Occupy Laikipia ! Kenya’s indigenous people must liberate their land
Kenya’s rulers and some elite commentators frame the ongoing occupation of indigenous lands grabbed by colonialists in Laikipia as a criminal invasion of private property by lawless bands of tribal herders. Really ? Those white ranches - in land-hungry Kenya, half-a-century into “independence” - are nothing more than ample proof of neocolonialism. The dispossessed indigenous people must take back their land. By any means necessary.
A mzungu on horseback was killed in Kenya last week. (Mzungu is the Swahili word for a white person.) Tristan Voorspuy, co-owner of a ranch in Laikipia, was reportedly shot dead in the mid-day sun of northern Kenya as he leisurely rode his horse to survey the damage caused by local cattle herders who had occupied his expansive ranch. The former British soldier who had only returned home from a foreign trip brushed aside groveling pleas from his slaves that the place was not safe.
There have been numerous attacks in Laikipia in recent months as armed herders have driven tens of thousands of cattle into private farms and ranches. The number of people killed remains unknown. The attacks started around December but there wasn’t much government response – until the killing of Voorspuy, who is said to hold Kenyan and British passports.
For more than 24 hours after the shooting, Voorspuy’s body lay in the dust. It could not be collected because police considered the place too dangerous. A day before the incident, Inspector General of Police Joseph Boinnet had flown to the area but could not land as his chopper was shot at by what Kenyan and international media call “bandits.”
As the news of Voorspuy’s killing hit the headlines around the world, Nairobi’s powerful club of mzungu diplomats hassled the regime into action. London’s man in town, Nick Hailey, could hardly hide his utter frustration with the mostly inebriated boy bungling things in the neocolony :
“Alongside other international partners, I have repeatedly conveyed to the Kenyan authorities over the past months the United Kingdom’s deep concern at the situation in parts of Laikipia. I have done so again following Mr. Voorspuy’s murder. I welcome the clear commitment at the highest levels to tackle the situation, and continue to urge the Kenyan authorities to take all necessary steps urgently to restore law and order, and to protect life and property in the area.”
The “clear commitment at the highest levels” refers to, among other things, the immediate dispatching to Laikipia of no less a government honcho than the Director of Criminal Investigations, Ndegwa Muhoro, to lead investigations into the killing of the mzungu. Can you imagine that ? The whole DCI himself ! This in a country where numerous daily killings of citizens by criminal gangs or “trigger-happy” policemen go uninvestigated. The list of unresolved murders stretches to Timbuktu. But the killing of a mzungu is a different matter altogether. Nothing short of a clear commitment from the highest levels to deal with the case would suffice.
The very next day Deputy President William Ruto landed in Laikipia on an impromptu trip. He summoned the top security officers and ordered them to shoot-to-kill any herder seen anywhere near a mzungu ranch. "Do everything possible to restore sanity in Laikipia, which is one of the preferred tourism destinations in the country. Drought should not be an excuse for criminal activities," Ruto barked. Within hours of the order, nearly 400 herders had been rounded up. Their fate in the hands of Kenya’s notorious killer police force is anyone’s guess.
In an article commenting on the invasions published in a Kenyan daily a few days after his death, Voorspuy acknowledges that at least half of the land in Laikipia is in the hands of a few mzungu ranchers. But that really is not a problem. The land was largely empty in the first place, belonged to no one in particular and the mzungus who took it over are a godsend. Kenyans should be eternally grateful to them. Mzungus - ever the most enlightened and resourceful of our species - have done everything within their power to turn the empty, useless piece of earth into viable economic purpose for the good of all Kenyans.
