The competition for political power ahead of the August General Election is one of the main factors fuelling ranch invasions in Laikipia county, investigations by the Nation show.
Many political aspirants are using the land ownership issue to win support.
“I know an MP (Member of Parliament) who has been inciting his people to invade private ranches and settle there. The same politician incites his people to conduct raids on a neighbouring community to force them out of the area,” one resident who did not want to be named for security reasons told the Nation.
One aspirant who has come out openly to use the land issue to win support is former Mungiki leader Maina Njenga, who is interested in the county's senatorial seat.
Mr Njenga argues that most of the ranch leases held by white settlers had expired and that the land should revert to the government for resettlement of the landless.
“These people (foreigners) are still holding lands they were leased by our forefathers many years back while the lease under which they were given the lands expired long time ago. They should prepare to give us our land back once I am elected as senator of this county,” he said.
He said he would introduce laws that will ensure land leases to ‘"foreigners", whom he said own nearly half of the land in the county, are not renewed.
Speaking in Nyahururu this week during a voter listing campaign, Mr Njenga said the long lasting solution to the conflict caused by herders looking for pastures and water is to give them back the land.
But there is another political angle in the conflict.
Laikipia is a Jubilee stronghold given that a majority of its people settled there from neighbouring Nyeri county. Indeed, in the 2013 General Election, the Jubilee alliance won all seats with the exception of Laikipia North which was won by Orange Democratic Movement’s Mathew Lempurkel, a Samburu.
Governor Joshua Irungu, Senator Geoffrey Gitahi Kariuki, Woman Representative Jane Apollos and MPs Dr Wachira Karani (Laikipia West), Anthony Mutahi (Laikipia East) all come from the Kikuyu community.
And observers say the reason ODM won in Laikipia North was because the United Republican Party and The National Alliance split the vote by both fielding candidates.
This time around, with Jubilee united, it is determined to sweep the board against an equally determined incumbent who wants to retain the seat.
It is this rivalry that is behind the importation of voters in the county by both sides of the political divide.
Indeed, many say it is the fear that Jubilee may field nominated MP Ms Sarah Lokerere to challenge Mr Lempurkel that is behind the bad blood between the two – she is also from the Samburu community.
Mr Lempurkel has been charged with assault following a physical altercation with Ms Lokerere in Internal Security minister Joseph Nkaissery’s office.
The Laikipia Farmers Association, which represents private investors, land owners, property managers, and businesses says their Sh4 billion operations are at risk and wants urgent high-level stakeholders’ dialogue to agree on a way forward.
The group says it has employed more than 5,000 people and funds local social development projects worth a billion shillings annually.
It is also demanding that the Kenya Police Service units be significantly reinforced and that Chief Justice David Maraga and the Director of Public Prosecutions establish a special prosecution unit and mobile court to speed up legal action against herders invading private farms and ranches.
“A series of armed attacks on private and community property in Laikipia has cost investors and citizens billions of shillings and risks ruining businesses and livelihoods in one of Kenya’s most economically buoyant regions,” warns Mr Martin Evans, the group’s chairman.
Laikipia has been known to be home to livestock keepers, particularly the Samburu and the Maasai communities.
Other communities in the area include the Kalenjin, the Turkana and the Kisii.
According to a resident who teaches at a local school and lives in Rumuruti town, land grievances in Laikipia involve both the colonial and post-independence governments.
However, he says politicians were compounding the problem through importation of voters and through incitement of members of communities they come from.
Wanyama Musiambo, the Regional Coordinator for the Rift Valley, has warned politicians against inciting people to violence but this is being ignored.
The Rift Valley Council of Elders through its chairman Gilbert Kabage has also called on the National Land Commission (NLC) and the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) to intervene and end the land conflicts in the area.
“The disputes over land if not solved will spill over to the elections and lead to serious chaos. The government should avert chaos by acting now,” Mr Kabage told the Nation in Nakuru town.
Mr Lempurkel says the land problem is caused by “outside forces” and “powerful and greedy businessmen” who are trying to illegally acquire land from the poor, illiterate pastoralists.
“It’s all about greed. It has little to do with the communities living in Laikipia county. They have been living in peace for a long time. It’s the outsiders and selfish politicians who are protected by senior people in the national government who want to evict them,” he says.
A recent report by Indigenous Movement for Peace Advancement and Conflict Transformation, a non-governmental organisation, says there is a direct and open attempt by land grabbers, using the police and some politicians, to kick out pastoral communities like the Samburu.
The Samburus recently went to court to block a police disarmament campaign they claimed only targeted them.
But Rumuruti police boss Mirengo Moherai said that the disarmament is aimed at curbing the frequent fighting between the herders in the area.
“A huge number of communities here are armed. They even threaten our officers who are giving them security. Once the operation of collecting illegal guns starts we will make sure they bring back all the guns they have, gun ownership is the cause of violence here,” he said.
Nominated Senator Naisula Lesuuda urged the National Government not to target one community during the planned disarmament.
“We know Laikipia issue is all about land. We also know that almost all Laikipia communities are armed, if it is the issue of mopping up guns, let it be balanced, disarming one community and leaving others armed is dangerous,” she said at a meeting with pastoralists in Rumuruti town.
Additional reporting by Paul Letiwa.