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Kenya - tribal violence in the land of plenty

Citizen's Pathway could offer a route out of conflict argues Nim Njuguma

one of the most difficult political problems independent African governments have faced since independence is that of developing national unity among people who are divided along ethnic, language and religious lines. In Kenya, like other African countries, the favoured group is often the ethnic or language group of the political elite. This has led to increasing ethnic tensions as those groups not favoured struggle to demand what they consider to be their fair share of government support.

In Kenya, critical accusations of irregularities during the December 2007 elections sparked widespread violence. The final estimate was over 1,500 people killed and as many as 800,000 displaced from their homes: the so-called IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). These events took most Kenyans and the international community by surprise, not least because in the West the country has always been held up as a model of political stability in an increasingly unpredictable region. Yet this was not the first time that violence and displacement along 'tribal' lines has occurred in Kenya after elections and was a common feature of elections in the 1990s. However, the long-standing pattern of oversimplifying these conflicts to 'tribe' is particularly persistent in diverting attention from a structural analysis.

The underlying tension is linked to unresolved land grievances in the context of poor governance and socio-economic insecurity. This is not new and goes back to the uneven regional development during the colonial and post-colonial periods. That is why any attempt to return, relocate or initiate local integration processes, promoted as sustainable solutions for the IDPs and other victims, will not succeed in the absence of serious attempts to resolve land-related grievances. Long term solutions and programmes of resettlement will only be sustainable when they take into account the unresolved grievances of all parties of the current crisis as well as of those who were forced to move in earlier waves of displacement. However, key political and social issues that underpin the land question are complex in contemporary Kenya.

Kenya's social, political and economic problems can be attributed to three key factors; lack of preparation for independence on the part of Britain, corrupt successive governments that have diverted wealth from the public coffers into the ruling elite's own accounts, and a persistent tribalist/collectivist mindset within the populace that has frequently been evoked to bring about violent tensions.

An alien form of land tenure was introduced in the British East Africa Protectorate (as Kenya was initially named) from the time it was decided that the East Africa Protectorate would become a settlement colony. This land tenure system was similar to that existing in Britain and was introduced to motivate foreigners to settle in the colony and invest their financial resources without restraint. Settler land tenure was individual tenure and settler agriculture oriented towards cash crops, being on the most productive land. The indigenous land tenure system continued on the land not taken over by the British and was in the form of family tenure with indigenous agriculture being for subsistence. After independence, the majority of settler land was purchased by the government, which continued this practice of selling it for individual ownership and a significant proportion of this land was bought up by the new elites, those with the economic and political muscle and often associated with the Kenyatta dynasty. Individualised land tenure has, by its nature, created more people without rights to land and generated disputes over historical ownership.

The strains on the political system in the early years of independence provided an environment in which corruption became widely practised. Government officials, often frustrated by their inability to be effective, used their position to benefit themselves and members of their family. Corruption within Kenya and corrupting influences from without have impacted on the very social and economic foundation of Kenya.

A group of concerned Kenyans of multi-ethnic, non-partisan and professional backgrounds, united by a concern about the future of the country, was formed with the aim of helping to shift the Kenyan mindset away from a hard-line, narrow, political position based on tribal allegiances, to a more progressive and holistic one: 'Kenyan first and tribe second'. Citizen's Pathway has already initiated cultural visits to different tribal areas as a first step towards reconciliation and understanding.

In May 2008 the Lands Minister, Mr James Orengo, announced that all land leases granted before May 1909 long before Kenya became a British colony, would be cancelled and that the government would do an audit of all the land it owns before issuing new letters of allotment. Beginning to address this historical injustice is a welcome first step, which must proceed cautiously so as not to trigger an economic crisis.

There are still about 2,000 IDPs and the government seems to be failing in its attempt to encourage them to return to their respective areas. People fear continued political uncertainty and insecurity, not only about their immediate physical wellbeing, but also about the wider issues to do with rights, community reconciliation and sustainable access to the means of subsistence. Citizens Pathway is demonstrating that authentic dialogue among communities and negotiated settlements are possible.