'Tribalism' and land: The continuing colonial past in Kenya's current crisis

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'Tribalism' and land:

The continuing colonial past in Kenya's current crisis
It is difficult to make sense of the current situation in Kenya without an understanding of the role played by British colonialism in respect of the twin issues of 'tribalism' and land, says T Rajamoorthy.
FEW countries of the Third World have been so much a hostage to their colonial past as Kenya. While almost every ex-colony has the burden of its colonial past to reckon with, few entered the comity of independent nations with a political and economic structure that was so decisively determined and shaped by the colonial suzerain. Kenya's current crisis cannot be explained or comprehended without relating it to the colonial past, particularly with regard to the key issues of 'tribalism' and land.

Kenya's post-election carnage has been attributed to 'tribalism'. What began as a protest against a rigged election soon degenerated into a violent conflict along tribal lines. The protest action by Raila Odinga, leader of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement, against the incumbent president Mwai Kibaki for 'stealing' the elections took the form of an ethnic conflict first between the Luo (Odinga's tribe) and the Kikuyu (the tribe of President Kibaki) and which soon expanded to include the other ethnic communities.

Predictably, most Western commentators have treated this phenomenon as a reversion by Kenyans to their supposedly 'primitive' past. This alleged proclivity of Africans to relapse to their 'primitive' past has been a constant theme in Western reporting and even in Western interpretations of Africa's history. In the case of Kenyan history, the most notorious has been the depiction of the Mau Mau anti-colonial rebellion against British rule as an atavistic expression by Kenyans of their primordial savagery!

However, as Colin Leys noted in his study of Kenya some three decades ago, this 'tribalism' (which he refers to as 'modern tribalism') 'is the creation of colonialism. It has nothing to do with pre-colonial relations between tribes. Before colonial rule, there was not only no enmity, there was scarcely any relationship at all between Kikuyu and Luo. What brought the Kikuyu and the Luo into relations for the first time was their shared involvement in the colonial economy. The same was true of the relations between the Kikuyu and most other tribes in Kenya other than the kindred Embu and Meru, and to some extent the Kamba'.1

In short, it was the forcible integration by British colonialism of Kenya into the world economy that laid the foundations of tribalism in that country. While the specific conflict between the Kikuyus and the Luos can be traced back to the political struggle in the 1960s between Jomo Kenyatta, the country's first president, and Oginga Odinga, the vice-president, the fact that a political struggle could assume ethnic dimensions was reflective of the tribal foundations which colonialism had already established and which the post-colonial state inherited.

Most observers have noted that much of the recent bloodletting was in the Rift Valley. This valley was also the setting for earlier ethnic conflicts. The combustible issue here has been land hunger. And it was the very same process of forcible integration into the global economy that was to so distort and reshape Kenya's socio-economic structure that mass land hunger became its leading characteristic - a land hunger that was almost invariably expressed through the colonial construct of 'tribalism'.

It is important to understand how land became the central issue in Kenyan politics and history and how it became intertwined with tribalism. Without an understanding of the role played by colonialism in the whole process, it is difficult to make sense of the current situation in Kenya.

At the outset a clarification may be in order. The assertion that modern tribalism is a creation of colonialism must not be taken to imply that in pre-colonial Kenya there was no tribal rivalry or tribal conflict. The Kenyan highlands (including the Rift Valley) constituted an arena of contention between the Kikuyu, the Kalenjin (all agricultural farmers) and the Masai (principally pastoralists). Generally speaking, however, such tensions as arose were defused through the workings of the traditional systems of land tenure, which were flexible and fluid enough to accommodate the demands of agriculturalists and pastoralists alike. Land was plentiful, there were no constraints on its use (other than the limits of fertility and fodder), and new lands could be opened up when necessary by clearing forests.

The situation changed completely in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the arrival of the British colonialists and the white settlers who came in their wake. Britain not only expropriated the best lands (some 20% of Kenya's arable land) for the white settlers, but forcibly resettled the indigenous peoples in reserves located on inferior lands. More importantly, it began the process of regulating the use and ownership of land in accordance with the needs and requirements of a colonial, capitalist economy.

