Government, Land Reform & Agro-economy in Post-Colonial Kenya

Image: Farms in Kenyas Rift Valley

Photo Courtesy of antonytrivet at Pixabay

Amber Abdul is a First-Year at Tufts University

During the Scramble for Africa, various European nations sought to economically extort from African nations. They did this by setting up colonial governments which granted white settlers access to resources, namely that of land. One such nation, Kenya, suffered under the hands of the British Empire, as white settlers took the best lands for agriculture. Coming out of the colonial era, Kenya’s new government and subsequent governments had to deal with the remnants of colonialism in terms of policy (Fahnbulleh 33), as it faced a nation divided over access to land. As land provides a means to agriculture and thus the wider health and economy of a country (Kim, Bevis 4), it is imperative that Kenya addresses the inefficiency of its government in addressing land issues in relation to civil society.

Colonial Kenya gives context for the environment that post-colonial Kenyan regimes will navigate through. Under British rule, Kenya would see much of its fertile lands confiscated through violent enclosures (Odoyo 202). The British tended to settle within the Rift Valley (see Fig. 1), whose fertile soil and proximity to other countries made it attractive to white settlers. In total, white settlers controlled about 8 million acres of fertile land (Odoyo 202). Controlling such large areas led to the displacement of indigenous populations of various ethnic groups, such as the Nandi, Kipsigis, Maasai, and the Kalenjin tribes (Boone 83). Such blatant disregard for indigenous claims to land would give rise to the “Land Question,” creating land reform problems for post-independence regimes. In terms of the general economy, the colonial government oversaw an increase in agricultural production (Fahnbulleh 34). Of agricultural produces, 72% of the value of Kenyan exports came from coffee, tea, sisal, and pyrethrum (Fahnbulleh 35), most of which were planted by white settlers. Most native Kenyans were unable to plant such exports due to discrimination, creating a workforce that was not being effectively used within the

Kenyan colonial economy, eventually giving rise to high rates of unemployment that would be seen in post-colonial Kenya (Fahnbulleh 35). There also existed a skew in the development of some sectors of the economy, as the colonial government placed emphasis on agro-exports and European enclaves (Fahnbulleh 34) rather than developing the infrastructure. Thus, Kenya under colonialism saw ethnic displacement due to land seizures, a skewed development of the economy and a rise in unemployment, all of which would try to be combatted by the Kenyatta regime.

On December 12, 1963, Kenya became independent from British rule under the leadership of Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta. His leadership would see the politicization of land redistributions in the Rift Valley Province which encompasses the farming districts of Nakuru, Usain, Gishu, Trans-Nzoia and Nandi (Boone 78) and the lack of sustained economic success. During the early years of his tenure (1964-1972), Kenya experienced GDP growth rates around 7% (Fahnbulleh 41). However, this took a downturn around 1974, as government spending rose due to petroleum price rises and the experience of severe droughts, affecting agricultural exports and taking GDP growth down to 4.9% (Fahnbulleh 41, 42). Such a quick downturn in the GDP growth rates due to petroleum prices shows a government that was unable to adjust its spending. For droughts to also reduce growth rates shows a government whose exports, like under colonial-rule, were still largely dependent on agriculture produces. To curb this economic damage, the Kenyatta regime undertook a three-year program supported by the International Monetary Fund, but they later abandoned this due to a short-term beverage crop boom that increased export value by 31% (Fahnbulleh 42). From this short-lived boom came an overactive government that felt the confidence to increase government expenditure (Fahnbulleh 42) which later regimes would have to compensate for. This thus shows the short-sightedness of the Kenyatta regime when it came to approaching agricultural issues within an economic context.

It would be misguided to assume that the Kenyan government only saw land and agriculture as a means for economic growth. Analyzing Kenya within the post-colonial context gives rise to the idea that land and agriculture is heavily politicized due to the struggles faced over ethnic displacement during colonial rule. As said previously, British settlers would settle within the Rift, which would become known as the White Highlands (Boone 79). After independence, the Kenyatta regime sought to reallocate prized Rift land to political supporters to create a stable political constituency rather than to uplift the poor. In effect, the Kenyatta regime followed a similar outline as the former colonial government, in that it continued to displace indigenous peoples. Those who spoke out against Kenyatta’s settlement schemes, such as Nandi North leader Jean Seroney, were imprisoned, fined, and/or assassinated (Boone 85), showing the heightened tensions between ethnicity and land claims. Kenyatta also encouraged the formation of privately-owned companies that would buy land from the government, although these companies were usually headed by nobles and prominent politicians (Boone 81). Thus, much of the land was concentrated and circulated within the hands of the rich and prominent politicians rather than the poor. Much of the Rift also saw an increase in state-controlled lands, which could be attributed to an attempt to propel economic growth and to address the unemployment problem as seen within the early years of the Kenyatta regime (Fahnbulleh 44). Overall, Kenyatta oversaw a short-sighted administration and the continuation of British land policy in that it displaced indigenous peoples, all while inextricably tying land policy closer to state control and politics.

