The standard gauge railway has been a lot in the news recently. On the one hand, we have the governing Jubilee Party pointing to it as one of the key proofs that the Uhuru Kenyatta government has delivered on its promises.
And, on the other, we have the opposition NASA, alleging that it is the greatest proof yet of the rampant corruption that has marked the Kenyatta government.
An incident in May this year suggested there may be something to what NASA alleges: A senior official of the National Lands Commission was found to have no less than Sh17 million in cash in his house, when the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission made a raid. This sum is regarded as the mere tip of the iceberg, in an investigation into the “skewed compensation of land for the SGR”.
Now let’s go back to the years when “the original railway” – the Kenya-Uganda Railway built between 1896 and 1903 – and consider this question: Do you think there was much fuss over compensation for the people whose land was taken to make way for that rail?
Far from being compensated, the indigenous communities whose lands lay on the path taken for the railway could look forward to violent evictions, and vicious counter-attacks if they interfered with the building of the railway.
Two such examples are recorded in Wikipedia: “…Building the railway met local resistance on various occasions. A major incident was the Kedong Massacre, when the Maasai attacked a railway workers’ caravan killing around 500 people...At the turn of the 20th Century, the railway construction was disturbed by the resistance by the Nandi people led by Koitalel arap Samoei. He was killed in 1905 by Richard Meinertzhagen, finally ending the Nandi resistance…” Such then were the methods used to clear the way for progress: All the way to Uganda.
It is tempting to put a racial interpretation on the use of force to dispossess the locals of their land. But it was not just the colonial soldiers who used force in the pursuit of their interests. Kenyan indigenous tribal communities were just as vicious in their dealings with each other. And this is something we don’t even have to consult the history books to know.
Ever since the long drought started last year, there have been regular reports of vicious fighting in Northern Kenya, primarily involving the Pokot and the Turkana. And this was in continuation of a long history of cattle-raiding, attacks and counter-attacks over rights to pasture and watering points, which go back to a time well before the lunatic railway was conceived, much less built.
Respect for property rights were not a strong feature of pre-colonial Kenya, and the reason that the colonial soldiers usually won their engagements with indigenous communities was that they had modern guns, while “our ancestors” had mostly spears, bows and arrows.
Even now, in a confrontation between the Turkana and the Pokot, the outcome is likely to hinge on the question of who has the newest rifles. No question at all of respecting property rights.
But although many of the nomadic pastoralist communities of Northern Kenya still choose to live the same way they did 100 years ago, according to an essay posted on the website of Gamewatchers, a Kenyan tour company: “There is now a growing realisation that the traditional nomadic pastoralism of the early 1900s, over a hundred years ago, when small numbers of people moved around the sparsely populated landscape seeking grazing for their livestock alongside the herds of wild herbivores, can no longer continue in the modern day and age, when there are 20 times the number of people living there...”
But even that is not the whole story. For not only is there now a larger population within the regions where the nomadic communities once roamed freely, but there is also the recent development of unpredictable weather patterns and increasing frequency of drought.
Next week, I will consider possible solutions to this crisis, and why it is not receiving the same attention as other regional priorities in this election year.