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Without access to documents, land debate will get nowhere

Friday August 8 2014

Lands Cabinet Secretary Charity Ngilu

Lands Cabinet Secretary Charity Ngilu addressing a press conference on August 1, 2014 at Ardhi House, Nairobi. Land registry files will tell us about grabbing. But without access to records, we will never comprehend why Kenya’s history looks the way it does. PHOTO | JENNIFER MUIRURI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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The announcement that the land policy dating back to 1963 will be opened up to scrutiny demands debate. But putting to one side doubts about the government’s commitment to such a promise, it must be recognised that we lack access to evidence needed for such a discussion.

In the past few days, I’ve been wading through letters and documents relating to the formation of Kanu. Normally, this would mean I would be part of peak season at the National Archives building, Nairobi, as historians from Europe and America join their local colleagues working there.

This year, I’ve made a visit to look at the papers of Tom Mboya at Stanford University. But while I’ve been reading Mboya’s correspondence from the 1950s and 1960s - highlights include letters from a young Amos Wako and youthful Robert Mugabe - a friend has had a different experience in Kenya itself.

For decades, local and foreign historians using the National Archives were primarily interested in the colonial history of Kenya. The records held in stacks beneath the old Bank of India building have provided the skeleton for great works of Kenyan and African history writing.

But as more historians become interested in the period from 1963, challenges of archival research become ever more apparent, as my friend has found.



Although a well-informed commentator on Kenya, she was struck by how few records survive about key individuals and institutions in the country’s independent history. There are several reasons for this.

First, Presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi practised a form of power inimical to extensive record keeping, preferring instead informal roadside announcements.

Second, states do their best to keep controversial subjects out of the public domain. There is no better example of this than the recent discovery of hidden archives in Britain documenting the atrocious treatment of Kenyans during the Emergency of the 1950s.

Third, a lot of material has not reached the main archive building. Either retained by government agencies that produced the correspondence or stored in little-known regional repositories in the old provincial capitals, much of the historical detail about post-colonial Kenya is out of sight.

The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission pieced together such a detailed, substantial report from fragments of archival material, press reports and testimony of witnesses. The same can be said of the Ndung’u Commission.

In one sense, this matters little. There are more than enough collections of correspondence, newspapers, magazines and testimonies of witnesses to sustain countless books about Kenya’s independent history.

Historians have, furthermore, begun to use the rich materials produced by Western diplomats held in Washington and London.


Yet as the Pandora’s box of land settlement is opened, we risk seeing only a part of the picture. Land registry files will tell us about grabbing. But without access to records, we will never comprehend why Kenya’s history looks the way it does.

One does not need to be a history student to realise that Kenya’s politics has never been more dangerous than when historic land grievances, misinformation and a highly charged political atmosphere align.

If the government is serious about instigating a debate, it should locate and open up its own records on the politics of settlement.

When Kenyans speak of land-theft and grabbers, they are not just talking about obvious incidents of explicit theft of public land or the forgery of land titles. Such cases were, in any case, well documented by Ndung’u.

What is just a much a matter for controversy and resentment is the settlement schemes of the 1960s and 1970s. But we lack the detail of the political calculations and discussions which led to the designation of who should have access to which settlement schemes.

The issue and respect of land titles has been much more a political than a legal issue in post-colonial Kenya. Without access to the documents that can tell us about that political process any debate about the politics of land will be incomplete. Rumour, prejudice and falsehoods will fill the gaps.

Prof Branch teachers history at Warwick University, UK. [email protected]