Ethnic tensions

Roots of violence

by Paul Kawegah

In brief

Farm land in the Rift Valley.

Farm land in the Rift Valley.

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According to a popular narrative, ethnic tensions drive Kenya’s political conflicts. The focus on tribal identities, however, fails to highlight the relevance of land disputes. To understand how the country’s ethnic diversity is linked to these disputes, one must consider history.

Long before independence, members of the elite began to take control of large tracts of land for their personal benefit. It helped that the British colonial regime enforced rules according to which the governor held all land in trust on behalf of the English monarchy. Masses of indigenous Kenyan people were dispossessed and became casual labourers on land that was originally theirs.

Kenya’s Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC), which was set up to deal with the post-election violence of 2007/2008, affirmed that this was how grievances over land started. They have haunted the country ever since. For instance, they have been at the root of election-related rioting in 1992, 1997 and 2007/08. The violence of 2007/08 made headlines all over the world. It claimed about 1,500 lives and forced some 300,000 people to flee from their homes. Many are still internally displaced persons today (see box). How this year’s election will play out remained to be seen in early June, when this essay was finalised.

Unfortunately, regime-backed grabbing did not end with colonial rule in 1963, and it often had a tribal dimension. Kenya is a diverse country with many different cultures. Most regions are predominantly populated by local tribes who, not without reason, believe that they historically own their region. They tend to consider all those who speak other languages and live according to different traditions to be “outsiders” or even “invaders”.

In the past, tensions over land were nonetheless often resolved peacefully in negotiations of tribal community leaders. Over the decades, this has become increasingly more difficult. There are several reasons, including population growth and the impacts of climate change.

The increasingly monetised economic matters too. When people were basically subsistence farmers, compromise was easier to find. Its monetary relevance has made land more valuable. Where oil, gas or other underground resources are discovered, even more money is at stake. Greed matters.

That infrastructure has typically been built to serve the interests of the more powerful groups, adds to feelings of grievance. Since colonial times, moreover, Kenya’s legal system has a similar inherent pro-power bias, so codified law does not always help. It may actually challenge what seems right to local communities. As lawyers and other people with formal education gain relevance, moreover, traditional community leaders lose some of their clout. Civil-society organisations have been lending support to grassroots communities, but they are often overburdened and cannot reduce the growing complexity of the conflicts. In any case, local people no longer have ownership of all dimensions that relate to a conflict.

Some isolated counties in Kenya have a history of prolonged droughts and harsh weather. These areas were marginalised by governments in colonial as well as post-colonial times. They are sparsely populated and typically still lack essential infrastructure. Nonetheless, the indigenous peoples who live there feel strongly about the land they consider their own. 

The dynamics change if oil is found. In Turkana County, for example, the value of land multiplied. Private-sector companies and individuals now own large tracts of land and expect to profit from oil production. The local people, however, are hardly involved in this business. Their communities have lived in isolation for generations. To them, the abrupt arrival of “outsiders” is more than an intrusion on their traditional culture. It looks like a forceful takeover of resources.

Over the years, Kenyan governments have made several attempts to resolve historical land injustices. Several commission were established, including the Commission of Inquiry into the Land Law System in Kenya (called “Njonjo Commission” after the chairperson) in 1999, the Commission of Inquiry into The Illegal/Irregular Allocation of Public Land (“Ndungu Commission”) in 2003, the above-mentioned TJRC and, most recently, the National Land Commission (NLC) in 2012.

The Ndungu Commission published its report in 2004, stating that illegal and irregular allocation of land was an important component of large-scale official corruption, as individuals and corporations acquired land in illegitimate ways. Both national and local government levels were said to be involved in such crimes. The issue remains unresolved.

The media tend to focus on the ethnic dimension of the conflicts and hardly discuss underlying land issues. The land issues may seem unmanageable, but government agencies often prove to be unable to manage ethnic tensions too. There is a pattern of violence erupting in the context of elections. Campaigns provide opportunities to express land-related grievances, and the aggrieved often argue along ethnic lines.

Election violence occurred in 1992, when multi-party democracy was introduced, and again in 1997 and 2007. It was telling that “local communities” clashed with “immigrants”. That was especially the case in the fertile Rift Valley.

Some observers have argued that land issues did not cause violence, as there were no clashes in 2002 and 2013, when political leaders did not emphasise tribal identities the way they did in 1992 and 1997.  This argument is flawed because it does not consider why ethnic propaganda can become so devastating.

The truth is that ethnic conflicts and land disputes are intertwined – and have been so for a long time. The Rift Valley and the Indian Ocean coast are the epicentres of land-related conflicts between the Kikuyu and indigenous communities. The Kikuyu are Kenya’s most populous group and make up almost a quarter of its people. Jomo Kenyatta, the country’s first president and father of Uhuru Kenyatta, the current one, had a tendency to settle supporters on fertile land. Many of his supporters were Kikuyu like him. In the eyes of local communities they were – and their descendants are – outsiders.

Not only election violence is related to land disputes. To some extent, that is also true of terrorism. In June 2014, militants attacked the town of Mpeketoni in coastal Lamu county  twice. More than 60 people died. Al-Shabaab, an Islamist militia from Somalia, claimed responsibility. Nonetheless, President Uhuru Kenyatta spoke of “well planned, orchestrated and politically motivated ethnic violence against a Kenyan community”. According to him, the attacks were designed to evict that community.  Kenyans know he meant Kikuyus.

Islamist terrorism is a complex phenomenon. There are several ways to explain it. The land aspect is certainly relevant. After taking over power from Britain, President Jomo Kenyatta had settled Kikuyus in Mpeketoni area. To date, the local Somali and Oromo populations vehemently lay claim of ancestry to that land.

A better future is possible. In 2012, the National Land Commission was established by an act of parliament. It is an independent entity that is designed to initiate investigations into present or historical land injustices and recommend appropriate ways of redress. The Commission can act on its own initiative or respond to complaints.

In the long run, Kenya’s domestic Peace hinges on its success. Whether it proves effective remains to be seen as it is still in an early phase. It is worrisome, however, that the NLC faces the same challenges earlier commissions struggled with. It needs more funding, its mandate is not entirely clear and it is likely to run into opposition from the ministry of land.


Paul Kawegah works for the GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit) in the context of Germany’s Civil Peace Service (CPS). The GIZ-CPS engages with Kenyan communities and civil-society organisations with the goals of dealing with the past, fostering social-economic justice and building responsible leadership.
[email protected]

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