“Land Conflict and Distributive Politics in Kenya” (or “What to Expect When We’re Expecting an Election”?)

Dr. Catherine Boone at the University of Texas has a timely and important new paper just out from the African Studies Review that I highly recommend in this election season:


This paper argues that even with the incorporation of land policy provisions into Kenya’s new constitution, there is every reason to believe that in the near future, highly politicized land conflict will continue. This is because land politics in Kenya is a redistributive game that creates winners and losers. Given the intensely redistributive potential of the impending changes in Kenya’s land regime—and the implications of the downward shift in the locus of control over land allocation through decentralization of authority to county governments—there is no guarantee that legislators or citizens will be able to agree on concrete laws to realize the constitution’s calls for equity and justice in land matters. This article traces the main ways in which state power has been used to distribute and redistribute land (and land rights) in the Rift Valley, focusing on post-1960 smallholder settlement schemes, land-buying companies, and settlement in the forest reserves, and it highlights the long-standing pattern of political contestation over the allocation of this resource. It then traces the National Land Policy debate from 2002 to 2010, focusing on the distributive overtones and undertones of the policy and of the debate over the new constitution that incorporated some of its main tenets.


The land provisions of Kenya’s 2010 constitution call for the establishment of a new National Land Board answerable to Parliament, and the enactment of sweeping parliamentary legislation to enact a National Land Policy that is based on principles of justice and equity. It is heartening to view this as a clear advance over the highly politicized and often demonstrably corrupt land regime that has prevailed since the early 1960s (if not before). It is encouraging to think of Kenya’s smallholders and other land-users as a vast national constituency with a shared interest . . . Yet even if all or most Kenyans would benefit in the long run from clean implementation of democratically chosen land laws, there is reason to believe that in the near future, at least, highly politicized land conflict will continue.


This is because land politics in Kenya is first and foremost a redistributive game that creates winners and losers. . .  .

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Unlike land politics in many African countries, which often centers on the use and abuse of ostensibly customary authority (and is thus “repressed” or bottled-up at the local level), the major land disputes in much of Kenya
are focused on how the power of the central state has been used to allocate land (see Boone 2011b). Struggles over land are therefore played out as struggles to capture or retain state power. This makes the national public sphere a prime theater of land conflict.

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Approximately fifteen hundred people were killed and three hundred thousand were displaced in the 1991–93 and 1997 election periods. Deaths and displacements of approximately the same magnitude occurred in postelection violence in 2008 (although some observers argue that up to five thousand people were killed at that time).2  Much of the world press reported these episodes as outbursts of ethnic violence. A deeper look confirms that for grassroots participants in many localities, the political issue at stake was not ethnic power per se, or as an end in itself. Rather, as Throup and Hornsby (1998:555) put it, “land ownership remained at the core of the argument.” Opportunistic politicians manipulated local issues and fomented violence for electoral gain, but the tensionsthey manipulated were, to a large extent, land-related and long-standing. These tensions, their origins and persistence, and how they cleaved rural society in the Rift Valley are the focus of the present analysis.  .  .  .

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