Kenya: Democracy, displacement and dispossession

Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)
Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN)
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

NAIROBI, 14 November (IRIN) - Thirty-something Beatrice Atieno [not her real name] speaks with conviction when she remembers her family's eviction from their land in 1992, around the time of Kenya's first multi-party elections for nearly thirty years.

She recalls that at noon one day a local official delivered a letter ordering her family and the rest of the ethnic Luo community in the area to evacuate the land within 30 hours. "People were tongue-tied. We sat there not knowing what to do until four in the afternoon," she told IRIN.

According to Atieno, at 6.30pm the same day, the official returned with a second directive, again ordering the families to leave. "We were frightened and confused, so we went to spend the night at the [nearby] Thessalia Catholic mission". Atieno claims that the following morning some men came with a bulldozer and destroyed their homes. "Those who tried to protect their property were beaten. One man died," she says.

Some 3,000 people were thus forced off their land in the Rift Valley Province. Many were able to resettle in neighbouring Nyanza Province, populated predominantly by their Luo kinsmen. The rest, however, had not retained close links with their neighbours in Nyanza, and stayed at Thessalia, where they remain today.

Election violence

The Thessalia IDPs are just some of an estimated 300,000 people forced to flee their homes as a result of violent clashes between neighbouring communities during Kenya's return to multi-partyism in 1992, according to a 2001 report by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS).

When Kenyans again went to the polls in 1997, a similar upsurge in inter-communal violence forced tens of thousands of people, some of them already displaced five years earlier, to leave their homes and seek shelter in churches and schools, to camp in the open, or to eke out an existence on the streets of Nairobi and its sprawling slums.

"This violence caused the displacement of thousands of people and undermined their civic and political rights, especially their right to vote," JRS said.

Although accurate figures for the number of IDPs in Kenya are not readily available, JRS estimates some 228,000 people in Kenya are currently living under temporary arrangements, having had to leave their homes as a result of conflict and natural disasters.

Over the years, attempts by many of the displaced to return home have been met with renewed fighting. Simmering ethnic tensions and the occupation of their former lands by rival communities has meant attempts to return have "sometimes been met with fatal violence, and revenge attacks on both sides of the ethnic divide have caused more hatred and displacement," JRS says.

Population crisis

With no available land nearby, and the prospect of further violence should they attempt a return, the Thessalia families have little option but to remain on the tiny parcels of land provided by the church.

As the families grow, however, they are becoming increasingly concerned by the difficulties of housing their families in such a cramped space. "We have to raise our families, eat and sustain ourselves on a quarter acre of land. We can't do it. I feel like I am a refugee in my own country," the Thessalia community chairman told IRIN recently.

Although the Thessalia IDPs hope of getting access to some additional land nearby, or maybe a little financing for income generation activities, what they want more than anything is to return to their land in the Rift Valley, which they still claim is rightfully theirs, Florence Oduor, of People for Peace in Africa, a nongovernmental organisation working with the Thessalia community, told IRIN recently.

"They still feel they have been wronged all these years. They still feel that someone took land that belonged to them. There is no way you are going to convince them that that land is now owned by someone else," says Oduor.

Problems of land tenure

Until they were evicted, the community had inhabited land in the Rift Valley since 1918, when they were employed as labourers on European-owned sisal plantations, according to Oduor.

In 1971, eight years after Kenya gained its independence, the 'Thessalia people' who were at that time squatting, came together and purchased the land for some 81,000 Kenya Shillings (about US $1,080 today).

However, their legal claim to ownership of the land is far from certain. Although they still have receipts showing their purchase, no official deed was ever received, and despite having occupied the area continuously for over 70 years, the community has no officially recognized proof of land purchase.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), land ownership issues in the Rift Valley have remained unresolved since colonial times, when pastoral groups such as the Maasai and Kalenjin were ousted to make way for British settlers, who in turn employed labourers, some of whose descendants now live at Thessalia.

Following independence the land issue was not fully addressed, and no effort was made to deal with the competing claims of those pastoral groups originally forced from the Rift Valley and the squatter-labourers who subsequently settled on the land, HRW said in 1997 report.

Some 1500 families in Kenya are currently displaced because there is a dispute of some kind regarding ownership of their land, and there are places where two or more title deeds exist for the same tract of land, according to the JRS report.

No recourse to the law

IDPs attempting to seek redress through the courts are faced with prohibitively high legal costs, and a "culture of silence" in government on the issue, JRS claims.

Those who have attempted to seek legal claim to their farms are making little headway because of "the feeling among lawyers, politicians and the general public that talking of clashes and reparations can only open old wounds and lead to fresh bitterness and conflict," JRS says.

Government Inaction and Guiding Principles

Feelings of abandonment have been heightened by claims from the authorities that there are no IDPs in Kenya, aside from those temporarily displaced by drought, floods and other natural disasters, humanitarian sources told IRIN recently.

"We keep hearing that Kenya is a peaceful country and that all the internally displaced have been resettled. We are still here," says one Thessalia resident.

Partly because of this official position and the accompanying 'culture of silence', awareness of the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement among IDPs is thought to be very low, according to humanitarian sources.

The issue of internal displacement has "remained largely unaddressed at the advocacy and policy levels," sources said. Unlike neighbouring Uganda, for example, there have been no moves to use the Guiding Principles as a model for an explicit policy on internal displacement, they added.

Clashes report withheld

In the late nineties, public concern over the clashes led to the production of a government report dealing with the causes of the violence and subsequent displacement. Although the report on the 'Judicial Commission Appointed to Inquire into Tribal Clashes in Kenya' was completed in 1999, it was only released to the public in October 2002.

The report calls for the return to their homes of people displaced by the clashes. "To inspire confidence in the government, all those who were displaced from their farms during the tribal clashes should be assisted to resettle back on their farms and appropriate security arrangements made for their peaceful stay", the report said, according to excerpts published in the 'Daily Nation' newspaper.

Because disputes over land ownership and use were considered to be one of the causes of the violence, the government should also issue land title documents to people who had either been allocated land, or had bought land from previous owners, it added.

The report also criticised the Kenyan police force, and provincial administrations in several provinces for failing to prevent the violence, and for inciting the violence in some cases. The report criticises the "negligence and unwillingness on the part of the police force and provincial administration to take firm and drastic action which would surely have prevented the clashes from erupting".

The "incitement and abetment of tribal and inter-clan clashes by social and political leaders as well as by members of the security, police and administrative services, should no longer be tolerated," the report said.

The government has released its own document, making comments on the Commission's findings. In it, the government says the 'Akiwumi' report is biased against the Kalenjin and Maasai ethnic groups, and ignores the role played by other groups such as the Kikuyu, Kenya's most populous tribe, according to a 'Daily Nation' report.

Back in Thessalia, Beatrice Atieno thinks about her future and focuses her gaze on the ground. "People here look older than their age because their life has been so hard. We have screamed and shouted over the past ten years and the government has not listened. Now, we have children growing up in this situation with no education and no way of getting out. You tell me, where is the hope in that?"


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