On August 22, 1978, Jomo Kenyatta died and his vice president Daniel arap Moi ascended to the presidency. Moi inherited a Kenya with a struggling economy and a political arena that cleaved on issues related to ethnicity and land allocations. Like Kenyatta, Moi sought to create his own political constituency by strategically allocating Rift land to his supporters and maintained a strong government presence within the economy. He, however, encountered issues because it required that he relocated those who received land under Kenyatta. The Moi regime also sought to grant loans and titles to land, given that the settlers met their developmental obligations (Boone 80). However, loan repayments were low and those who did not follow up were rarely evicted (Boone 80). This thus shows that the Moi regime was concerned with incentivizing those to cultivate cash crops to boost the economy, but it lacked the enforcement of the laws to make this effective policy. Overall, the combination of faulty land laws, corrupt allocations, and strong market controls in the form of import caps and tariffs (Fahnbulleh 45) saw an economic downturn that lasted well into the 1980s.

Moi perpetuated ethnic strife through the way he decided to constitute his new political constituency. Kenyatta’s constituency was that of non-indigenous folk being settled in the Rift. Moi thus tapped into the indigenous peoples of the Kalenjin tribe and those related to create his political constituency, settling them in the Mau forest of the Nakuru District (Boone 82). This happened illegally, as forest land in Kenya can only be used if it is redesignated by the state (Boone 81). However, the Moi government informally allocated people to forest land without re-classifying it (Boone 81), which shows that the Moi government operated without much legal repudiation. Once these people were settled, they became dependent on the good graces of the current regime to continue to produce (Boone 82). This, in consequence, further strengthened the relationship between agricultural output and state control. However, the displacement of Kenyatta-era people, in conjunction with poor peasant squatters, created rural slums within the Nakuru District (Odoyo 213). Land settlement was thus largely unregulated outside of what was allocated to political allies of the Moi regime. Overall, the Moi regime represented a continuatioof the Kenyatta regime in terms of land reform and policies, although Moi furthered the entanglement between land rights and non-indigenous and indigenous peoples.

With the faulty land reforms of the Kenyatta and Moi regimes, it became apparent to the Kenyan government that it had to wrest control from the presidential branch. This led to the creation of a new constitution in August 2010, which decreased the power of the presidential branch by transferring some of said power to parliament. Provisions included equitable access to land and the ability to protect, conserve, and provide access to all public land through “any matter necessary” (Manji 118). While steps were being taken to reform government alongside land access, such ambiguous language still gave the government unlimited discretion on how to use land. Various land reform laws were considered by this new government, such as the Land Bill, the Land Registration Bill, and the National Land Commission Bill (Manji 118). Multiple civil society groups pointed out that these bills did not conform to the land clauses of the constitution, although the Commission for Implementation of the Constitution (CIC) stated that it did (Manji 119). Other issues arose when these groups tried to inform the people of the contents of the new bills, but a study of the response rates found little interaction (Manji 119). The average person was thus once again left out of considering land policy, as they had been during land allocation under the Kenyatta and Moi regimes. Despite questioning, these bills were approved by parliament on April 26, 2012. Kenya thus had an uninformed public and a government that felt constrained to follow its new constitutional rules while considering what many thought to be inadequate land laws. This was a step in the right direction, but inadequacies were still prominent in government approach.

The trauma faced by Kenyans under the British led to the overactive governments of Kenyatta and Moi, as both tried to come to terms with a country divided over land and ethnic conflict. The Kenyatta and Moi regimes were examples of abuse of executive power and of corruption. As seen with the process of approving the recent land reform bills of 2012 in conjunction with their new constitution, it is clear that the Kenyan government understands the governmental and corruption issues they face. Despite the legal issues of their approval process, these bills display a dual importance: one that shows that Kenya wants to reconcile the past abuses of the Kenyatta and Moi regimes, and another that shows that Kenya recognizes that land reform must come from a body of people, rather than just the political whims of the executive. Kenyan land reform must move away from political and ethnic patriotism for a more equitable distribution that will help reverse decades of ethnic displacement.

WORKS CITED

Boone, Catherine. “Land Conflict and Distributive Politics in Kenya.” African Studies Review, vol. 55, no. 1, 2012, pp. 75–103. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/41804129. Accessed 5 Apr. 2021.

Fahnbulleh, Miatta. “In Search of Economic Development in Kenya: Colonial Legacies & Post-Independence Realities.” Review of African Political Economy, vol. 33, no. 107, 2006, pp. 33–47. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4007110. Accessed 5 Apr. 2021.

Kim, Kichan, and Leah Bevis. “Soil Fertility and Poverty in Developing Countries.” Choices, vol. 34, no. 2, 2019, pp. 1–8. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26785776. Accessed 5 Apr. 2021.

“The Limits and Possibilities of Resolving Persistent Ethnic Conflicts.” Twaweza Communications, 2010, pp. 201–220. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvk3gp8v.17. Accessed 5 Apr. 2021.

Manji, Ambreena. “The Politics of Land Reform in Kenya 2012.” African Studies Review, vol. 57, no. 1, 2014, pp. 115–130., http://www.jstor.org/stable/43905080. Accessed 5 Apr. 2021.