Maasai group ranches unease over land bill

Jacob Leyian has served as chairman of Eselenkei ranch.
Jacob Leyian has served as chairman of Eselenkei ranch.

Shuka-clad Maasai youths have for years driven their cattle to quench thirst at the nearby enkoitokitok, which means a bubbling spring, in the Amboseli plains north of Kilimanjaro.

The grazing area is hemmed on one side by the snow-capped Mt Kilimanjaro, but the gently undulating plains in the north stretch all the way to Athi River.

Most of this land is owned by the community in form of group ranches - where a group of people jointly hold title to land, own livestock individually but herd them together. Boundaries are demarcated and members are registered.

Loitokitok sub county of Kajiado gets its name from the spring. It has five such group ranches but in some cases, the pastoralist members may be traversing land they know as theirs, but which they no longer own.

“Our ranch officials think the land belongs to them and have been selling it illegally. The committee's work is to protect land, not to sell it,” says George Saita, a member of the 38,000-hectare Rombo ranch in Loitokitok sub county. “They also collect compensation from Kenya Wildlife Service and rents from telecoms companies for masts on our land, but that money does not reach us.”

The 3,565 people who jointly own Rombo are generally uneducated herders with little knowledge of land laws that govern them.

The situation is replicated in Kuku A and Kuku B (6,000 members) ranches, Olgulului (11, 485 members), Eselenkei (3,000 members), Imbirikani (4,600 members) and Kimana (840 members), which has since been subdivided.

These group ranches cover 506,329 hectares and comprise 31.8 per cent of the sub county.

They were largely as a result of the 1965 inquiry into “Land Consolidation and Registration in Kenya, 1965-1966.”

The final report concluded that group registration of land, rather than individual registration (which the government was pursuing across Kenya), had greater relevance to range areas, especially in Maasailand.

The group ranches were eventually legalised in 1968 when the government passed the Land (Group Representative) Act.

The Act provided that “each member shall be deemed to share in the ownership of the group ranch in undivided shares.” The elected group representatives act as legal trustees of the ranch and act on the group’s behalf regarding property succession matters.

The controversial Community Land Bill, which passed second reading in the national assembly on Wednesday, is expected to end the 48-year old conquered legacy of group ranches.

Since 1968, numerous ranches have been subdivided among members after sharp disagreements. Fights between officials (trustees) and members of the remaining group ranches are rampant and some predict these ranches will soon fall.

Elijah Keen Naini, a member of the 114,000-hectare Kuku A and B ranches, says the officials have misused their powers.

“There is no constitution and no election. Our chairman has been in that position the last 25 years,. It is not even clear who members are,” he says.

The ranch recently carved out small plots for members but Naini says the entire exercise may have been fraudulent.

“We have nothing to show for that land. There is no allotment letter or title deed. Someone goes to a cyber cafe writes something and presents it to people as allotment letter,” he says.

Last week, Keen attended a community land forum organised by Nairobi-based non-governmental organisation - Act, Change, Transform (Act!).

Act!’s has been leading land forums across the country to build awareness on land laws, and also seek women involvement in land activities.

Jackson Kikardi, a member of Imbirikani ranch (28,000 hectares), adds: “There is illegal leasing of the land. They leased 2,000 to a gemstones dealer without our consent. They also subdivided the plots and sold them back to us though high survey fees, yet the land belongs to us. Our accounts are also not audited,” he says.

Kikardi says members drafted a constitution but the ranch officials trashed it. “Demonstration is our way of expressing grievance. We have also used courts,” he says.

Nairobi-based lawyer and lands consultant Glenn Onguti says some of those problem might be addressed by the Community Lands Bill.

“If this law passes, then the group ranches will come to an end. The law says group ranches will automatically become community land,” he says.

The members will own their land as a society approved by the registrar of societies. “The society must be governed by a constitution so members must draft it,” he says.

The this is the third version of the Bill and the government has been widely criticised for trashing views of the public in the current version.

Onguti says: “The law brings through the back-door the president's power to dish out land,” he says. “The land registrar is a political appointee made by CS. Thats wrong. But I think its a progressive law, despite the flaws,” he says.

Jacob Leyian has served as chairman of Eselenkei ranch for 10 years. He admits there is mismanagement of the ranches, but says the law should address these problems.

“Some members are also dishonest and have illegally registered as members in two or three ranches,” he says.