Kenya’s emotive land issues must be handled with care

Friday August 09 2019

Many people believe there are only two ways to look at the issues surrounding the thousands of acres owned by non-Kenyan farmers in many parts of the country — either the land reverts to its original “owners”, which means it will being taken over by the wealthy, or some form of compensation will be paid by the money-minting plantation owners, in which case the money, again, goes into the pockets of a few. Neither prospect is very appealing, for neither will benefit the poor in any way.


Land and its ownership has always been a very emotive issue in Kenya, more so when it dawned on many that its possession confers enormous prestige to a few at the expense of the many who have nowhere to call home. However, unless managed well, the issues surrounding it might one day turn into a source of insurrection when it emerges that the children of those dispossessed long ago remain landless and bitter.

This reminds me of the famous short story by Leo Tolstoy titled ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’ It has a bitter lesson for those who accumulate land for its own sake. According to the story, a chap known as Pahom declares that if he had enough land, he would not fear Satan himself. The Devil overhears him, and decides to show the peasant who is boss. The outcome is that Pahom at last owns more land than he can possibly use, but in the end, dies of exhaustion, only to be buried in a simple six-by-six-foot grave. That is actually how much land any human being needs.

The issue of land must be handled with great care. Many people have lost their lives over it. For instance, the number of deaths associated with the ill-fated Mbo-I-Kamiti Land-Buying Company due to embezzlement of its assets and attempts to cover up the thievery is mind-boggling. Six of its directors, an accountant and a lawyer were executed in a single decade. Who says such deaths may not recur when those who feel cheated seek revenge?

In the former Rift Valley Province, hundreds of poor people who had bought land were chased away in 2007-2008 at the height of contentious elections. There is no assurance that it won’t happen again if those suspected of fomenting violence are thwarted in their political ambitions. But the fire next time will not even occur in Rift Valley; it will happen in counties whose populations keep growing while the cultivable land keeps dwindling.



This will inevitably affect vast horticultural plantations as well as ranches in Kiambu, Murang’a, Taita Taveta, Nandi, Kericho, Laikipia and Kajiado counties. This dilemma is not going away any time soon. Let us look at just one example — the huge tracts of land owned by just two multinational companies — Kakuzi, which specialises in avocado farming, and Del Monte. While the government insists that Del Monte owns only 2,900 acres in Murang’a County alone, the residents of Kandara insist the firm owns upwards of 22,000 acres. What is so difficult about surveying the land and establishing the total acreage? Kakuzi Plc, a UK-based multinational, is said to own 100,000 acres. While it is difficult for a landless peasant to fathom what this means — think about hundreds of square kilometres — one thing won’t go away. Some land will have to be surrendered and it would be in the firm’s best interest to manage the process rather than wait for invasion by angry peasants.

Nobody wants a Zimbabwe-style land-grab. It would be ridiculous to surrender that much land to people who know next to nothing about large-scale farming. I suspect that those agitating for the land are not doing it to benefit the poor. They are salivating for it because it is fertile, well-irrigated and pest-free. If they acquire the land, they may just subdivide it and sell the plots, or worse, sell bigger portions to real estate magnates to build “cities”. Either of these two possibilities is completely objectionable.

I have deliberately refrained from commenting on the tea plantations in Kericho, Nandi and Nyamira because I do not know the area well but it would be best for the multinational owners to seek amicable settlements as well. It would be naive of them to expect that things will stay the same for eternity. Large-scale ranchers in Laikipia have already started feeling the heat and it would be utter folly to imagine that future governments will be as accommodating as the last four.

Incidentally, the National Land Commission was supposed to rectify such anomalies, but there has been little progress on that front apart from a few pronouncements of intent. The new office-bearers must act more forcefully to resolve these problems. It is not enough to say, as the multinationals do, that the clamour for rectification of historical injustices do not touch them.

Mr Ngwiri is a consultant editor; [email protected]