Lands ministry criticizes Jomo Kenyatta

A top official in Kenya’s Ministry of Lands has blamed founding leader Jomo Kenyatta for the country’s land conflicts, in remarks likely to justify land-driven ethnic clashes.

Permanent Secretary Dorothy Angote said that, “the colonialists left behind a lot of money to resettle the landless but the money was diverted.” Addressing a workshop, the Permanent Secretary admitted that, “the ruling class used land to bribe politically-correct individuals, rejecting the plight of landless Kenyans.”

Kenya is grappling with a land distribution crisis that has assumed violent characteristics due to ethnic politics. High population growth is placing increased pressures on land for farming and settlement. Most of Kenya’s population is concentrated on less than 30% of the land. Politicians, eager to win votes from their own ethnic groups, have in recent years demanded for land settled by immigrant communities. In parts of the Rift Valley, large numbers of Kikuyu, Kisii and Luhya farmers have been evicted by Kalenjin youth who went ahead and subdivided farms amongst themselves.

The Coast province is also home to large numbers of immigrants. Lands Minister James Orengo has said that he will review land ownership in favor of local ethnic groups. The remarks have intensified ethnic tension at the coast as unemployed coastal youths demand for what they call, “the land of our ancestors.” Dr Orengo has expressed opposition to the settlement of Europeans in coastal villas.

Ethnic clashes following disputed elections in December 2007 have been blamed on land pressure in areas settled by immigrant ethnic groups. The peace accord negotiated by former United Nations Secretary General, Koffi Annan, and which formed Kenya’s coalition government, was mandated to explore the land situation in order to avert future clashes. However, discussions on land reform appear to have stalled as the coalition parties get engrossed in government affairs.

After Kenya’s independence in 1963, President Jomo Kenyatta announced that land ownership will be on the basis of “willing-seller, willing-buyer.” The government would neither confiscate land from anyone, nor would it give it away for free. Kenya’s independence constitution gave its citizens the right to purchase property anywhere in Kenya. The policy served Kenya well, until the 1990s when populist politicians incited desperate youth to invade farms on ethnic grounds.

The remarks are likely to put Ms Angote into conflict with President Mwai Kibaki, who retains much respect for Kenya’s first president. Indeed, President Kibaki served in Kenyatta’s cabinet and was a baptismal godfather to one of Kenyatta’s sons, Uhuru. In 2003, when he assumed Kenya’s presidency, President Kibaki ordered the Central Bank to put Kenyatta’s portrait on all currency notes and coins.

Former President Daniel arap Moi wanted to cut a different image from Kenyatta but he did not tolerate criticism of his predecessor. Moi served Kenyatta as Vice President for 11 years. Had Ms Angote made the remarks during Moi’s presidency, she would probably have lost her job before the workshop was over.

Criticism of Kenyatta’s policies by a highly placed government official will complicate the land debate in Kenya. If anything, it may justify the actions of those elements that wish to drive out immigrant ethnic groups from certain districts. All in all, more blood is likely to be shed before a solution is found.

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