The recent orchestrated “invasion” of land belonging to the Kenyatta family has once again highlighted the highly sensitive and contentious issue of land in Kenya, particularly among the Kikuyu of Central Kenya, whose grievances date back to the colonial era when British settlers took over their land and dumped them in “reserves”. Post-colonial elites further alienated large sections of the Kikuyu population by taking over prime pieces of land in Central Kenya and elsewhere and establishing resettlement schemes that saw many Kikuyus being relocated to sections of the Rift Valley and other parts of the country, including Lamu. The tension between these new entrants and the populations already residing there has been the source of much conflict over the decades. 

However, while much is known about land injustices pertaining to the Kikuyu, little is said about the gross injustices that people of Kenya’s coastal region have endured since the intensification of the Arab slave trade in the 19th century, which saw Arabs take ownership not just of the land but also of the indigenous people who lived there. When the British were looking to colonise East Africa in the late 19th century, they made a pact with the Sultan of Zanzibar, the self-declared owner of what would be known as the “Ten-Mile Coastal Strip” – a region extending from the Indian Ocean to the Tana River Delta in Kenya to the Ruvuma River in Tanzania, and including the Lamu Archipelago. That pact secured the land for the Arabs and the Swahilis, but not for the indigenous ethnic groups. The British would-be colonialists subsequently declared the interior of the land “Terra Nullius” (No Man’s Land), which allowed them to illegally possess/colonise it. 

When Kenya became a colony, the colonial administration only allowed Arabs and Swahilis to register their ownership of land, while excluding both the indigenous Mijikenda and former slaves. Post-colonial governments did little to return the land to its original owners. On the contrary, land grabs, especially of beach property by those who were politically connected became the norm, further alienating the locals from their land. This resulted in a vast majority of people having no title deeds or other proof of ownership of ancestral land that belonged to them for centuries – in essence, they remained, and continue to remain, squatters on their own land. 

A new report by Haki Yetu, a non-governmental organisation fighting for the rights of Kenya’s coastal people, shows that the land issue in Lamu County, in particular, is likely to become a powder keg if it is not addressed urgently, particularly in light of the fact that Lamu has in recent years attracted a lot of investments, including the Lamu Port, South Sudan, Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET), and a wind power project. 

“Excluded and Displaced in Your Own Homeland: Land-related Injustices and Conflicts in Lamu County” states that this influx of mega infrastructure projects has seen the scramble for land in Lamu heightened, resulting in more conflicts. Lamu County in general, and Lamu West constituency in particular, has experienced tension between settlers from outside the region and indigenous people. Much of this tension is the result of fraudulent land acquisitions and land invasions.  As a result, sensitive ecosystems like wetlands, woods, and ranches have been invaded. 

Unfortunately, after independence, the process of land adjudication, consolidation and registration was never carried out in the coastal region, including in Lamu County. Regional settlement plans, like the Lake Kenyatta Settlement Scheme in Lamu West, prioritised resettling landless “outsiders” from upcountry rather than the indigenous people. A survey carried out by Haki Yetu shows that a large majority of Lamu residents are of the strong opinion that the long-standing unresolved land issues in Lamu have negatively affected both their productivity, as well as their economic development. According to the organisation’s report, 13,000 homes in Lamu County currently possess title deeds, which represents 42% of all homes in the county. However, it is estimated that only 20% of the indigenous population have titles.

“Lamu is changing rapidly, but life is improving very little for the local people. For some who have been displaced and reduced to squatting in their own homes, life has become unbearable. It would appear that everyone can find a piece of land to call their own in Lamu, except those who are its first citizens,’’ says Father Gabriel Dolan, the Executive Director of Haki Yetu. “Yet, the population of the county is a mere 144,000 and there certainly is sufficient land to satisfy the needs of the locals and still have parcels for investment and new projects. All that is needed is political will to do what is right, but that has been lacking since time immemorial.”

The Haki Yetu report warns that unless historical and current land injustices are addressed with the seriousness they require, most of the economic opportunities that Lamu offers, including tourism and infrastructure investments, will be lost because the investors will take their resources and investments to safer and less troublesome areas (as is already evident, with foreign investors placing their bets on safer and more predictable neighbouring countries such as Tanzania). 

One of the top priorities of the Kenya Kwanza administration should be to settle the land question in Kenya’s coast once and for all. The biggest hurdle, in my opinion, is that those tasked with dealing with the issue –  politicians and lawmakers – have been the biggest beneficiaries of illegal land acquisitions and forced evictions in the region, and so are likely to let the issue simmer for as long as it can. However, owning up to historical injustices and finding peaceful ways to resolve them would be an important step towards stemming rising discontent among indigenous groups, who have been exploited for centuries.

Author

  • Rasna Warah

    Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist with over two decades of experience as an editor, writer and communications specialist. She wrote a weekly op-ed column for the Daily Nation, Kenya’s leading newspaper, for many years, and has contributed to various regional and international publications, including, the UK’s Guardian, Africa is a Country, The East African, The Mail and Guardian, The Elephant, and Kwani? She has worked as an editor and writer at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and has published two books on Somalia: Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) and War Crimes (2016). Her first book, Triple Heritage (1998), explored the history of South Asians in East Africa. Her latest book, Lords of Impunity (2022), examines the failures and internal contradictions of the United Nations and what can be done to transform this global body. She holds a Master’s degree in Communication for Development from Malmö University in Sweden and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology and Women’s Studies from Suffolk University in Boston, USA. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.