“Some people are unhappy with the use of the word ’invasion’ in Laikipia today,” Voorspuy begins his undated piece – and then proceeds to an aristocratic rant that qualifies as a fine primer on the imperialist version of Kenyan history :
“Europeans arrived and built a railway in Kenya in roughly 1900. A population census put the population at two million in what was to become Kenya. At independence in 1963 a survey revealed roughly seven million. A census in 2010 produced over 40 million. There are now nearer 50 million and it will be 100 million in 40 years. There have never been more than roughly 50,000 Caucasians in Kenya. The Laikipia treaty in 1904 moved a few thousand Maasai to southern Kenya but some stayed and Laikipia Maasai still occupy group ranches (Il Ngwezi and Tassia) and some subdivided ex-colonial ranches. If Laikipia is one million acres, there is approximately 500,000 in private hands in ranches and conservancies that encourage wildlife.”
Voorspuy, sounding a trifle upset at how ungrateful Kenyans could be, goes into some detail about how the ranches and conservancies are important investments that benefit the nation. His own ranch, you see, employs 150 people and pays $200,000 tax annually. Those are 150 happy Kenyans and their families, who could otherwise be long dead, thanking God every day of their lives for sending over the glorious messiahs, mzungus. And those dollars in tax (it’s not clear how he did his math), what could Kenya possibly do without them ?
The lazy, primitive indigenous people are incapable of doing anything useful on the land. They would at one fell swoop reduce to zero all the investments, were the white owners to leave. Disgusting savages ! “If the Laikipia ranch owners left, these people would be happy for a very short space of time as they swamped the land and destroyed every last blade of grass,” Voorspuy writes. Clearly worried by the rampaging brutes, the rancher ends his piece on a tragically ironic note, by posing : “What chance is there for the wildlife and tourism, let alone ourselves, in the long run ?”
Yes, indeed, what is going to happen to the wild animals and the mzungus ? As if mzungus came with the wildlife to Laikipia. As if the local people never lived with the wildlife for centuries. As if the indigenous people’s concerns are not valid.
The people’s resistance
Laikipia has been the site of mostly low intensity resistance by the indigenous people against white settlers ever since colonialists grabbed the area following the sham treaty with the Maasai that Voorspuy references, more than a century ago. Successive regimes in Kenya since “independence” have failed to resolve the matter, preferring to support the mzungu settlers and disregard the claims of the local people to their land. Most elite opinion supports mzungus.
The second largest newspaper in Kenya, The Standard, owned by former President Daniel arap Moi who retains close links with the tiny but powerful mzungu settler community in Kenya, ran an editorial last week framing the invasions in Laikipia as criminal activity. “The arrest of at least 379 herders in Laikipia County following the slaying of rancher Tristan Voorspuy and yesterday’s arrest of Laikipia North Member of Parliament Mathew Lempurkel over the violence are positive indicators that the Government is slowly coming out of its lethargic state as insecurity mounts in parts of the country”, the paper said.
In a February op-ed in Daily Nation, the largest circulation newspaper in Kenya and Eastern Africa, Gabrielle Lynch, associate professor of comparative politics at University of Warwick, UK, argued that there was more to the invasions than prolonged drought. They were a security issue. She mentioned “historical injustices” in passing, only pointing out that politicians could be using that excuse to incite the people for some political capital in light of the August 8 national elections.
In truth, the people’s resistance in Laikipia has its roots precisely in the historical injustices that the Lynches of this world and the rulers of Kenya aren’t honest enough to discuss. These are not criminal invasions. It is not just about a prolonged drought. It is a struggle for justice.
In May 2013, the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) handed its report to Kenyan ruler Uhuru Kenyatta after four years of contentious work – there were countless attempts to scuttle the Commission. The TJRC was set up as part of the transitional justice process following the 2007-8 post-election violence in which over 1000 people were killed, an unknown number maimed, 600,000 displaced and property of unknown value was destroyed. The TJRC was established to address historical injustices committed from “independence” in 1963 to 2008. When the report was handed to Kenyatta, some commissioners published a dissenting opinion about the unauthorized editing out of sections of it, particularly those touching on land. The Kenyatta family are the largest land-grabbers in Kenya. For obvious reasons, the TRJC report has never been publicly discussed and its recommendations implemented as was the intention. One of its key findings reads :
“The Commission finds that minority groups and indigenous people suffered state sanctioned systematic discrimination during the mandate period (1963- 2008). In particular, minority groups have suffered discrimination in relation to political participation and access to national identity cards. Other violations that minority groups and indigenous people have suffered include : collective punishment ; and violation of land rights and the right to development.”