'Colonial capitalism' in Kenya was, however, something of an oxymoron. The requirements of colonialism, specifically, settler colonialism, necessitated the division of land by race. Hence, in addition to confining the indigenous peoples in Native Reserves, it was felt essential to ensure that the fertile lands occupied by the settlers remained an exclusively white preserve (i.e., such lands could not be purchased by Africans). The result was the transformation of the Kenyan highlands (which included part of the Rift Valley) into the 'White Highlands'.

The problem of the demarcation of reserves for indigenous peoples was compounded by the colonial attempt to approach the issue of such land rights on a tribal basis. This was despite the fact that "'tribes" in Kenya had never had any land rights as such [as] only members of a single clan could claim land as a group'.2 The result of such demarcation was the fostering of greater tribal consciousness.

While the operations of capitalism required a recognition of private property and the removal of all restrictions on the sale and purchase of such land, British colonial policy did not, until the 1960s, extend such rights to the indigenous peoples. They were expected to continue with their traditional forms of land tenure and farming practices, but within the confines of their land reserves. Clearly, these policies were a derogation of free-market principles, but they reflected the demands of white settlers who required cheap labour and feared the threat of competition from the African peasants. The latter were in fact prohibited from growing certain crops, such as coffee, which were an exclusive white settler monopoly.

These developments had a catastrophic effect upon the Kenyan peasantry. The restriction of the indigenous farmers to reserves and the enactment of forestry conservation laws prohibiting their right to clear forestlands had disastrous consequences for their livelihood. With the growth of the population, they were forced to engage in more intense cultivation of their farmland. But such intense cultivation only resulted in greater and faster soil deterioration. For the first time, they experienced the phenomenon of land shortage.

In the struggle to survive, many peasants were forced to leave their homes in the reserves to become 'squatters' on settler farms in the White Highlands. It was the emigration of the Kikuyu to the Rift Valley, long regarded by the Masai and the Kalenjin as their traditional home, which was to sow the seeds for future tribal friction.

While most indigenous people experienced painful changes, there were some who profited from British rule and benefited from its policies. Already in the 1920s and 1930s, some prosperous indigenous farmers were demanding guaranteed private titles to the lands they were cultivating. And when colonial policy makers proposed and implemented a policy of consolidation of small farmholdings to make them more viable for capitalist farming, some of these more prosperous elements took advantage of this opportunity to expand their holdings and consolidate their growing power. The foundations were thus laid for the emergence of a new class within indigenous society which welcomed the new social and economic order.

But such prosperity and wealth was confined to a small minority. The vast majority were traumatised by colonial policies, none more so than the Kikuyu. They had borne the brunt of evictions from their traditional homelands and, as cultivators of the soil, land shortage impacted most heavily on them. Not surprisingly, it is they who were in the forefront in voicing the demand of the indigenous peoples for the return of lands expropriated by the white settlers. The 1952 Mau Mau rebellion, while unquestionably a nationalist anti-colonial armed revolt to end British rule, was largely a Kikuyu response to land deprivation and other indignities of colonial rule.

Not all responses to British colonial oppression, even within the Kikuyu community, were so uncompromising, however. There were conservative nationalists (best represented by Jomo Kenyatta) who, while opposed to British rule and policies, were only prepared to wage a peaceful and constitutional struggle to win freedom. And there were 'loyalists' comprising the rich landed classes ('landed gentry'), 'traditionalists' and the influential Christian communities who were on the other side of the divide.

The war against the Mau Mau rebels proved to be one of the most savage and brutal colonial wars in modern history. It began in October 1952 with the declaration of a state of emergency and dragged on for some seven years, during which some 20,000 rebels were killed in combat while 1,090 of them were sent to the gallows. Some 150,000 Kenyans were detained, mostly without trial.3 Unspeakable atrocities, including public executions, rape, torture and starvation, were committed with impunity by British security forces against men, women and children.4

The Mau Mau rebellion aggravated Kenya's land crisis. The British punished all those who took part in, supported or were merely suspected of supporting the revolt by confiscating their lands. Thus Mau Mau fighters, who took to the hills and forests, and all those charged in court or detained without trial lost their lands, which were given over to loyalists as a reward for their support. When the state of emergency was lifted in 1960, large groups of people so dispossessed (mainly Kikuyus) began moving to the Rift Valley to start a new life. This served to further worsen ethnic relations between the new settlers and the Kalenjin, the Masai and kindred groups who regarded the Rift Valley as their traditional home.

