Lands Minister opposes return of refugees

Kenya’s Minister for Lands last weekend opposed a government plan to return people evicted from their homes in ethnic clashes following disputed elections in December 2007.

James Orengo at his office in the Ministry of Lands (Picture from Nation Media)

Dr James Orengo at his office in the Lands Ministry. Picture by Nation Media.

Amidst cheers, Dr Orengo questioned the Constitutional Bill of Rights which allows all Kenyans to live, work and own property anywhere in the republic.

Dr James Orengo told the public rally in the Rift Valley that there was plenty of other land elsewhere for settling displaced families. “There are vast tracts of idle land in other provinces. Why are these people only interested in the Rift Valley,” asked Dr Orengo.

Dr Orengo was attending the home coming party of Mr Kipkalya Kones, a Kalenjin politician recently appointed minister on the ODM side. During the 1990s, Mr Kones was associated with calls for ethnic cleansing in the Kalenjin heartland. At that time, Dr Orengo was in the opposition and Mr Kones was a close ally of ex-President Daniel arap Moi, also a Kalenjin. Politicians close to Moi were incensed by the tendency of so-called foreign ethnic groups to vote against their man.

This year, over 1,000 people died while hundreds of thousands became internal refugees in ethnic clashes following disputed presidential elections in December 2007. The Rift Valley province witnessed the worst of the violence, where at least 500 were killed and many others forced to flee. The Kalenjin tribe which inhabits the Central Rift Valley evicted the Kikuyu and Kisii for voting for President Mwai Kibaki. The Kalenjin were supporters of Prime Minister Raila Odinga of the ODM party.

By late January, the Kikuyu launched reprisal attacks against the Kalenjin and Odinga’s Luo groups. As a result, the displaced people consist of supporters of both President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga.

In February 2008, international mediation led by Koffi Annan resulted in a coalition government between ODM and President Kibaki. Odinga became Prime Minister in the giant coalition, consisting of over 40 ministers from parties affiliated to both Kibaki and Odinga.

In spite of an uneasy calm, the internally displaced people are yet to return to their former homes. Members of Parliament from the Kalenjin heartlands in the Rift Valley are opposed to the return of the Kikuyu who they evicted. The Kalenjin say that the Kikuyu do not belong to the area and should return to their own ethnic homelands around Mt Kenya. However, the Kikuyu counter by saying they bought the land legally from departing white settlers after independence. Others bought land from Kalenjin land owners who are reclaiming the land without offering compensation.

Following the violent evictions, farms owned by the Kikuyu have been occupied by Kalenjin peasants, further complicating the return of the Kikuyu to their property. In some cases, farms and schools have been renamed. The Kalenjin accuse the Kikuyu of “not interacting” with the locals, a charge that Dr Orengo repeated on Saturday. “When you live in a foreign place, you have to behave as the local people do,” said Dr Orengo. Some Kalenjin politicians have even gone as far as saying that, “when you live in a foreign place, you should vote as the local people do.”

The Kikuyu have attracted resentment from the Kalenjin and other ethnic groups for their domination of entrepreneurial activities. Other places affected by the ethnic clashes include Western Province and Nyanza, home to Raila Odinga’s Luo ethnic group. Many Kikuyu from Western Province fled to Uganda where several are hoping to settle permanently.

During Saturday’s rally in Bomet, Dr Orengo recalled Kenya’s colonial history where vast tracts of Kikuyu and Maasai land were taken over by white settlers. In the 1950s, the Kikuyu formed the Kenya Land and Freedom Army which was the core of the Mau Mau war. “The Kikuyu fought to get back their own land from the British,” said Dr Orengo, “they were not fighting to get land in the Rift Valley.”

After the formation of a giant coalition, the government is eager to return internally displaced people to their former homes. Whereas this has taken place to a significant extent in Nairobi and the Central Province, politicians from the Kalenjin community in the Rift Valley have resisted such moves. During last year’s electoral campaigns, some of the political candidates are said to have promised to “take back what belonged to our ancestors.” Such politicians may not be eager to recant on their promises for fear of losing face within the community.

Since 1992, ethnic clashes targeting immigrant groups in the Rift Valley have been intermittent, usually worsening around elections. In the 1990s, the Luo, Kikuyu and Luhya groups were targeted for eviction due to their opposition to Daniel arap Moi. This year, the Luo and Luhya were not affected as they, just like the Kalenjin, voted for Raila. However, the Kikuyu bore the brunt of the violence for supporting President Kibaki.

With its own Lands Minister opposed to the resettlement of internally displaced persons, it is obvious that the government’s desire to close refugee camps will not be achieved any time soon. Its also clear that inter-ethnic harmony is still far off from being realized.

And the politicians are not making the situation any better.

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One Response

  1. […] over ancestral land rights. Minister for Lands, Dr James Orengo is quoted as saying that the constitutional provision that gives Kenyans the right to live and work anywhere is, “not r… According to Dr Orengo, people should only own land within their ethnic homelands. It is this kind […]

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