Friday, 17 August 2012

Transitional Politics in Kenya – From Colonialism to Self rule

There is overwhelming unanimity that the question of excessive loss of land was the prime mover of the independence struggle in Kenya. The tempo of the struggle picked up an accelerated pace due to worsening labour conditions on the settler farms, increasing land shortage due to population pressure in the reserves, and the discriminatory agrarian policies that did not allow the natives to participate in lucrative markets. The struggle against the hegemonic land ownership by the settlers can be traced back to the formative years of colonialism but did not pose any serious challenge till the outbreak of the Mau-Mau rebellion in 1952.

Even after the Europeans had finally relinquished ownership of vast tracts of land, the question of land continued to be a contentious issue. In particular, the question of how exactly to redistribute land rights degenerated into a protracted ideological debate. Senior politicians, who fell prey to the survival tactics of the remaining settler farmers, favoured the disposal of landholdings through an open market. For instance, quoting Kenyatta; ‘there was need to respect the freedom of the individual and the protection of his rights, including the right to the ownership of property, all of which are protected in the Constitution’.

Junior politicians on the other hand, particularly the backbenchers, regarded the idea of reallocating land rights through the market mechanism as a complete betrayal of the morality of the independence struggle. Their argument was that it was unreasonable to sell land to the people to whom it initially belonged. The land had to be requisitioned as needed. A leading backbench politician, Kaggia, was quoted as saying ‘we have used this [free distribution of land] all these years as a policy and in fact it has been the backbone of our political struggle’.

The backbenchers were dismissed as being ideologically myopic. The justifications for their insistence on the free distribution of land were, however, quite laudable. They wanted priority to be given to those who would not be in a position to afford land on an open market and set ceilings on the maximum size of landholdings lest ‘[new] large scale landowners would simply step into the former European farmers’ shoes’. Settlement schemes for the landless were planned but were abandoned on the pretext that they were expensive and that large-scale farms were the life blood of the Kenyan economy.

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