Colonialists’ failed zero-sum game behind Kenya’s land problems

In this file picture taken in April 1953 captured suspected Mau Mau fighters are marched towards Githunguri court in Central Kenya. PHOTO | AFP
In this file picture taken in April 1953 captured suspected Mau Mau fighters are marched towards Githunguri court in Central Kenya. PHOTO | AFP 

The end of World War 11 saw a renewed effort to settle ex-British Army soldiers in Kenya. The obvious areas for settlement were in the White Highlands.

This created increased pressure on land with the first casualties being squatters on white-owned lands.

Many of these squatters relocated to marginal lands or were forcefully moved to their original homes in central Kenya.

Unfortunately, for the colonial government, this period also witnessed a resurgence of African nationalism fuelled by a growing trade union movement, a sizeable number of returning African soldiers who had participated in the war, returning Africans who had gone to pursue university education abroad (Mbiyu Koinange, Eliud Mathu) and, not least of all, the return of Jomo Kenyatta in 1946.

On October 20, 1952, a State of Emergency was declared in Kenya by the Governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, due to the increased activities of the rebel movement, known as Mau Mau, against British colonial rule.


The Mau Mau revolt revolved around the issue of land, which the colonial authorities had forcefully taken away from Africans.

While it was evident that the British, with their superior firepower, were winning the war against the rebels on the ground, it was also clear that the land issue was not going to be wished away.

A plan to expand agricultural production was necessary to restore order and to forestall future discontent amongst the African populace by broadening the middle class collaborative base.

A report on how to ‘Intensify the Development of African Agriculture’ was prepared in 1954 by the then Director of Agriculture, Roger J.M. Swynnerton.

This report became known as the Swynnerton Plan and was supposed to address African land problems by adopting a British-style land tenure, adjudicating and consolidating fragmented land holdings, issuing freehold land titles, intensifying and developing African agriculture, providing access to credit, and removing restrictions on growing of cash crops for export by Africans.

The report consisted of a three-phase programme involving: land adjudication to phase out customary tenure, land consolidation by block per household to eliminate small, dispersed parcels, to allow greater specialisation, and to realise greater economies of scale in cash crop production; and finally land registration to offer security of tenure/ownership and to establish a land market.

In essence, the aim was to facilitate increased investment and employment in agriculture, to grow rural incomes and the productivity of land.

The plan was predicated on the assumption that explicitly “successful” or wealthy African farmers would “be able to acquire more land and bad or poor farmers less, creating a landed and landless class.”

While the Swynnerton Plan was conceived in Nairobi and approved by the Colonial Office in London, implementation was left to the provincial administration and local committees.

In central Kenya where many men had been detained under Emergency laws, the situation allowed family members, in connivance with local committees and chiefs, to dispossess those in detention of their land.

African Independent Churches were proscribed and their land was given to mainstream churches.

In other cases, wealthy African landowners were able to arm twist small and poor landowners out of their property. The class of ahoi (tenants at will) in Kikuyu areas lost their land, as their rights were not recognised under the new land tenure.

Although Africans were permitted to grow coffee, for example, they were restricted to a maximum of 500 trees.

The Swynnerton Plan created the basis for a market-oriented class of African farmers to work within a commercial-farming export sector and was credited with tripling agricultural output between 1955 and 1964.

It also succeeded in fostering land concentration and social stratification, as envisaged by those who drafted the plan.

The simultaneous creation of a successful largeholder class and a landless and near-landless class in the highlands did not have the economic effect desired by Swynnerton and caused unprecedented environmental problems.

The people who found themselves pushed off the best lands in their home areas did not all stay to work on the farms of others or to establish non-farm enterprises.

This created a rural-urban migration with many working in the cities, the police force and the army while others went in search of new settlement opportunities in drier frontier areas.

Some migrants moved to resettlement areas opened up by the State in the late 1940s and the 1950s (such as Olenguruone) to alleviate land shortage.

Once independence was in sight, many people prepared to move or risked illegal squatter settlements in anticipation of reallocation of Crown Lands and large, underutilised or abandoned settler-owned tracts of land.

Thus, land hunger was often displaced to another, more fragile area, rather than diverted into pursuit of wage labour in the same area.

The simple equation envisioned by the Swynnerton Plan to describe a local zero-sum game was multiplied into a cascading effect that shook many parts of Kenya and which continues to this day.

The implementation of the plan served the political expedience of the colonial government at the time.