The dispute over a 2,400-acre farm in Mau Narok on the border of Narok and Nakuru has worsened after armed herdsmen attacked government officials and torched three houses.
The incident was followed by an exchange of words between Heritage minister William Ole Ntimama, who backs the herders, and Molo MP Joseph Kiuna, who insists the land is in his constituency.
Mr Ntimama defended the attack, saying it was sparked by police brutality.
He said residents became hostile after police beat up a group of youths who had blocked Kenya Agricultural Research Institute tractors from ploughing the land.
“The land was the only grazing field for the community. They were enraged by the police brutality,” said Mr Ntimama.
Mr Kiuna, who toured the area on Tuesday, called for the arrest of the youth who burnt houses.
Large number of people
“We have information that 200 youth met in Olokurto in Narok North to plot this act. How could a meeting of such a large number of people escape notice?” asked Mr Kiuna.
His earlier call to Mr Ntimama to join him in trying to ease tension was rebuffed by the elderly politician.
Elders, peace monitors and civil society have warned that the government should resolve the issue before it escalates into an all-out conflict.
Likia and Beyond Peace and Conflict Reconciliation Council chairman Bishop Abraham Gitu told Mr Ntimama and Mr Kiuna to stop what he said were inflammatory remarks.
“The clergy and government should step in and resolve the issue without involving politicians who are interested parties,” said Bishop Gitu.
Eldoret-based Centre for Human Rights and Democracy director Ken Wafula pointed out that Mau Narok was one of the post-election hotspots and the “dispute should not be taken casually.”
A year before election
“Land is a very emotion charged issue. This conflict is particularly sensitive, coming barely a year before another election,” said Mr Wafula, who is also chairman of the National Council of Non-Governmental Organisations.
The government bought the land a prominent wheat farmer in November last year to resettle Internally Displaced Persons, sparking an outcry from the Maa community, which claims it was fraudulently taken away from them in the 1970s.
More than 50 Maasai elders had earlier moved to court to compel the government to return the land.
In a suit filed in Nairobi by lawyer Thomas Letangule, the elders say the government failed to resettle them on their ancestral land and instead gave it to two powerful individuals.
The petition came hot on the heels of a precedent set by the Africa Union’s African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights when it granted the Endorois community the rights to their ancestral land.
Presiding over the case, Nairobi High Court judge Lady Justice Roselyne Wendo directed the case be transferred to the Nakuru High Court, saying the disputed land is in Molo District.
The lawyer said the suit has historical significance because it is the first time the Maasai are claiming land under native title.
If the case is successful, indigenous communities across the country could claim land lost through historical injustices by the colonial and post-independence governments.
The elders criticised Attorney General Amos Wako for letting the government buy the land yet he knew the matter was in court.
“He failed in his duty. However, he should move fast and cancel the deal until the matter is resolved by the courts,” said the elders’ spokesperson, Mr Daniel ole Kiptunen.
The elders got the backing of former Trade minister Dr Mukhisa Kituyi, who said the government should have consulted the local community before buying the land.
“The government has no business meddling in a Narok County affair. Some people think counties will be launched officially, yet they were brought to life by the new Constitution,” said Dr Kituyi.
Meanwhile, political rivalry and mistrust could see the matter drag for a long time.
“Mr Ntimama fears that infiltration of the immigrant community might tilt the political equation, especially after the proposed split of his Narok North constituency which will leave him hanging onto the largely cosmopolitan Narok town, Olokurto and the areas surrounding Mau Narok,” said political analyst Kipkirui Telwa.
An elder who requested not to be named claimed the government intended to settle IDPs on ADC land in Lanet and move research activities to Mau Narok.
“That way the government will have its cake and still eat it,” he said.
Other unconfirmed reports say the government intended to build an Administration Police training camp on 1,000 acres of the disputed land.
“Why are they in a hurry to till this land yet the matter is in court? Why are they using excessive force to quell peaceful demonstrations?” asked Mr Kiptunen, wondering why the government was insisting on this piece when it had lots of fallow land elsewhere.
“The community is tired of police harassment and it is time for the government to listen to our grievances. Our people have been arrested arbitrarily and their sheep confiscated,” Mr Kiptunen said.
He called for the immediate withdrawal of tractors ploughing the land.
Last year, the community managed to block the resettlement of IDPs on the piece of land.
The Maasai land question dates back to the colonial times.
Lost their land
According to a team of professors from Prescott University-Arizona, USA, the people of Mau Narok first lost their land to British settlers as a consequence of the 1911 Agreement that forced them off their homeland to a native reserve in southern Kenya.
Professors Meitamei Ololdapash, Mary Poole and Kaitlin Noose say in a research paper that prior to this, the Masaai ancestral home stretched some 700 miles from what would be northern Kenya into central Tanzania, and 400 miles from East to West, including what is now Nairobi.
The report further says that the 1911 agreement was drafted to annex some of the most valuable land in British East Africa for the exclusive benefit of European settlers.
“One of those settlers was Edward Powys Cobb, a British immigrant who petitioned the government at the time of his arrival in Kenya in 1907 for 30,000 acres of the Maasai drought reserve at Mau Narok, part of it now bought by the government to resettle IDPs,” reads the report.
In the dark
Mr Cobb then was able to gain title to the 30,000 acres because of his political power in the colonial government and because he kept the Maasai community in the dark.
According to an elder in the area, Mzee Tuireren Ole Tikani, Mau Narok is the name given to an area of land that once was part of a blanket of forest, the northeastern corner of the Mau Forest, Kenya’s largest water catchment area.
He said the border of Mau Narok has never been inscribed on land; as the trees have been felled to create land for settler agriculture, the original borders that were delineated by the forest have become erased.
“In 1916, the land on Mau Narok promised to Mr Cobb was surveyed, and the Maasai were again told that it was to be a farm and excluded from the reserve…This caused a good deal of dissatisfaction, the elders maintaining that they had been promised the whole of Mau Narok at the time of the move and making allegations against the government of a breach of faith,” he said.
However, in the mid 1960s, Mau Narok was re-appropriated by the Kenyatta administration.
The Maasai people were further locked out of the land after 1963 as the government allowed the farms to be consolidated into large holdings of 10,000 acres or more, the report says.