NEWS 2005


Land for loyalty?

Darren Taylor,  Nairobi

31 October 2005 07:59

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki has allocated thousands of title deeds for land in a move his opponents say is an attempt to “bribe” voters to support a controversial draft constitution in a November 21 referendum.

Environmentalists charge that the “illegal dishing out of land” spells “ecological disaster” for a country lauded internationally for its stringent legislation to protect wildlife.

The poll is regarded as the biggest test yet of Kibaki’s leadership -- now in its third year following Kenyans’ rejection in 2002 of Daniel arap Moi’s 25-year autocratic rule. The run-up, though, has been marred by violence, with supporters of the “yes” and “no” camps clashing frequently.

A Samburu herdsman in the Rift Valley. How will he vote? (Photograph: AP)

Kibaki has urged voters to support the draft, which he says is “liberal” with clauses empowering women and guaranteeing freedom of information. But his critics claim an affirmation of the document will open the door for renewed dictatorship.

The draft grants sweeping executive powers to the president. The issue has split the country and its ruling National Rainbow Coalition government along ethnic lines.

Kibaki recently granted thousands of title deeds to landless ethnic groups in the Rift Valley, a region perceived as remaining loyal to Moi and distrustful of Kibaki’s Kikuyu elite, the ethnic majority in Kenya. Moi has encouraged Kenyans to oppose the draft constitution. Rift Valley contains the highest concentration, 2,4-million, of the 11,5-million registered voters.

Kibaki ignored a court order aimed at preventing him from allocating land and distributed 12 000 title deeds to the Ogiek tribe. He also announced the “resettlement” of the Mau Forest. In April, he faced criticism when he ordered the police and army to forcibly remove 10 000 people, mainly from the Kalenjin ethnic group, from the area.

Security forces assaulted inhabitants and razed property. The government said the action was justified because the Kalenjin were destroying one of the country’s last-surviving natural forests. But the tribe regarded it as proof of “victimisation” for their continued allegiance to Moi, himself a Kalenjin elder.

A campaign against Kibaki flared in the Rift Valley. Land Minister Amos Kimunya, one of Kibaki’s key allies, defied another court order to remove thousands of people who had settled illegally on Rift Valley ranches. He told squatters gathered on one such farm: “The government will not execute the court ruling. You’d better start cultivating the farm.”

In another decision, Kibaki ceded control of the world-famous Amboseli National Park, with its spectacular views of Kilimanjaro and an elephant herd that is subject to intensive study by international researchers, to a group of local Maasai. Maasai leaders, including MPs and a Cabinet minister, have advised their ethnic kin to vote against the draft constitution.

Kibaki has also announced his intention to give land to communities in Coast Province, where Islam is the dominant religion. Muslim leaders have been encouraging a “no” vote.

Ironically, both Moi and Kenya’s founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, used land gifts to entrench their power. But Kibaki has insisted that “every Kenyan has the right to own land” and that, rather than “bribing” voters, he is correcting “historical injustices”.

Politicking aside, conservationists warn that the land allocations will have “serious and negative consequences” for Kenya, globally renowned for its efforts to combat poaching. Since Moi’s “war” on poachers in the 1980s, wildlife numbers have grown significantly and near-extinct ecosystems have rebounded. All this, say environmentalists, is in danger of being sacrificed on the altar of political expediency as Kibaki seeks to cling to power.

Kibaki’s sudden desire to grant title deeds has sparked demands for land across the country from ethnic groups who claim to have been dispossessed. Martin Ngatia, who leads a group opposed to Kibaki, predicted: “The president has started to roll a wheel he will not be able to control.”