Why Raila is walking a tightrope over land issue

Politicians, analysts warn Raila's support could be eroded by his stand on emotive land issues

In Summary

• Coast leaders want aliens owning idle land kicked out.

• Maasai community wants 'outsiders' barred from political positions and land buyers barred from subdividing land. 

ODM leader Raila Odinga during the BBI rally in Narok County on February 22, 2020.
ODM leader Raila Odinga during the BBI rally in Narok County on February 22, 2020.

ODM leader and the face of BBI rallies Raila Odinga risks repeating his previous missteps in the emotive land debate.

Land ownership has historically been a contentious and incendiary issue and ownership confers enormous prestige on the few at the expense of legions of squatters and the landless in their native land.

Raila faces a dilemma, delicate balancing act to address the land issue and land injustices seen to have far-reaching political implications for his career. The Mau Forest conservation issue when he was Prime Minister is seen as one of his setbacks in his 2013 presidential race. He may have done the right thing on saving the forest, but it cost him dearly.


Already politicians from the Coast and the Rift Valley have stoked embers over land, throwing Raila into a quandary as his brakeless BBI train hurtles across the political terrain. 

Raila enjoys massive political support across the Coast region, while his camaraderie with President Uhuru Kenyatta offers him a way to raid Deputy President William Ruto's Rift Valley turf.

However politicians from the two vote-rich regions are advancing radical land policies and demands — many are redress of historical injustices they want to be addressed through the BBI.

Raila is torn between appeasing and alienating voters he needs. He can't satisfy everyone.

United States International University Professor Macharia Munene said the resurgence of the emotive land issues and how he handles them could hurt his fortunes.

"It is unfortunate that Raila has not been condemning the emotive issues being raised by politicians seeking mileage, even in his presence. The perception is that he is supporting those issues," he told the Star on Wednesday.

Raila has always made miscalculations on land issues that haunt him to date, Macharia said.


At the Coast, one of Raila's bastions, the ex-PM's allies want 'absentee landlords kicked out and genuine squatters settled' in tracts of land across the region.

In making their BBI proposals, the region's politicians are seeking constitutional amendments to have all land grants held by the absentee land-lords revoked and the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation and Ndungu reports, on land fully implemented.

The TJRC report noted that the colonial administration used irregular and/or illegal methods to obtain land from native communities such as through the establishment of native reserves, forced evictions of the Talai, Pokot, Turkana, and Sabaot communities; land alienation by multinational corporations and; coercive measures such as forced African labour, forced taxation and forced military service.

In its recommendations, TJRC report called for further investigations into the alleged illegal or irregular acquisition of land, the survey, demarcation and registration of public land adjudication and registration of land at the Coast and other areas where this has not been done. It also recommended for the development and maintenance of a computerized inventory of all land in conjunction with the Ministry of Lands and facilitating reparation for historical injustices.

The effect of the Coast region's land proposals/demands is that some alien communities — including Raila's political suitors owning land in the region —could suffer.

The Kikuyu community is among the many  'outsiders' owning huge chunks of land across the vast Coast region. As Raila seeks their support for 2022, the land disinheritance proposal puts him in a fix. Do the right thing for needy landless people or satisfy the influential landowners/occupiers whose help he needs?

At a time when Raila has been enjoying strong national support galvanised by the BBI push, stirring up the controversial and emotive land issue, experts warn, could deal him irreparable damage.

He's damned if he does, damned if he doesn't.

Some argue that just as the 2008 Mau evictions boomeranged on him after regional leaders threw Raila under the bus, he is in a deep trap and probably cannot emerge unscathed.

One of the biggest questions is how Raila, a master tactician, will craft a strategy to negotiate the land issue likely to chip away or more likely lop off his support bases.

Politicians and analysts say Raila is walking a political tightrope and potentially playing with fire that has wide-ranging ramifications for 2022.

He may not be able to pull it off.


Raila has not publicly declared he intends to succeed Uhuru as the country's fifth president, but political signals in the BBI juggernaut have triggered serious speculation he could throw his hat into the ring.

