry by politicians and/or their acolytes, it takes it - land ownership - away from the existential problem that it is to a convenient wedge issues opportunists such as Mr. Wanderi use to do the bidding of their political masters. The fact is, the Kenyatta family owns land outside their (arbitrary) Mt. Kenya home and using that reasoning, one can immediately see the danger Mr. Wanderi’s logic portends when applied consistently and to its logical conclusion.

Back in June 23rd, 2013, I wrote a piece titled “Opening Pandora’s Box” where I argued that if there was one person well-positioned to address Kenya’s land problem, it was Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta. My opinion was supported by the former Minister for Lands and President Arap Moi’s confidante G. G. Kariuki who offered an unequivocal statement: That (T)here’s no reason why (President) Uhuru should not change this country forever. He has the power; he doesn’t need any other power. He has the wealth; he doesn’t need any other wealth.

At the time, a nascent Jubilee Coalition (headed by Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. William Ruto) was riding the euphoria of twin victories: One victory was at the ballot box and the other, a direct corollary of the first, a possible checkmate in the crimes-against-humanity cases at the International Criminal Court (ICC). There was also the widely-held believe that corruption was going to be tamed because the in-coming president “was not corrupt” ostensibly “because when his family was given lemons, it made a lot of lemonade “ i.e. accumulated lots of wealth.

Over a year later in October 2014, I followed up with another article titled “Poetic Justice: Coming Home To Roost During His Son’s Regime: Jomo Kenyatta’s “Policies” of Land-grabbing” where I argued that Kenya will not have an honest discussion with the resultant real/permanent solutions to this most explosive of issues — land ownership — until it faces up to and ACTS on the reality that its leaders, including the revered Jomo Kenyatta and his son are up to their eyeballs in the corruption and greed that pervades the issue.

Three years later — in 2017 — and Kenya is in the middle of yet another round of violence — also predicated on land ownership. And this time, the violence has been exacerbated by a drought and famine affecting the indigenous pastoralist communities — in the disputed lands. Suddenly, the hitherto benign tumor that is local displeasure at the national government’s repeated failure to confront and remediate historical injustices threatens to metastasize into a full-blown cancer.

Adding to the already explosive mix is the incessant and always-ever present murmur that local politics and politicians are (deliberately) stoking the embers using racially-charged xenophobic language; this with country’s elections less than six months away.

What remains to be seen is whether cooler heads will prevail and allow the stakeholders to craft solutions amenable to all sides.

Will the “charming regular man on the street” persona of the man-in-charge (President Uhuru Kenyatta) rise to the occasion or will he default to the “unpleasant” and seemingly thin-skinned person he has become thus allowing the invasions to spread and deepen regardless of the reality:

That neither side is going anywhere?

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