Kenyans seeking land justice, 50 years later

Daily Nation


Land lost through past injustices should be restored, the tenure system reformed to provide security for ownership as well as use for the disadvantaged”

Two important events in the past few weeks have re-ignited debate on land justice from the embers of this year’s election.

First was the release of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Committee report, and then last week’s acknowledgment by the British Government of torture and ill-treatment of Mau Mau freedom fighters.

The British colonial and protectorate administrations failed to recognise customary land tenure systems. By 1914, nearly two million hectares had been taken away from Africans. By 1960, European settlers occupied some three million hectares.

To safeguard the settlers’ possessions, the colonial government initiated a settlement plan for the Africanisation of the so-called White Highlands, as well as an elaborate scheme of constitutional and statutory guarantees of property rights.

In early 1964, President Jomo Kenyatta ordered that all colonial farmhouses, together with 100 acres surrounding them, be reserved for “prominent people” alongside poor farmers in settlement schemes. From 1965, private companies started buying land, further dispossessing small-scale farmers.

These purchases have been at the centre of cyclical conflicts during elections. Many people have been evicted from their land during such conflicts in 1992, 1997, 2002 and 2007.

Civil wars, conflicts, migration and involuntary displacements are only symptoms of rising disputes over land, involving direct confrontation over access to key natural resources by capitalist forces – both domestic and external.

Land justice remains one of the most vexed public debates in Kenya. It is often emotive, divisive and confounding. Access to, and control of, land has been concentrated among the elite.

Reform measures such as repossessing illegally or irregularly acquired public land as recommended by the Ndung’u Commission have remained problematic. Efforts by anti-corruption agencies to do the same have suffered a similar fate.

These efforts are frustrated by legal hurdles arising from the sanctity of first registration of title, irrespective of how that title was obtained.

Although the 10th Parliament enacted the National Land Policy in December 2009, much of it is yet to be implemented. The policy made several key recommendations aimed at solving land problems. Some of them were incorporated in the new Constitution.

A National Land Commission is in place, mandated to manage land on behalf of national and county governments, investigate claims of historical and present land injustices, rationalise land laws, and create new laws to facilitate the review of all grants and dispositions of public land and establish their legality.

Land lost through past injustices should be restored, the land tenure system reformed to provide security for ownership as well as access and use for the disadvantaged.

On Thursday, Fahamu Networks for Social Justice hosted a national conference of social movements and other actors to review the implementation process of the National Land Policy.

Hopefully, it will spark a conversation between the government, citizens and civil society to enable Kenyans to enjoy the rights and standards enshrined in different African Union instruments.

Mr Mwangi works for Fahamu Networks for Social Justice.