Why Land is an issue in Kenya’s general election

Kenya- Last August, the Kenyan parliament approved nine members of a National Land Commission. Their job will be to implement provisions of the 2010 constitution intended to guarantee equal access to land, ensure that land benefits local communities, and prevents public lands being carved up by those in positions of power. The commission will also examine past injustices over ownership and advise on a new programme for registering land titles.

Grievances over land ownership in Kenya date back to colonial times and to the post-independence period. Unequal access to property rights, coupled with allegations of mismanagement and illegal allocation of public land, have led to long-running disputes.

From large tracts of farmland and pasture in the Rift Valley to the packed slums of Nairobi, these issues are a particular focus of tensions during election periods.

After months of bloodshed left over 1,100 Kenyans dead following the disputed presidential election of December 2007, the Waki Commission, set up to investigate the causes of the violence, reported that one of the major factors was the failure of past administrations to address land disputes.

Later in 2008, President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga signed an agreement committing the coalition government to work on land reforms as a key way of avoiding any recurrence of mass violence.

However, since the new constitution of 2010 and a National Land Policy passed a year earlier, little further progress has been made. Real change will come when the Land Commission starts functioning. It will manage public land on behalf of both central and county government, and will make recommendations to the authorities on strategies for resolving disputes.

Following a high court order, President Kibaki finally gave his formal assent to parliament’s choices on February 20 thus giving the commission the green light to go ahead with reforms. But the delay in authorising the commission to start its work has once again made land a highly-charged political issue in the election campaign.

“We have witnessed and observed disturbing comments on land by politicians in the recent weeks,” Collins Kowuor, chairman of the Institution of Surveyors of Kenya, said. “What is of concern to all Kenyans is the equitable access to land and how these [presidential candidates] will address historical injustices around land.”

David Kimaiyo, the inspector general of police who was appointed in December, has warned candidates against discussing potentially divisive land issues during campaigning.

Land experts, too, warn that sensationalising the issue could inflame tensions between different communities.

Ibrahim Mwathane, chairman of the Land Development and Governance Institute, LDGI, an advocacy group in Nairobi, told IWPR that the candidates should “undertake to implement land reforms as provided in the National Land Policy, the constitution, and the new land laws once they form government.”

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