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December 11, 2018

No easy walk to healing, unity

A policeman carries his gun as he walks past Kenyan university students demonstrating against an attack by gunmen at Garissa University College, along the streets of Nairobi, April 7../FILE
A policeman carries his gun as he walks past Kenyan university students demonstrating against an attack by gunmen at Garissa University College, along the streets of Nairobi, April 7../FILE

Last week I wrote about the occupational hazard of being a media commentator: Namely that the quest for balance and neutrality can blind you to profoundly disturbing undercurrents swirling beneath an apparently calm political sea.

Here is an old incident which illustrates this:

If you have spent any time at all at the Coast, you will know that the most common political discussions there revolve around what we nowadays term “historical land injustices”.

During one such discussion, years ago, I gave what I thought was a lucid and rational explanation as to why the people of Taita Taveta had no real reason to resent a curious fact of land ownership in that county.

This curious fact is that most of the land in that county — outside that assigned to the Tsavo East and Tsavo West national parks — is the private property of the Kenyatta and Criticos families who jointly own a large sisal plantation that has been there since the colonial era.

This is how I explained it: As a rule, the colonial-era “white settler” farmers went in for a degree of science in their agriculture. So, if you find that they grew sisal in that vast acreage in Taita Taveta, this is because the place is semi-arid and most food crops cannot flourish there.

Worse still, even if there was a successful attempt at irrigation so as to grow maize, beans, etc, at the very first harvest there would be a monumental invasion of elephants from the Tsavo national parks. We have already seen this kind of thing in Central Kenya, where a 200km electric fence had to be built to keep the elephants from invading farms adjacent to the Aberdares National Park.

My conclusion was thus: “Leaving aside the fact of property rights enjoying constitutional protection, there are really only two choices here; either you accept that the existing large-scale sisal plantation is the best economic use of this land; or if you insist on breaking it up into thousands of smaller parcels for local farmers, you had better prepare to see large herds of elephants trampling these farmers during the harvest season.”

One of those listening surprised me when he said quietly, “I am a Taita. And I would rather see my people being trampled by elephants than have that land owned by outsiders and foreigners.”

The rest of us burst out laughing, thinking he meant this as a joke. But it turned out that he was utterly serious. He went on to explain: “If the Jomo Kenyatta government had meant well, they would have organised local people in Taita into cooperative societies to buy that land. Exactly as they did for their own people who bought and subdivided land previously owned by the colonial settlers in Central Kenya and in parts of the Rift Valley.”

I have recently thought back on this incident as I have watched the political fault lines in the nation grow ever clearer.

In the Taita land debate, what I saw as a straightforward case of the sanctity of property rights — even if the original acquisition of that property may appear to be unjust — was to someone else, an indigene, no less than an open sore and a source of enduring grievance.

Currently, we find an equally deep divergence of opinion over our national leadership.

Many among us refuse to celebrate the swearing-in of President Uhuru Kenyatta; they insist that the last three (or four) presidential elections were marked by irredeemable fraud; and that only through electoral justice will Kenya find peace and reconciliation.

While others argue that once the IEBC has pronounced a candidate to be duly elected as President of the republic, and furthermore, the Supreme Court has unanimously validated the process by which this candidate was elected, then there is no more to be said: We must accept this presidency for the next five years.

Nelson Mandela titled the autobiography of his younger days, No Easy Walk to Freedom. Well, in Kenya we are about to find out that there can be no easy walk to political reconciliation after such a divisive presidential election.

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