Laikipia crisis won't be resolved by harking back to colonial era

Saturday March 11 2017

Security officials at Sosian Ranch in Laikipia on March 6, 2017. PHOTO | STEVE NJUGUNA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Security officials at Sosian Ranch in Laikipia on March 6, 2017. PHOTO | STEVE NJUGUNA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By GITAU WARIGI
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How the white ranchers of Laikipia acquired their massive spreads of land is something we should not mix up with what they are undergoing at the hands of invading herders. We can question colonial acquisition which was highly unjust and, in the fullness of time, unsustainable. This, however, should not be an excuse for giving a pass to the impunity gun-toting herders from Pokot, Samburu and others are subjecting big landowners and small-scale farmers alike in the county.

It is not really about race, as the Western media has all but concluded. African landowners and smallholders have also been targeted in the ferocious search for pasture. There have been well-publicised cases of shootings and arson, as well as imported bad practices of large-scale cattle theft.

Mitigation against drought can be done in a civilised way without driving your livestock into other people’s farms like there was no concept of private property. The government can help by negotiating with the ranchers to temporarily allow herders to graze on portions of their land until the drought crisis eases. Many of the ranchers are not opposed to such a deal. But what they have been enduring is mayhem from the intruders who violently breach fences and shoot indiscriminately as they force their herds into land they have been made to believe was theirs.

Let’s stick to due process, and tell the herders their actions are wrong. We can deal with the lopsided land ownership structure in a different way and in a different context. Anarchy is a foolish recourse.

SENSITIVE PROBLEM

The problem of a small, insular and white landowning elite that sits on hundreds of thousands of acres in Laikipia is a sensitive one. Many Africans are very conflicted about this question. Some would even prefer outright confiscation on the grounds that the white colonial forebears grabbed the land virtually for free in the first place. However, this is an issue that must be handled in a legal and responsible way. As long as the white land leases are valid, it is wrong to try to irregularly dispossess them of their property. Whether we are happy with the situation or not, it remains their legal property until the matter of long-term leases is properly resolved.

I understand the Laikipia county government has been trying, without much success, to raise the lease rates from the ridiculously low level they have remained over the years. The landowners would be wise not to resist, if only to dilute the resentment to their presence.

One huge beef between the ranchers and the herders is how the former can reserve so much acreage to wildlife when the latter’s cattle die of lack of pasture. The county is dotted with “conservancies” devoted to wildlife and tourism, eco-lodges and such. The herders don’t see any benefit from them. All they see are landowners who value rhinos and elephants a lot more than the pastoralists and their starving cattle.

Nor do the local African farmers buy the ranchers’ contention that the soil is too thin for agriculture and that it is only good for ranching. They consider that to be a self-serving argument to guard against the threat of the expansive ranches ever being sub-divided into farms. That would mean no more wildlife. It is true northern Laikipia is parched land, but other parts support arable activity.

It is a silly myth that the enormously complex land problems bequeathed by colonialism can be easily resolved by the Truth and Justice Commission Report or the Ndung’u Land Commission Report. These were just safety valves to ease transient political pressures.

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Doctors from Tanzania and Cuba? Did I hear that right? Leave aside for now the bureaucracy of State-to-State negotiations and the hurdles of registering the foreign physicians. I doubt our neighbour has enough doctors to spare. Cuba has but, as Migori Senator Wilfred Machage wondered (he is a trained doctor), how fast can they be attuned to treating our tropical diseases which they don’t encounter in their part of the Western hemisphere?

Still, something must give. The government (or is it counties?) employs local doctors. Employer muscle will be flexed for sure. If I got thoroughly pissed off with my employer, I would simply resign rather than keep shouting at him from the streets. If you are unhappy, go.

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