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January 22, 2019

Land Is The Genesis Of Kenya's Complex Conflicts

I feel for Mzee, I really do: Kenya is such a fractious country already, it can’t be easy running it. And then you have Al Shabaab to contend with, and after their Westgate gig, now CORD seemingly encroaching on their business.

Plus the rains weren’t very good this year. It must be quite taxing to be Kenya’s president, and noisy, too, what with all those rallies and MCAs throwing chairs and rotten eggs at each other.

 And now it appears that those 30,000 hectares of land that he owned in Tana are also at risk – in the words of the esteemed poetess Sitawa, the third Namwalie: ‘Oops, I lost my land!’.

At least that’s what the Attorney General Githu Muigai claimed in Den Hague, if the Standard is to be believed: that Mr Kenyatta does not own any land in Kenya.

Nor, it appears, any companies (‘Eh!!’ – all of you). He was backed by Ms Ngilu, the Cabinet Secretary for Lands, who may or may not have been instrumental in losing all that land during the recent ‘reorganisation’ of files: ‘We have no records at the moment that the person owns land.’

 Back when the AG wasn’t the AG yet, I’d meet up with him every once in a while for a chat and a GT. I was always under the impression that he would have very little time for anyone not grasping the concept of beneficial ownership. But onwards.

 Mr Kenyatta recently made an interesting suggestion on land management in Turkana when he advised the Turkana community to become shareholders in the new pipeline – as reported by Capital FM: ‘Invest in the pipeline so that you have revenue that will help the community for a long time instead of asking for an upfront payment. You can do this by contributing land as shares instead of selling it.’

 This is, in principle, a very useful suggestion: It’d be a long-term investment for the Turkana that would probably yield higher returns that a one-off payment.

It would make the land a lot more productive than what it is currently used for. And, perhaps most importantly, it would then become crucial for the Turkana to see oil production and the pipeline operate peacefully and unhindered, and they would truly have a stake in the oil industry.

But the real challenge is, of course, in the implementation of this. For the Turkana, the challenge will be to find a solution that works for a pastoral community with communal land use, and that is managed equitably and transparently, with the returns invested in the community to benefit everyone.

This is of course by no means a given (yes, MPs who pay locals to stage fake protests to grab more contracts, I’m looking at you), and closely tied to what is a, let’s say, less than ideal history of land management.

 This goes back decades and now lies at the root of a number of complex conflicts. And this is also what ties Kenya’s planned mega project to the current terrorist threat: Along the coast, land grabbing and illegal land allocations are one of the main grievances that have long fostered a perception of disenfranchisement and marginalisation of the coastal population.

Together with widespread unemployment, this creates a receptive environment for the messages of Al Shabaab, MRC and the whole lot in between.

Several of the new large infrastructure projects will now make land even more valuable, and intensify the conflict potential of land issues.

Just look at Lamu County and the planned LAPSSET complex. The Kenya Ports Authority has barely started construction of a simple building, and there are already complaints that displaced smallholders still have not been compensated.

Land values in that area will rise, and there have already been allegations of irregular land allocations where the new owners hope to be richly compensated by the government once the port and other plans are being fully implemented. In this game, smallholders are crushed – yet again.

And being left to be murdered by terrorists not just once, not just twice, but several times is hardly going to make them feel that their interests are being taken care of by their government.

 I recently spoke to an oil industry professional who argued that it would be crucial who ended up building the pipeline through northern Kenya – whether the Government of Kenya or an international company that was subject to meeting international environmental and social standards.

Yeah yeah, I know – those are not all blameless lambs either. But if you have a public listing in the west, there is a limit to how much controversy you can deal with.

In contrast, the government’s recent proposal to locate an army barrack in Turkana to deal with security issues is of the distinctly more heavy-handed kind that is unlikely to address the concerns of the host community.


Can this be resolved anytime soon? Not holding my breath.


The writer is an independent country risk analyst.

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