The Land Answer In Kenya


One of the issues that plague independent African countries is what has been termed ‘The Land Question’. This has been a thorny issue since European settlers began occupying sub-Saharan Africa and continues to prick the fabric of many countries in the post-colonial age. Injustices associated with land in Kenya began in the colonial era.

“When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” — Desmond Tutu.

The issue is that there is no real land question there is more of a land answer. However, the how of the land answer is the root of the bone of contention.

British Canadian and New York Times Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell once wrote,

Cultural legacies are powerful forces. They have deep roots and long lives. They persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, even as the economic and social and demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished, and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behavior that we cannot make sense of our world without them.

Kenya LandColonialism lives on in Sub-Saharan Africa and its laws and effects are still felt today. When the British came to Kenya they sent Harry Johnson in 1884, under the pretext or wanting to study flora and fauna in the region. Johnson was able stay due to the friendly nature of the resident Kikuyus, Luos, Maasai, Kisii, Nandi,  Miji Kenda, Luhya, Taita and so forth who welcomed the strangers with open arms and gave them a place to stay. Following his arrival, however, Johnson sought a charter and formed the British East Africa Company to colonize the African and take away the precious land which sustained the indigenous people.

The British claimed that they signed treaties with the local people which gave them access to the land. However, most treaties cannot be validated. The indigenous people neither spoke nor read English so it is questionable how they were able to ratify the treaties. After all their signatures were said to have been represented by an X which many historians now believe were forgeries by the agents of the British East Africa Company who sought to justify the illegal land seizure.

The British introduced the hut tax in 1902. A certain amount of taxes was to be paid to the government for each hut a family owned. This meant that native Kenyans had to earn money which could only be achieved by working for someone else that could pay them wages. The punishment for not paying hut tax was a fine and which often when not paid led to forced labor thereby providing the British settlers with the cheap labor they were searching for. In 1913, the government passed a land bill that gave the white British settlers 999 year leases on the land and effectively created a monopoly on land use. Later, in 1919 British settlers introduced the Kipande system that required all Kenyan men to wear identity discs. The Africans were not compensated when their land was taken. All public land was owned by the British East Africa Company and hence by the British crown. All unoccupied land was given to European settlers who moved into the region.

The European settlers were given the plush land in the Rift Valley while the indigenous Africans were relegated to the Ngong area reserves which were disease infested. The strategy behind it was that the Kenyans would not be able to support themselves and be forced to move back to their old land and work as cheap labor on the coffee, rice, wheat and sugarcane plantations which now belonged to the European settlers.  The governor at the time Sir Eliot was quoted as saying “this is white man’s country…. and white interests must be paramount.”

Zanzibar area was annexed as a colony in 1920 from the Omari Arab colonists who had also stolen the land from the indigenous African people. The Land Ordinance of 1912 ruled that the indigenous Africans had no rights to the land when the Africans took the colonial government to court over the land issue. This left the Africans with no other options but to wage war on the settler to regain their birthright. The Mau Mau fight for independence and freedom from tyranny was launched and the indigenous people were tortured for daring to demand that they take back what they rightfully owned. With no victory in sight the British government then invited the Mau Mau leadership to Lancaster for talks to stop the war in 1960. Part of the 1960s Lancaster House Agreement involved a ‘willing buyer and willing seller’ program which was meant to placate the Africans and prevent full scale land reform which the Africans had fought for during the war of liberation.

The Kenyan government was given a £25M loan from the British government to compensate white settlers who opted to leave Kenya. The indigenous Africans then had to buy the land that they owned back from the government. Kenya’s first post-independence government preserved colonial legislation that protected title owners. The “willing buyer-willing seller” land resettlement program disadvantaged many of those who had lost land during the colonial period who could not afford to participate. In addition, corrupt members of the ruling elite used this opportunity to acquire land that was meant for the landless. The Ndungu Land Commission established in 2004, to investigate land allocation found that more than 200,000 illegal or irregular title deeds were created and registered between 1963 and 2002.

Kenya’s new constitution, adopted in 2010, guarantees equal access to land and protects public land from those in positions of power. However, more than 50 years after independence from colonial rule the Kenyan government is yet to answer the land question. Many Kenyans are yet to be resettled. Today, 50% of the arable land in Kenya is in the hands of 20% of the population. Some 13% of Kenyans are landless, while 67% own less than an acre per person.

President Kenyatta along with members of his family, own at least 500,000 acres of prime land across Kenya.

Kenya’s economy is growing rapidly, particularly in sectors such as information technology. However, land is the economic source for the majority of Kenyans and it often makes a difference whether one has a title deed or not. Those with title deeds can access bank loans and borrow money in order to generate a higher yield. Others who farm on communal lands are not as fortunate. Knowing this why has it taken policy makers so long to solve the issue that is so fundamental to the success of the country?


  1. Does Uhuru have the guts to see land redistribution. I think not. He is far too weak to do what Robert Mugabe did in Zimbabwe.

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