As British forces managed to turn the tide in the war against the Mau Mau, they slowly began planning the transition to a post-colonial order.

The key figure in this transition was to be Jomo Kenyatta. Kenyatta had opposed the Mau Mau but so total was the political myopia of the colonial authorities that they connived to have him convicted and sentenced to seven years' jail on a trumped-up charge of 'managing the Mau Mau'. 'Hardly the mastermind of the movement, he instead did everything in his power both before and after independence to marginalise those who had fought and been detained in the war'.5 When the British subsequently realised that he was not their real foe, steps were taken for his rehabilitation and he was afforded the opportunity to play the role of 'The Great Reconciler', a role he revelled in playing.

Ostensibly, the reconciliation was to be between all those who had opposed British colonial rule (including the militants) and the loyalists who had collaborated. In reality, the reconciliation was between the conservative nationalists and the collaborators, as the militants, especially the Mau Mau insurgents who survived, were to become non-persons in independent Kenya. The history of their struggle was consigned to oblivion and any mention of them was taboo.

The post-colonial order
While the colonial regime was guilty of blatantly exploiting 'tribalism' to maintain its hegemony, the tragedy of Kenya is that successive post-colonial administrations have displayed no compunctions about using ethnicity to consolidate their power. The mobilisation of mass support by the use of patronage afforded by political power and office has been the stock in trade of the Kenyan ruling class. Among the many objects of patronage used for such mobilisation, none has proved to be so enduringly valuable as land.

After Kenya became independent in 1963, and Kenyatta became its first president, no serious attempt was made to tackle the burning issue of land by carrying out deep-seated land reforms. Instead, Kenyatta's regime agreed to accept a huge loan from Britain and the World Bank to finance the purchase by Kenyans, at exorbitant prices, of the land which the settlers had in fact stolen. Under a number of government settlement schemes (the most notable being the Million Acre scheme), some half a million people were resettled from the land purchased from the settlers. But while the problem of land hunger among the poor was in this way temporarily assuaged, the rich were not forgotten. 'In the end, about 40% of the European mixed-farm areas [became] settlement schemes, and roughly 60%, or two million acres, African-owned large farms.'6

Significant as the class bias was, the more significant aspect of the land distribution programmes was their use for ethnic mobilisation. Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, used the programmes for consolidating his political base within his ethnic community. No doubt, under the 'willing buyer, willing seller basis' on which the programmes were based, the Kikuyus, with their more developed commercial enterprise arising from their greater exposure to the market, would have profited most. But the disproportionate number of Kikuyus on government land schemes and the large number of Kikuyu purchasers of the large farms reveal more than the normal operations of the market.

The ethnic bias was especially evident in the purchase and distribution of white settler farms in the Rift Valley, an area which has traditionally been regarded by the Kalenjin and the Masai as their home. As pointed out earlier, the Kalenjins had already been aggrieved by the large-scale influx of Kikuyu squatters during British rule. Now the inflow of more Kikuyu land purchasers threatened to inflame the situation. As a sop to assuage Kalenjin sentiment and to help him to defuse a volatile situation, Kenyatta in 1966 appointed Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin, as his new vice-president in place of Oginga Odinga.

Oginga Odinga, who had resigned from the post as a result of serious differences (including over land policies), had been naive enough to believe that Kenyatta was 'the father of Kenyan nationalism' and had served him loyally. Sincerely believing that a one-party state 'would end disunity and tensions among the people', he had set about tinkering with the Kenyan constitution which (he complained), far from being 'a constitution of checks and balances', had 'more checks than anything else'.7 By the time he realised the folly of his action in helping to concentrate power in what was to become a one-party state, it was too late.

Kenya's post-colonial administrations have never hesitated to use the full power of this repressive state to silence dissent and opposition parties and movements, including the movements by Oginga and his son Raila to restore democracy. They have done this with the full knowledge that, beyond some occasional and brief suspensions of economic aid, the West has never been prepared to do anything to alienate a staunch ally, first in the war against Communism and more recently against Terror.

