The toxic mix of grievances in Laikipia


Herders inside Mugie Ranch in Laikipia in February. FILE PHOTO | NMG

The past week has been dominated by news of bandit attacks in Laikipia County and strong response by State security apparatus.

Despite public assurance by both the Cabinet Secretary for Interior and the Regional Commissioner responsible for the area that the government was going to clamp down on the bandits and restore law and order, the events raise fundamental questions.

Although there may be many theories to explain the causes of the violence, its timings and location point to a mix of elections, ethnic tensions and land ownership and use.

While security clampdown, arrest of politicians and declaration of dusk to dawn curfews may provide initial hope of restoring normalcy they do not get to the bottom of these fundamental triggers of the conflict.

I have a student who as part of her Masters’ studies is writing on the Laikipia land conflict and elections, a demonstration that the current events are part of a pattern that has been witnessed in the past.

It cannot be coincidental that the current events are happening under a year to the next General Election.

Writing about the land question and voting patterns in the 2013 elections in Kenya, Prof Patricia Kameri-Mbote argues that land is a key determinant of voting patterns in an election since it affects questions of inclusion and exclusion.

The 2007/2008 post-election violence had as one of its underlying issues land grievances. The country put in place an elaborate legal and institutional architecture to respond to the land question.

However, Laikipia is a stark reminder that those efforts are yet to translate to long-term solutions.

Ongoing conflict pits conservancies as a land use against pastoralism and agriculture. Regulating and reconciling different land uses has long been identified as a fundamental aspect of Kenya’s land reform agenda.

The country does not lack information on how these can be done or experiences from countries that have explored this issue.

However, our land reform agenda seems to be focused more on the surface and not underlying aspects of the land question in Kenya.

Listening to statements from the government to the effect that everybody in the area has a title deed so nobody can displace them or grab their land left me with very little hope about its understanding of the nature of the land problem and the required solutions.

Titling alone can never solve the land question.

The contestation between communities over their land rights and operations of conservancies is a problem that is manifest across the arid and semi-arid parts of Kenya. Some of the conflicts have led to violence, others have found their way to court.

The bottom line is the question requires deep and honest discourse to explore mutually acceptable solutions. The way the Community Land act is being implemented is not helping the situation.

Over four years since the Act became operational, the number of communities enjoying the benefits that its provisions offer is extremely dismal.

Earlier this year, together with two colleagues, I published a journal article that assessed the implementation of the Act and concluded that it was more a question of overpromising and underdelivering.

This verdict is exemplified in the current situation in Laikipia and demonstrates the work ahead for the government.

The fact that the conflict also has ethnic undertones is warning that ethnic mobilisation and its negative impacts on our elections continues to be a threat to free and fair elections despite the guarantees of the 2010 Constitution.

If we do not change tact in how we handle Laikipia conflict, it will continue being a sore wound recurring every so frequently.

More ignominiously, it may a pointer to the challenges that the 2022 elections may face. As the saying goes to be forewarned is to be forearmed.