Tuesday, November 10, 2009



How land deals of the early 1960s came to haunt the country during poll chaos

Solio ranch in Kieni West was one of the big farms owned by colonial settlers. A group of women from Chaka trading centre, some 10km away, is pictured carrying vegetables for sale at the ranch which has been allocated to Kenyans. Photo/ JOSEPH KANYI

By John Kamau
November 9 2009

WB gave loan to new government to buy land from settlers who feared to stay on
When chaos erupted in the Rift Valley shortly after the controversial 2007 Presidential vote tally, the land question became the bone of contention.

But why did settlement schemes – and private land buying deals - turn out to be the nation’s nightmare in the Rift Valley Province, more than 45 years later.

Original correspondence traces the settlement confusion to the colonial government plan to create a set of elite African farmers who were to replace the white farmers in the Rift Valley in what was originally known as Yeomen Settlement Scheme.

When this failed, the idea of peasant settlements was floated, but this also failed at both at the social and political levels.

Under pressure from white farmers who feared that they might be abandoned in Kenya after independence, the British government managed to push the independence negotiators — led by conservative teacher-turned-politician James Gichuru — to allow for a smooth transfer of farms lest they wrecked the economy, which was anchored on colonial agriculture.

Worried that they might inherit a bankrupt nation, the negotiators agreed to a scheme mooted in Lancaster House where Britain would guarantee a World Bank loan to Kenya government which would buy all the land owned by white settlers to settle Africans. The Kenyan tax-payers were to pay for that loan.

The story begins shortly before independence when the British made it clear at the independence negotiations that the new Kenya government would have to buy the land from the white settlers.

By then some of the white farmers started mortgaging their farms with banks complicating an already complex situation and leaving the politicians – led by James Gichuru – in a fix.

Mr Gichuru and his team knew that Kenya was an agricultural economy and if the land question was not solved they would inherit a bankrupt nation.

By then Mr Kenyatta, the man who was to get the mantle from Mr Gichuru, was still in restriction. Mr Gichuru was asked to inform his colleagues that there would be no free land come independence, an issue that divided the Kanu party.

But behind the scenes, the World Bank in 1960 had opened discussions with Kenya’s interim chairman of the settlement board, Mr J.F Lipscombe, on how to start settling the first group of Yeomen Farmers – as they were then known – into the white highlands to become the first set of African farmers who would protect the economy from ruin. Yeomen Scheme was more than that. It was a clever plot to pass all the big land into a few hands.

Aware that radicals might jeopardize the efforts, the World Bank and the colonial government on November 29, 1961 entered into a pact which meant that all officials who would join the Lands and Settlement docket, and especially positions that touched on the loan, would have to be approved by them.

The Yeomen programme was the first experiment to be carried out in the Rift Valley and envisaged buying some 240,000 acres of high potential land which was to be broken into 100 acre parcels. But while money was borrowed from the World Bank, the Yeomen Scheme flopped after it became hard to get African farmers who could manage such projects.

The original idea had emanated from Governor Malcolm MacDonald whose pet idea was to open the White Highlands to a select group of Kenyans who would farm alongside the whites. Documents show Mr Lipscombe had told the officials that the only way to get such a huge number of farmers would be to hunt for them in the non-scheduled African land units.

The first experiment was carried out on Luckhurst Farm, which was nicknamed Bahati, Kiswahili for good luck, and was divided into 8 farms the largest portion being 186 acres and the smallest 49.7 acres. The original idea was that the farmers would sell their maize to Kenya Farmers Association but at the end of the harvest only one farmer delivered his crop.
A report by J.H. Lategan and sent to the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Lands and Settlement, Mr N.S.Carey Jones, now sheds light into what went wrong in the initial stages of the Yeomen experiment which was to be rolled out countrywide.

The Lategan Report blames white farmers’ selfishness and drunkenness and elitist behaviour of the new African farmers.

He wrote: “The European farmers, for purely selfish reasons, were anxious for this scheme to succeed when it was initiated, their idea being that if this scheme succeeds they would be in a favourable position to get rid of their own farms at good prices to the settlement board.”

The report continued: “Yeomen farmers consider themselves to be gentlemen who are above the menial tasks of farming and they spend most of their time in the bars of Nakuru, the work being left to the women and labourers.”

The Yeomen Scheme was highly subsidized by the colonial government as a direct reward to those who had supported the colonial structure. While all the labourers had been supplied and paid for by the government, Mr Lategan, the investigator, found only one farmer at the Bahati farm. Besides drunkenness of the farmers, they also did not have extension officers and relied on neighbouring European farmers for advice.

“Some of them still appear to try peasant farming, which means that they plant crops, such as beans in between the rows of maize,” said the report. The failure of the Yeomen scheme meant that the government was forced to revise its policy.

It was agreed with both the British government and World Bank that land would be transferred through normal sales in open market to new owners or cooperative societies.

The norm

It was this last effort that became the norm shortly after Independence and which the government of Jomo Kenyatta flagged on enthusiastically.

The Yeomen Scheme only lasted until 1961, when it was re-named Assisted Farmers scheme. While the government, with funding from World Bank and British government, started buying for these Assisted Farmers, what slowly emerged was a new crop of big land owners—amidst general landlessness and poverty.