Oginga Odinga's resignation had great significance in ethnic terms as it signalled the end of the alliance between Kenya's two biggest ethnic groups, the Luo and the Kikuyu. Moi was prepared to tolerate Kenyatta's pro-Kikuyu policies only while the Old Man was alive. Once Moi succeeded him after his death, he began his own mobilisation among the Kalenjin, which provoked charges by Kikuyu of discrimination.

The climax of such ethnic mobilisation was towards the end of 1992, when, faced with a strong opposition and calls for an end to one-party rule, his ministers decided to rally support in, not unexpectedly, the Rift Valley. 'At a series of political rallies, ministers told their supporters that they should regard the Rift Valley as an exclusive zone for the [ruling] Kenya African National Union (KANU); those who were not Kalenjin or KANU supporters or who were "outsiders" in the Rift Valley province should be required "to go back to their motherland". The main target of this attempt at ethnic cleansing were Kikuyu residents and anyone who favoured multi-party politics.'8

The results were predictable. In October, violence erupted between the Kalenjin and non-Kalenjin residents spreading across the province, continuing until 1994, with a death toll reaching 800. Tens of thousands were forced to flee their homes.

The same pattern of violence was repeated in the Rift Valley in the recent outbreak of hostilities. Far from being the oasis of peace and stability the Western media has projected it to be, Kenya has in fact for many years been a country riven by social tensions expressed in ethnic terms. The threat of such ethnic violence will continue until the issue of land hunger is tackled.

It is difficult to be optimistic that the new Kibaki-Raila Odinga coalition will be able to come to grips with this problem. As the two leaders continue to wrangle over cabinet posts, the Daily Nation (Nairobi) (25 March) reports that in the Mt. Elgon area near the Ugandan border, a full-scale military operation by a combined army and military police has been underway for more than a week to crush a militia group which has been running 'a makeshift government' in the district for the past two years! The report speaks of 'bombs dropped from the sky' and 'phosphorous-laden explosives unleashed by military gunships pounding Mt. Elgon'. The report says that 'interviews with residents indicate that hundreds of suspects have died in the bombings and at the hands of military torturers. A source said "many" boys were bombed in a cave ... after defying an order to surrender'.9

Significantly, the militia group against which this full-scale war has been launched calls itself the 'Sabaot Land Defence Force'. The group claims to represent the Soy, a sub-clan of the Sabaot people (who in turn are a sub-tribe of the Kalenjin). Their grievance is that a rival sub-clan had been given land hived off the Elgon forest which had been their home until they were evicted and moved to a reserve by the government. The seeds of this dispute, like much of Kenya's current tensions, were sown in the 1950s when the British moved this rival sub-clan from their traditional homeland and settled them near the top of Mt. Elgon, from whence they were resettled in the Elgon forest reserve in the 1960s by the post-colonial government.

The SLDF has been accused of committing atrocities and being involved in a 'reign of terror' against the people of the district. It certainly is no Mau Mau, but the land dispute that has given birth to it is just one more of the myriad conflicts in Kenya which, according to an activist, 'stem from historical injustices to indigenous people, use of land for political patronage and neglect on the part of successive Kenyan governments in addressing these issues.'10
T Rajamoorthy, a senior member of the Malaysian Bar, is an Editor of Third World Resurgence.
1 Colin Leys (1975), Underdevelopment in Kenya: The Political Economy of Neo-Colonialism, London: Heinemann, p. 199.

2 RMA van Zwanenberg with Anne King (1975), An Economic History of Kenya and Uganda, 1800-1970, London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, p. 43.

3 David Anderson (2005), Histories of the Hanged: Britain's Dirty War in Kenya and the End of the Empire, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pp. 4-7.

4 For a powerful expos‚, see Caroline Elkins (2005), Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya, New York: Henry Holt and Company.

5 Elkins, op. cit., p. 361.

6 Leys, op. cit., pp. 89-90.

7 Oginga Odinga (1968), Not Yet Uhuru, London: Heinemann, p. 233.

8 Martin Meredith (2005), The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence, London: Free Press, p. 402.

9 Ken Opala (2008), 'Residents rejoice as bombs smoke out Mt Elgon's terrorist militia', Daily Nation, 25 March.

10 Mutuku Nguli, director of Peacenet, a network of development groups. Reported in: Najum Mushtaq (2008), 'An intractable land dispute grinds on', Inter Press Service report, 19 March.

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