Drawing Lessons From Land Disputes and Terrorism in Kenya

Al Shabaab Militants

Al Shabaab Militants

By TZ Business News Staff

The military affairs website African Armed Forces online praises President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya for a commendable, timely action to resolve a national security issue on the Kenyan coast, where 100 people were killed by Al Shabaab militants who had apparently been invited by local Muslims to do the job for them.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has ordered the repossession of 70% of the land in the resort town of Lamu in order to quell a long standing land dispute there now known to be the basis for the killings. The repossession order refers to a sizable chunk of territory in the region of 500 000 acres of publicly owned land which was allegedly illegally acquired by just over 20 developers.

The developers, mainly from the interior of the country were mostly from the Kikuyu tribe and believed to have acquired the land corruptly. Muslim militants from Somalia invaded unarmed villagers in the Lamu county and rained bullets into any man they came in contact with. It has now been established in these attacks and terrorism which have left 100 people dead, the al-Shabaab terrorist movement was collaborating with indigenous forces of dissent.

Although al-Shabaab were quick to claim responsibility for the spate of recent attacks which have seen the devastation of the area’s lucrative and popular tourist trade, the Kenyan government now suspects that domestic Muslim unhappiness and unrest over land issues may have been a precipitating and contributing factor to the growth of local militancy and subversive political networks.

Local Muslims claim they are discriminated against and have condemned a number of Kenyan governments down the years for providing assistance to greedy outsiders from other parts of Kenya to grow wealthy at their expense by virtue of the provision of valuable land, African Armed Forces reports.

It is unlikely that the Kenyan government is acting from a position of ignorance in making the accusations of domestic collaboration and complicity with al-Shabaab in light of the fact that a series of swift arrests led to extensive interrogation of suspects and a surfeit of solid intelligence obtained.

On the basis of this intelligence, the President wasted no time in meeting with local leaders from Lamu with a view to examine ways in which the government might resolve the pressing issues of safety and security.
The government has acted with commendable alacrity due to the devastating impact recent unrest has had on the vital tourism industry.

Victims of the Al Shabaab Attack on unarmed men at Mpeketoni on the Kenyan coast

Victims of the Al Shabaab Attack on unarmed men at Mpeketoni on the Kenyan coast

On being informed of the data flowing from the interrogations of captured al-Shabaab operatives and their local collaborators, the President ordered an audit of recent land sales from 2011 to the present and described his findings as “shocking”.

President Kenyatta said his scrutiny and due diligence revealed that approximately 70% of the land deals constituted transactions conducted under “dubious and suspicious” corrupt circumstances.  The Land Minister, Charity Ngilu, pointed out that the land allocated to [outsiders] constituted more than four times the total land provided for the local communities. She said the unmitigated scramble for land in Lamu “poses great danger to the socio-economic and political stability and growth of the area”.

A specialist on Kenya and the Horn of Africa, Rashid Abdi told Reuters news agency: “We have a serious radicalisation threat” supported by regional Islamists and other groups playing on local grievances.

Somalia’s al Shabaab Islamists, the group Kenya has routinely blamed for a spate of violence on the coast and in Nairobi in recent months said they were behind the attacks, explaining that the attacks were in revenge for Kenya’s deployment of troops against its forces in neighbouring Somalia. But the obtained intelligence points a finger towards an added cause of the attacks.

Experts, diplomats and police suggest a confluence of factors at work, according to Reuters . But they do not preclude Somali-linked Islamists with help from disgruntled local players. One Western diplomat said senior officials privately noted al Shabaab appeared to have had a role, adding that he was “not sure the government of Kenya knows how to react”.

Traditional coastal people have long complained of neglect by central government and favoritism towards more recent arrivals to the region, including Kikuyus who originally come from uplands in the center of the east African country.

“We are here like second-class citizens even though we are indigenous to the area,” 62-year-old Muslim preacher Mahmoud Abdulkadir told Reuters in Lamu after the June attacks, adding that such complaints were driving some youths to Islamist militancy.

Land ownership is a major grumble. Coastal people say they are treated as squatters on ancestral land with no formal documents where newcomers have been given title deeds. Experts say the complaints run back decades to when Kenyatta’s father was president after independence in 1963, and even to British colonial times.

But the coastal killings, which left many Kikuyus among the dead, may have aimed to touch a nerve in State House in Nairobi. Mpeketoni area, where unarmed men were killed mercilessly, was known to be a mostly Kikuyu town.

President Uhuru Kenyatta  (L) with Lands Minister Charity Ngilu

President Uhuru Kenyatta (L) with Lands Minister Charity Ngilu

Unfortunately, land disputes exist in vast areas of Kenya, according to Al Jazeera.  In a small office across the street from Kibera’s main mosque in the Nairobi area, the Muslim woman Fatuma Abdulrahman unfurls a copy of a hand-drawn map showing a large area west of what is now the city centre of Kenya’s capital Nairobi.  Dating back to 1932, the map shows “Kibra” – as it was named by Nubian soldiers from Sudan who were settled there – with Nubian homesteads and shambas (farming areas), or allotments, neatly demarcated.

“This was all Nubian land,” Abdulrahman said, pointing out areas on the map that are now well-heeled Nairobi suburbs. “The British gazetted over 4,197 acres in 1918 as a military reserve. But over time, the colonial power took land back, then post-independence chiefs allocated land to their people. And finally we saw politicians bringing their supporters in to Kibra to boost their electoral base.”