The horse-riding mzungu ranchers of Laikipia are direct beneficiaries of horrendous land rights violations against the indigenous people there. Last year, a Kenyan blog detailed the large swathes of land taken over by mzungus who own some of the famous ranches in Kenya. Find that report here.
Ten years ago the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, visited Kenya on a fact-finding mission. He reported that :
“Most indigenous peoples in Kenya live in the arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs) which make up more than 80 per cent of the land mass and are home to more than 25 per cent of the national population, and include almost the majority of wildlife parks and reserves and protected forests. ASAL areas are predominantly pastoralist and agro-pastoralist, mainly suitable for livestock grazing due to low and erratic rainfall. These areas present the highest incidences of poverty and the lowest level of access to basic services in the country. Over 60 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, which is above the average of 50 per cent nationwide.”
Stavenhagen observed that most of the human rights violations targeting pastoralists and hunter-gatherers in Kenya are related to their access to and control over land and natural resources. Historical injustices from the colonial times, linked to conflicting laws and lack of clear policies, mismanagement and land-grabbing, had led to a crisis in the country’s land tenure system. That is still the case today.
"In Laikipia District, 75 per cent of the land still remains in the hands of European owners. The Special Rapporteur personally observed traditional rangelands which were being fenced off, thus restricting the seasonal movements of the livestock herds of the nomadic pastoralist communities, as well as constricting the natural ecosystems of the wildlife, including important migratory routes."
So, which unlawful invasions are people talking about ? What banditry ? This is a struggle for justice.
By any means necessary
The killing of a mzungu has brought to greater public attention the dogged resistance of the indigenous people of Laikipia to oppression lasting over a century. But the issue is wrongly framed. Open, physical violence of the type currently witnessed in Laikipia always receives attention, sympathies and militarist state intervention because it is dramatic – the destruction of life and property. But that is only one form of violence, as Johann Galtung, the “father of peace studies”, determined decades ago. To deprive people of their sources of livelihood, to deny them equity and access to life-sustaining resources, to reduce them to beggars in the land of their foremothers and fathers, is itself wanton violence (called "structural violence" by Galtung).
Nobody seems to worry about the prolonged indignities and violence meted on indigenous people in Laikipia, as long as there is "peace" - meaning the mere absence of dramatic physical violence. In truth the people of Laikipia live under massive (structural) violence on a daily basis. Should we be surprised that they react to this situation by (physical) violence ? After all, it is said that violence begets violence.
In a commentary last week calling for a serious look at the underlying factors of the conflict in Laikipia, the president of the Law Society of Kenya, Isaac E.N. Okero, wrote that, “Historical grievances linked to access to animal grazing and water rights and land ownership and use were well enumerated and discussed in the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission. This cannot continue to be ignored. Many citizens said in the report that their legal and constitutional rights are violated.”
Okero stated that other reports indicated that the land in Laikipia is mostly owned by a few mzungu settlers. “Most owners are ranchers who continue to enjoy a pre-independence lease rate of Sh3.50 [$0.3] a hectare, 33 times under the current market rate of the county and 333 times below lease rates for land in the Maasai Mara area of Narok. The Laikipia County Assembly and governor have tried and failed to raise this rate. The dispute is now pending before the courts.”
A lasting solution, Okero said, "requires nothing less than the full implementation of the recommendations of the Truth and Justice report.”
That is not being done. The TJRC report is gathering dust on state shelves. Left on their own, the indigenous people of Laikipia must liberate their lands from grabbers. By any means necessary.