Governance and policy analyst Javas Bigambo told the Star Raila risks losing a big chunk of his national support by playing  "populist political games" on sensitive issues such as land.

“Raila has lost before because of the land issue and I see him losing again because he doesn't appreciate substantive and logical interventions to solve the land issues,” Bigambo said, adding that Raila has no silver bullet to fix land injustice.

Bigambo said it was unfortunate the ODM leader has failed to clarify how BBI would be used to implement the  TJRC and Ndung'u reports on land.

“The BBI is just a process to whip up emotions and excite Kenyans into supporting a referendum. There should not be any extra-constitutional means to address the land issue,” he said.

Raila, who is seeking the support of the Maasai community to counter Deputy President William Ruto in Rift Valley, has also been pondering radical land proposals by the Maa nation.

When confronted on the issue during the BBI rally in Narok last Saturday, Raila said, "When you have been welcomed by hospitable people, live with them in peace and do not trample on them."

The Maa community wants 'aliens' prevented from seeking political positions in Maasai land and land buyers barred from subdividing it.

“Raila has blundered terribly by allowing his allies to ignite the land issue at a time when the country is seeking national reconciliation and unity,” Soi MP Caleb Kositany said.

Kositany, a key Ruto ally, told the Star that Raila and his allies have drifted from President Uhuru Kenyatta's 'initial' national unity agenda.

“What we are experiencing is a well-choreographed scheme by some political mercenaries working at the whims of the opposition leader to undermine cohesion among tribes,” Kositany said. He is the Jubilee party deputy secretary-general.

On Wednesday, Narok Senator Ledama Olekina reiterated that the Maa community must be protected from "outsiders harassing and terrorising" them politically in their own land.

“Economic and political harassment must be condemned. I am telling the Maa nation that I am involved in the quest for truth and justice and no amount of intimidation will deter me,” the vocal senator told the Star.

The sensational push by the Maasai leaders will put Raila in a tight spot and fatally complicate his 2022 game plan if not handled with both candour and finesse, analysts say.

For instance, Raila wants to leverage on his friendship with President Kenyatta to win he populous Kikuyu vote.

However, his efforts could go up in smoke if the push on land threatens the Kikuyu community's interests in the diaspora outside their native Mt Kenya region. 

A significant number of the Mt Kenya natives reside outside their indigenous areas and largely populate the major cosmopolitan counties of Nakuru, Uasin Gishu and Narok.

Raila faces a herculean task to balance indigenous communities' interests and those of 'outsiders'.

“For Raila to come out strong he must denounce the negative sentiments by his allies aiming to cause tribal tensions in whatever part of the country," warned analyst Felix Odhiambo.

He said the elevation of the land issue could again come back to haunt the former prime minister.

“Raila's adversaries jumped into the Mau land issue and really made mincemeat of him ahead of the 2013 general election. That actually eroded his support in Rift Valley,” he said.

But former Kipkelion MP Magerer Lang'at said Raila is an astute politician and has the agility to turn around any seeming political storm in his favour.

“Raila faces no political threat over the land issue. This matter has been blown out of proportion,” he said, adding that Kenyans must coexist in harmony.

During the 2017 and 2013 polls, Raila campaigned on the platform to implement the TJRC and Ndung'u reports, as he sought to address the historical land issues.

He has, however, remained silent on the implementation of the two explosive reports as he pushes for the BBI. 

In July 2008, the Kibaki regime, through Raila who was Prime Minister ordered evictions from the Mau Forest complex, a drive that analysts say destroyed his presidential ambitions in 2013.

During the 2008 evictions, Rift Valley politicians, led by then Agriculture minister William Ruto, opposed the evictions and proposed that the evictees be settled elsewhere.

Later, then Environment minister John Michuki would reverse the eviction order and Ruto accused Raila of failing to compensate the evictees.

A sudden turn of events left Raila on the back foot and he lost a huge chunk of Rift Valley vote in 2013 when Ruto teamed up with Uhuru to deliver a resounding victory for the Jubilee Party.

Raila has previously admitted that the Mau forest evictions were used against him to kill him politically.