March 2011 - Widespread violence that broke out following Kenya’s presidential elections in 2007 claimed 1300 lives and displaced as many as 600,000 individuals. Much of the violence was linked to a long history of land conflicts dating back to Kenya’s colonial period when German and then British policies forced people from their customary land and pitted one ethnic group against the other.
In 1899, the British colonialists declared that all land was “Crown Land” and therefore available for alienation to white settlers. Africans were considered “tenants at the will of the Crown.” In 1902, the same year that Britain extended its colonial claim inland to Uganda, the British government granted the private East Africa Syndicate 1,300 km² of land in the Rift Valley and surrounding highlands to promote white settlement and export agriculture.
The fertile highlands became a white enclave of Britons and South Africans who established large-scale coffee and tea plantations. They relied on African laborers who were mainly Kikuyu, but also Kalenjn, Luhya, Masaai, and Luo. Large white-owned farms replaced villages and land previously held based on customary practices. Many local people were forced to leave their homes. They resettled across the Rift Valley and Nyanza, Western and Central provinces. Later, when white settlers moved west and expropriated this land as well, the Kikuyu, and many Maasai, were made their tenants.
In 1904, The British introduced a policy to settle Africans on “native reserves,” the basis of ethnically defined administrative units, and the precursors of today’s districts and locations.
By 1934, the 30,000 white settlers in the British-ruled East African Protectorate—less than 0.25% of the total population—controlled about one-third of the arable land. Beginning in 1941, the British embarked on a series of resettlement schemes involving forceful evictions and repatriations of Kikuyu, Maasai, Kalenjn and other tribes, back and forth between the central highlands and Rift Valley.
From Kenya’s first African political protest movement, the Young Kikuyu Association established in 1921, land rights was and remained a central tenet of an independence movement that grew in strength in the following decades. However, after independence in 1963, the fundamentals of the colonial land tenure system remained in place, including the unequal relationship between statutory and customary tenure, and de facto ethno-territorial administrative units. As a result, conflicts over land, often ethnic-based and for political gain, continued in the post-independence era. More recently, however, meaningful land governance reform has been enacted, and Kenya’s new Constitution of 2010 provides hope that some historical injustices will be addressed.