All major violent conflicts in Kenya have had a connection to land. Presently, villagers have vacated large swathes of land in Baringo North, Laikipia, and Elgeyo-Marakwet, as well as along the Meru-Isiolo border and Kitui-Tana River border, having fled from cattle rustlers. There are low-intensity conflicts and potential conflicts in scores of other areas: for example, Turkana, Marsabit, Trans-Mara, and the Nandi-Kisumu-Kericho borders. Media reports in The Standard as of August 1st indicate that some Kenyans are currently returning to their “areas of ethnic origins” as the August 8, 2017, elections fast approach. Some say they are travelling “home” to cast their votes and others fear for their safety, both explanations quite telling. The history of election-related violence in 2007, 1997, and 1992 may suggest that this movement is politically motivated, but the actual violent mobilizations were fundamentally underpinned by land-driven grievances. All the major observers of the 2017 poll, such as the Elections Observation Group (ELOG), African Union (AU), and European Union (EU) election observer missions, have expressed concern over the possible outbreak of violence if the election is deemed by a majority of Kenyans not to have been conducted in a credible, free, and fair manner.

Land-based conflicts go even further back to the colonial period, with the Mau Mau revolt being the most prominent. The increase in recent years in frequency and geographic spread of these conflicts, however, calls for a fresh look into the land question in Kenya. The colonial conquest of Kenya had been accompanied by immense violence and settler colonies established mainly in what became the “white highlands.” Indeed, (Lord) Hastings declared in introducing the (British) government’s report on the First Lancaster House Conference to the House of Lords in March 1960: “The Problem of White Highlands must be sorted out before Kenya ever gets self-government, let alone independence.” As independence approached, the colonial changes to land tenure seemed to acquire a permanence, at least in the mind of some Africans. The new ideas of private land, large commercial plantations, and land titling became important—if largely controversial—features of land tenure. The reaching of these agreements on land was an important matter with deep repercussions that would reverberate in Kenya long after independence. The various forces of British colonial power as well as the African negotiators engaged in protracted and divisive negotiations over a period of roughly three years. These were real drivers to the divisions within and between these groups that still form the basis for most of the present land conflicts.

The outcome of these independence negotiations as far as land is concerned was, for all intents and purposes, a continuation of the status quo. A key outcome was the effective re-statement and entrenchment of the Swynnerton Plan of 1954 through the advent of the new Million-Acre Settlement Scheme of 1962–1965. The main thrust of these land policies was to create a landed middle class that would act as a bulwark of support for conservative post-independence government policies on land. By facilitating land transfer on financial terms, the colonial government hoped to—and in fact, did—create a landed and propertied middle class of Africans that now had a real interest to protect and support the “legacies” of the colonial land tenure system. Along with the Million-Acre Settlement Scheme, other land transfer plans in the early 1960s added a tiny layer of large-scale land-owning Africans who became an ubiquitous and enduring feature of Kenya’s elite class (Wasserman 1976). Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was to note in his 1967 autobiography, Not Yet Uhuru, that: “In retrospect, the colonial government had outmanoeuvred the African nationalists in the negotiations for independence.” These land programs set post-independence Kenya on a slippery slope.

Post-independence negotiations over land regime have so far yielded little real positive outcome. On paper, the new and popular constitution promulgated in 2010, the National Land Commission (NLC) Act of 2012, the Final Report of the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) of Kenya in 2013, and various other commissions and reports on land have offered possible ways forward. What is lacking is the political will to implement the recommendations from these reports. The land settlements at independence predisposed Kenya to structural instability that, so far, the political classes are unable to disentangle or mediate largely because a considerable section of their number is implicated. The link between foreign commercial agreements and land also must be revisited and reconsidered.

Complicating these problems further are issues of climate change and population growth, which have disproportionately and adversely affected the pastoral arid and semi-arid areas of the country that are already prone to frequent land-based resource conflicts. A general election like the forthcoming one offers Kenyans the chance to decide which party and candidate shows the political will to restart an inclusive, participatory national dialogue on this delicate and long-standing issue. The National Super Alliance (NASA) led by Raila Odinga has promised to implement the TJRC report and address fundamental issues to do with land. On its part, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party argues that implementing the TJRC report will destabilize the country and open wounds that should be left to heal. The difference between the two leading political coalitions masks a deep history, which Kenya must face one day in the future. As Bob Marley once sang: “He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.” On August 8th, Kenyans will decide whether to face their past, or defer it to their children and children’s children.

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