Abdulrahman, a forceful and articulate human rights activist who was born and raised in Kibra, asked one of the few audience questions in Kenya’s second televised presidential debate, inquiring what guarantees candidates would offer to minority communities like the Nubians.

Kenya’s Nubian population is small, numbering 100,000 countrywide. Twenty-four thousand of them are estimated to live in an informal settlement in Kibera. But the Nubians’ unsuccessful struggle for title deeds for land they have occupied for more than a century is a clue to the centrality of the issue to the country’s politics. Land injustice in Kenya stretches back far into the colonial era, with each new post-independence government adding yet more layers of complexity and inequity.

Communities from the Indian Ocean coastal region to the Rift Valley struggle with the misallocation of public land, land dispossession and post-colonial land resettlement programmes. Since the re-emergence of multi-party democracy in Kenya in 1992, politicians have used unresolved land disputes as rallying points during election campaigns, said Jacqueline Klopp, who works on land and displacement issues in Kenya at Columbia University.

“In 2007, we saw politicians claiming that some communities had privileged access to land, meaning that simplifying and distorting complex land issues became part of playing the ethnic card for winning elections.”

“The post-election violence in 2007-08 was all about land – the vote was just the trigger,” agreed Abdulrahman.
That land could again prove a critical issue in Kenya’s current elections, deepening existing ethnic divisions, was a source of real worry. The topic is so charged that police and Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission warned politicians against discussing land during their campaigns.

“In Kenya, land is the source of economy. If you have a title deed you can access finance, but without one, you cannot access any kind of empowerment,” Abdulrahman explained. The Nubians are not the only group laying claim to Kibera’s land, demonstrating the huge challenge in unravelling competing claims fairly.

“In Kibera, the candidates had to be very careful about the issue of land during the campaign,” said Raphael Omondi, a youth activist in Kibera. “There was fear that it would bring back violence between communities.”

Beyond the crowded acreage of Kibera, a complex patchwork of claims and disputes pepper Kenyan soil – each flavoured by their own particular brand of resentment and disappointment – from the fertile hills of the Rift Valley to the palm-fringed coastal plains.

Some land claims date from well over 50 years, caused by unfair administrative systems adopted by the British colonial authorities, which allocated choice arable land to white settlers and communities seen as loyal, but often failing to involve the original inhabitants.  But Kenya’s first post-independence government preserved colonial legislation that protected title owners. It also opted for a “willing buyer-willing seller” land resettlement programme, in which many of those who had lost land during the colonial period could not afford to participate. And corrupt members of the elite themselves acquired land that was meant for the landless.

“Instead of dividing up the land post-independence, it was appropriated by the political elite,” said Abdullahi Boru Halakhe, an independent Horn of Africa analyst. “The majority never benefited.” Illegal and irregular allocations of public land in particular continued under Kenya’s second president Daniel arap Moi, with the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights describing this as perhaps the regime’s “most pervasive corrupt practice”.

According to the Ndungu Land Commission, established in 2004 to investigate land allocation, more than 200,000 illegal or irregular title deeds were created and registered between 1963 and 2002. “Since freedom of expression improved in Kenya, concerns about land really came to the fore,” said Klopp. “People have been pushing for land policy reform for some time, but violence in the last election, sometimes justified by land grievances, helped make crystal-clear the need to change laws and institutions dealing with land.”

The National Accord, which was signed in late February 2008 and brought an end to the post-election crisis following the controversial 2007 vote, specifically mentioned land reforms as central to long-term reconciliation in the country.

Kenya’s new constitution, adopted in 2010, guarantees equal access to land and protects public land from those in positions of power. And the transition to a devolved government under the new constitution will help to bring land administration closer to the communities it affects.  After some delays, a National Land Commission was sworn in and will be the sole administrator of public land in Kenya. But as candidate Peter Kenneth put it in the second presidential debate, the real issues about land concern “enforcement and implementation”.

“One of the greatest challenges to land reform is budgetary support,” said Ibrahim Mwathane, Chair of the Land Development and Governance Institute (LGDI). “It is the loudest message we need to send the incoming government and donor partners if we want to achieve these reforms.”  Kenyans remain unconvinced that the current generation of leaders is fully committed to addressing past land injustices.

Presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta, of the Jubilee Coalition, faced especially strong criticism, as many Kenyans believe his family is the largest landowner in the country. When baited with an allegation during the second debate that his family owned half the land in the country, Kenyatta refused to specify how much land his family owned. Instead, he said evasively: “I own land, my family owns land as well.”

He later admitted that he owned 30,000 acres of land in Taita-Taveta in Coast Province. Earlier estimates by the Kenya Land Alliance suggest the Kenyatta family’s could own as much as half a million acres. According to a recent poll carried out by the LDGI, 69 percent of Kenyans believe that those seeking elective office at the national level have not prioritised the land agenda and will fail to deliver in the long-run, Al Jazeera reports

“The gains in land reform so far, including the attainment of a land policy, a constitution and the new land laws, have not happened in an environment of generous good political will,” said Mwathane. “An example is the recent intransigence in gazetting the members of the National Land Commission. Land reform threatens the interests of some of the political actors and the executive in Kenya.”

But campaigners are optimistic that land concerns are firmly on the national agenda and that leaders know they are now under scrutiny.