Landless citizens of a location just outside Nairobi have been fighting for their rights to land since Kenya’s independence 50 years ago. Successive governments – including those of two presidents, Jomo Kenyatta and his son Uhuru, who come from the area – have failed to give these people justice.
On Tuesday, September 23, the residents of Twiga Farm marched through the streets of Nairobi to hand in a petition to the National Assembly. Their demand was an investigation in the unlawful eviction from their lands, the Twiga Farm, and recognition of their right to return.
There have been many evictions and land grabs in the headlines in recent years but the knotted chains of events that can lead to forced eviction can seem prohibitively complex. The story of the residents of Kiambu County can perhaps shed a little light onto the cycle of disowning a people of their history, systems and culture of land to the modern collusion of local, national and international interest leading to legal and illegal land grabs.
The 1200 acres of Twiga Farm lie in the heart of Kenya in Kiambu County, northeast of Nairobi. The area, with its green hills and fertile fields, first attracted land grabbers in the form of white settlers during the colonial regime. The Kikuyu, who had lived and cultivated these lands for centuries were forcibly reduced to being workers on the white farms.
The British established a property registration system that individualized and commercialized land - contradictory to the Kikuyu tradition of sharing and valuing land. Most Africans had no access to or representation in this system, and so no means to protect their land. The legacy of this system is still being felt in many of the disputes over land seen since independence.
In 1963, the year of independence, the Kenyan government took a loan from the British government to buy back their land from the colonialist. By then Kenya was well set on its capitalist path and the largest chunks of land went to the new Kenyan political elite, who had the resources and power to buy it. It is no coincidence that the current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the first president Jomo Kenyatta – himself a Kikuyu – is believed to own the largest parcels Kenya’s privately held land today. Other Kikuyu, who were the largest group that were dispossessed, were relocated to other areas of the country. This seemed to work until 1992, when the end of the Cold War prompted the spread of neo-liberal democracy through an influx of conditional aid money combined with national demand for democracy. In the first multiparty election since 1964, the political elite fomented issues over land to rally support along ethnic lines. The results were instances of Post- Election Violence since 1992 with the worst happening in 2007/2008. The clashes, however, produced Internally Displaced People, who fled their lands and the mismanagement in resettling them or rather in addressing the malfunction and injustice of the land tenure system caused further tension. Lastly, the era of investment has fully set root in Kenya, causing legal and illegal evictions, as land becomes lucrative to national and international elites to extract resources and other investment projects. Yet, citizens have been convinced to believe that land issues are a matter of scarcity and rivalries between communities, rather than as a result of land grab by national and foreign elites, companies or as part of skewed ‘development schemes’.
The case of Twiga Farm can be understood against this background. After Kenya got its independence, the British settler who ‘owned’ the land in the colonial system, gave it back to the people who had worked for him instead of paying out their retirement funds. The people of Twiga divided the land among them, built a school and a dispensary, and made a little town. The farm was even allocated a voting station since 1964- a sign that it was recognized as a legitimate community. However, Twiga Farm residents were never issued with modern title deeds. This was not unusual at the time and indeed is the case for many communities, especially those whose land was not seized under colonialism as it was a long way from the capital city, or not particularly fertile. It is especially these communities that are in danger of land grabs today, as new technology (e.g. in oil exploration) has made their lands lucrative for investment.
The thousands of acres fertile land on Twiga Farm worth billions of Kenyan Shillings (millions of dollars) were bound to attract the interest of other forces. In 2004, the company Mboi Kamiti claimed ownership over the land. The police threatened residents with eviction, but they responded by taking the case to court and the chief magistrate ruled in their favour declaring the residents as legal owners by right of adverse occupation.
The company, however, did not give up. They went back to court in 2012, ready to dispute the original ruling, but their connections in political ranks seemed to have spared them the bothersome process. On December 20 2012 residents of Kiambu were surprised by bullets flying over their heads and bulldozers demolishing their houses. Eyewitnesses report planes flying over the maize fields, spraying bullets. Four people were shot that day and close to 4000 families displaced. The Provincial Commissioner, the local mayor and police officials at scene accused the residents of having illegally built on the land to justify the evictions. Within 6 hours of the eviction, the police themselves built a police station out of trailers and iron tents on the property.
Many of the displaced people were elderly; people who have been born on the land and cultivated it their whole lives. In the course of a single day, they and their families were ejected, and robbed of shelter and livelihood. Some were forced to set up camps by the roadside, and are still there today.
Mboi Kamiti Company was formed in the 1970s to manage the land left by colonialists (which excluded Twiga farm, because it was directly left to the workers). Shareholders who contributed were farmers in Kiambu and wives of freedom fighters, who were to be settled on the land. The company, however, was corrupted by political interest from the onset, it earned billions of Kenyan Shillings every year from the coffee and tea farms it managed and the shareholders working on the farms were never issued title deeds. Instead, different interest groups wrangled over leadership of the company, leaving 6 directors murdered. When the company announced this year that it would close down, shareholders demanded to be allocated land – including Twiga farm, whose owners were denounced as ‘illegal squatters’. Hence the company, local and national politicians involved in the scheme benefited twice by evicting the rightful residents and cheating shareholders.
In the face of overwhelming physical force and repeated, blatant abuse of power by the authorities, the people have been organizing with the help of the National Land Accord Movement (NLAM), which has been working on land injustices since the 2007/2008 Post Election Violence. With their help, Kiambu residents collected close to 2000 signatures for a petition demanding an investigation into the 2012 eviction – both its legality and the manner in which it was carried out. They are demanding that the perpetrators be held liable, and that reparations and compensation be paid by the State for forceful evictions, loss of lives and livelihoods. Finally, they want a proper audit to be carried out to establish, legally and definitively, the true and rightful owners of Twiga Farm.
Although members of NLAM were frequently threatened, followed by armed people and even openly warned to not continue the process by politicians and police, they remained persistent. On September 23 2014, Kiambu residents finally sent a clear message to their government. That day, old and young generations of Kiambu marched under Nairobi’s hot sun, past Jomo Kenyatta’s grave to the parliament to deliver the petition.
When the signed petition was returned to the group eagerly waiting across the road from parliament it seemed as if they had been told they could return to their homes immediately. A group of elderly women hugged each other with tears of pain, relief and joy. Walking sticks, youthful arms and old fists were raised in the air, expressing the peoples’ resilient belief in justice - and their hope for the future.
However, their joy and hope also leave a cramp somewhere in the stomach area, because the times are against them. It was evident in the absence of decision makers and silence in national media. In a global neo-liberal framework that demands pro- corporation, pro- profit development lead by investments, they are only one example of the massive land grabs and evictions taking place in Kenya and in Africa. The collusion of local, national and international money and power is more and more legalizing the disowning of people of their lands in the name of economic growth, development or investment. It is a powerful partnership to stand up against.
* Leila van Rinsum studied Political Science at the University of Nairobi. She is is a copy editor with Pambazuka News and a freelance journalist.
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR/S AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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