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The big picture in Narok crisis

Friday February 13 2015

Narok Governor Samuel Kuntai Tunai during a past interview. FILE PHOTO |

Narok Governor Samuel Kuntai Tunai during a past interview. FILE PHOTO |  NATION MEDIA GROUP

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What could be going on in Narok County? If you rely on radio, TV and daily papers, you may have concluded that power politics is at play and leaders behaving badly as usual. True. But why? There is more to the conflict simmering in Narok than meets the eye and it has been coming for a while, writes David Ndii.

Let’s start with the big picture.

We are a land poor agrarian society. Only 17 per cent of our land is categorised as arable, high and medium potential agricultural land. Our population has grown seven-fold since independence; from six million to just about 42 million.

Since land is fixed, the pressure on it has increased tremendously. The amount of high potential land has shrunk from 1.4 acres per person to just under 0.4 acres.

Forty five per cent of all high potential agricultural land in the country is in the Rift Valley. For decades, the region has been Kenya’s population sponge. Fifty years ago, it had three acres of high potential land per person, more than double the national average.

This has fallen to just about 0.6 acres; not significantly higher than the national average.


In short, most of the Rift Valley has run out of land — except Narok. Thirty per cent of the arable land classified as high potential agricultural in the Rift Valley is actually in Narok. Trans Mara, to be specific.

The county accounts for 13 per cent of the country’s total high potential land, the same as the five old Central Province counties combined. Excluding Narok, the rest of the Rift Valley is now as land-poor as the rest of the country.

Narok still boasts 2.3 acres of high potential land per person. It is instructive that one of the accusations levelled against Governor Samuel Tunai is that he is part of a conspiracy to boost the immigrant population as a strategy for securing his re-election.

Let’s start with the consequences that have already played out. Historically, Central Kenya has been the biggest beneficiary of migration as a solution to population explosion. For decades, “ruguru” (west) was the main safety valve that precluded population pressure from becoming a major socio-economic and perhaps even political explosion.

To be sure, landless and land-poor Central Province kikuyus migrated to other parts of the country — the Coast and Lamu in particular — but the Rift Valley took the lion’s share.

In fact, Kikuyus accounted for half of the estimated 700,000 settlers who migrated into the Rift Valley from independence to 1990.

Up until the early 90s, a young man could trade his quarter acre inheritance in Kiambu for at least two acres or more of good land in “ruguru” then go and make a respectable life for himself.

Obviously, this chapter would come to an end at some point. When it came, it was abrupt, brutal and dramatic.

In the early hours of December 24 1994, Administration Police officers and Kanu youthwingers descended on an IDP camp in Maela, Naivasha where an estimated 30,000 mostly kikuyu victims of clashes had been living for about a year.

The IDPs were sorted by ancestral origin, put in trucks and dumped at various places in their “home districts”. Those originally from Kiambu were dumped in Kirigiti Stadium. The message could not have been clearer.

Three things followed. First, crime soared. Second, Mungiki became a household name. Third, young men and some not so young took to drink.

The crime wave did subside to a degree, but Mungiki and lethal brews still stalk the land. Young men are still selling their inheritance. Most of them are dead in three years.

The most intense population pressure in Kikuyuland is largely in the past.

The region just happens to have been the vanguard of a demographic dynamic that every other region and community is going or will go though.

A sharp decline in child mortality in the 60s and early 70s led to a baby boom.

Education and family planning then kicked in, reducing the fertility rate (number of births per woman) sharply in the 80s and 90s. Contrary to popular imagination, the much lamented dearth of children in the region is not because the men are failing in their conjugal duties but because educated women seldom want seven children.


The community that is most acutely confronting the Malthusian problem now (population threatening to outstrip the resource base) is the Kalenjin. The shoe, as they say, is on the other foot. The Mau forest has borne the brunt of population pressure. There is a view that taking the lead in the evictions and rehabilitation of the Mau cost Mr Raila Odinga the Kalenjin vote.

There is much reluctance, including complete denial sometimes, of the resource dimension of political violence. In part, this is to maintain the constitutional fiction that Kenyans can live, own property and exercise their political rights anywhere in the republic and that the state can guarantee the exercise of these rights.

In part, it is because acknowledging the resource conflict is seen to diminish the crime, for in a resource conflict, we may have to recognise that there may be an underlying injustice. Not so if the violence is cast as purely politically motivated ethnic cleansing.

Can Narok continue to “hoard” half of the high potential land in the Rift Valley even as its neighbours and erstwhile political allies stare Malthusian doom in the face? Time will tell.

What we can predict, however with a reasonable degree of certainty, is that the Kalenjin-Maasai faultline is the new theatre of land-ethnic-political conflict.

The strategic national question is about agriculture and food security. We have relied historically on rain-fed agriculture in the land we call high potential to feed ourselves.

At less than half an acre per person, productivity would have to rise very dramatically to continue feeding the country.

But our agricultural productivity is not rising. Moreover, because of the demographic transition in central Kenya, land is going out of production as farmers grow old and die.

The obvious thing is to turn to the land we call medium potential. We have a lot of it.

Tana River County alone is 35,000 square kilometres — close to nine million acres of mostly flat arable land and plenty of water.

It has 250,000 inhabitants. Rwanda, with 10 million people, is 30 per cent smaller at 24,000 square kilometres.

There is much talk of irrigating these medium and even lower potential areas like Galana, further south.

Tana River has the land, but with only 250,000 people, half of them pastoralists, the county does not have the labour force to work the land.

Even if it attracted large scale commercial farmers, it would still require labour. That aside, we do not have a good experience with large commercial food production.


If we are going to feed ourselves from our own land resources, there is no getting away from migration.

If we were an integrated society, this would not arise. But we are not. We are a country of distinct ethnic territories. Names denote not just place but the people who own the place — Meru, Kisii, Taita, Turkana, Samburu, Kuria, Embu and so on.

Even when the formal name does not, we designate them informally — Maasailand, Luo Nyanza, Ukambani and others.

Even as land goes out of production in Kikuyuland, and the Kipsigis burst at the seams, the second coming will be history before a Kipsigis ventures to buy land and settles in Mathioya.

David Ndii is Managing Director of Africa Economics. [email protected]