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Laikipia: The Relics of Colonialism & Land Issues in Kenya

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Kenya’s region around Laikipia has become a battleground between ranchers and pastoralists. Western media outlets have made the argument about animals and ranchers but there is more that needs to be explored, particularly dealing with land ownership. About 67% of Kenyans own less than an acre per person, that should be the story.

In recent months, violence has erupted in the area as pastoralists seek grazing land for their animals. Within a few months about 10,000 pastoralists from Baringo, Isiolo and Samburu counties with around 135,000 cattle have moved into Laikipia.

Land Ownership in Laikipia

The most interesting part of the story is the amount of land owned by these ranchers in Kenya. Kuki Gallman who was recently shot owns 100,000 acres, Tristan Voorspuy, a British farmer who was shot and killed was co-owner of the 24,000 acre colonial era Sosian ranch in Laikipia, another 49,000 acres is part of the Mugie Conservancy. An additional 50,000 acres are part of the Segera ranch, Segera is owned by Puma founder Jochen Zeitz. Most of these ranches are used as wildlife safaris and tourist attractions. The profits from these ranches primarily benefit the individual owners. Also, why are most of these ranches owned by foreigners? 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.

Western media will probably use the argument of animal conservation because a few zebras, lions and elephants have been killed. Many of these ranchers make millions of dollars a year in tourism which ultimately benefits them only.

Laikipia County is one of the 47 counties of Kenya, located on the Equator in the former Rift Valley Province of the country. The land in the Rift Valley was allocated to European settlers during the early years of colonialism, while the indigenous Africans were relegated to the Ngong area reserves which were disease infested.

The History of Land Ownership In Kenya

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.”

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.

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