Land tenure and violent conflict in Kenya


In August 2008, the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS) launched the inception phase of a project on Land Tenure and Violent Conflict in Kenya. In the aftermath of the early 2008 post-election violence, it became clear that issues related to land tenure were perceived by many experts as key to understanding the root causes and dynamics of conflict. Indeed, the "Kenya National Dialogue and Reconciliation" process identified land reform as key to long-term peace and reconciliation, and the proposed "Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission" was mandated to examine historical land injustices, and the illegal or irregular acquisition of land, especially as these relate to conflict or violence. A literature review was conducted, key informants were interviewed, and some preliminary field research was carried out in the Mt. Elgon area. Following these activities, a consultative session was convened in early October to examine the conceptual framework of the project, and to provide feedback on a proposed second phase of activities.

Project Background

The violence which followed the disputed results of Kenya's December 27th general elections surprised many observers due to the speed at which it spread across many parts of the country. However, the economic and social tensions underpinning the violence have been evident for decades. Kenya is a society characterised by deeply embedded structural violence. According to Galtung, "violence is present when human beings are influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realisations are below their potential realisations" Structural violence in Kenya manifests itself in anomalous legal, political, social and economic structures. These structures prevent many Kenyans from achieving their full potential. Structural violence if not addressed for prolonged periods of time may eventually lead to physical violence as life in the structure becomes unbearable.

Land issues are a fundamental aspect of structural conflicts in Kenya but they have also often degenerated into physical violence. The country has witnessed killings before previous elections in both 1992 and 1997, when alleged enemies of the Moi regime became victims of violence, using arguments over the contrasting land rights of 'immigrants' and 'local communities'. Central to land conflicts in Kenya are issues of ownership, access and use. Land has been the crux of economic, cultural and socio-economic change in Kenya. Following years of an inappropriate land tenure system, a large segment of the population continues to have difficulties not only in adapting to the modern agrarian economy but also in coping with the increasingly fragile and marginal environment, land degradation, low agricultural output and intensifying conflicts over access to and control of land.4 Inadequate resolution of the land question is also a major cause of poverty in Kenya. Violence over land conflicts has occurred sporadically in different parts of the country, and doubts over the worthiness of land titles almost caused major economic instability a few years ago.