Tuesday, February 12, 2013



P. Anyang' Nyong'o
Sunday Standard, Feb. 10th., 2013

Forget, for the moment, those calling for an embargo on the public debate on land: they are simply out of touch with the pulse of ordinary Kenyans. In any case, if there is any single issue which has dominated intellectual as well as public discourse in Kenya since independence it is the issue of land ownership, use, scarcity and land as an arena for social conflict.

My friend, the late Dr. Apollo Luciano Njonjo, wrote a path breaking thesis at Princeton University on the agrarian question in Central Kenya, focusing particularly on land ownership in Kiambu and commercial agriculture in general. This thesis, and the articles he subsequently wrote out of it, pricked the conscience of the Kiambu agrarian aristocracy and Apollo was obviously not regarded very well by these gentlemen. The tag "rebel" was hang around his neck within the circles of this class which wielded enormous state power during the Kenyatta regime.

Thus land, politics and capital have gone together as a trio in Kenya since colonial times. The colonial ruling class, the white gentry, were a landed lot who deprived peasants of their land in Central Kenya and the Rift Valley. They caused a tremendous upheaval that climaxed with the Mau Mau and  led to the nationalist movement for independence in Kenya.

Out of the nationalists now in state power emerged the landed aristocrats in Central Kenya who, uncomfortable with the firebrand nationalists like Bildad Kaggia and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, fused landed power with state power, sending the firebrand nationalists to forced early retirement from politics as detainees and as the "political unwanted".

 Land ownership in Kiambu has not changed much since Apollo Njonjo wrote his thesis except for the fact that a part of Kiambu is now a bedroom community for the city of Nairobi: real estate, as it were, is eating up farmers. And land owners who do not want to face the day to day contradiction and conflicts with the landless are clever enough to turn their landed wealth into either finance capital or real estate capital. The landless, however, remain there in Kamirithu or other hamlets with poverty permanently staring at them like stubborn buffalos.

This situation, definitely, is one which would find Prophet Amos an eager and ready commentator who the landed aristocracy would not feel comfortable with when he says:

"they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals;
they trample on the heads of the poor,
as upon the dust of the ground;
and deny justice to the oppressed."

When we talk of the landed aristocracy we do not mean the commercial bourgeoisie who borrowed money from the Agricultural Finance Cooperation, bought land, grew coffee, employed labour and by sheer entrepreneurship grew from one stage of capitalist development to the other. These are the engines of growth in our economy. They exist in various sectors of the economy beyond agriculture, and quite often they are also the victims of the "straddlers" using state power to leap frog from land ownership (usually "grabbed" land) to entrepreneurship, and quite often with very poor results. And that is why they must struggle tooth and nail to access state power to permanently protect their straddling and grabbing tendencies.

In the much wider scheme of things we need to realize that we are in a transition, a major transition; a transition which, at the political level, manifests itself as a transition from a presidential authoritarian regime to a national democratic regime. The constitution envisages the emergence of a national democratic and developmental state: this is a state which is democratic in political form and developmental in social and economic content.

Politically the presidential authoritarian "forms" have to be dismantled: the judges who are on hire, the authoritarian provincial administration, the police who are only answerable to the the top, etc. All these have been used, under the presidential authoritarian system, to "legalize" land grabbing, delegitimize any resistance to land grabbing and theft, and to finance politics out of shady land transactions.

As the national democratic and developmental state is institutionalized Kenya has to have land laws and regulations that will first and foremost correct the injustices such as grabbing, theft, deprivations etc which are completely antithetical to legal capital accumulation in a democratic and developmental state. As such debate on land cannot be gagged if we want to create a state which is democratic in political form and developmental in social and economic content.

No wonder the setting up of a National Land Commission has been such a protracted struggle. By its very nature it had to be so. The transition is a threat to certain life styles and those who enjoy these life styles will resist the transition and mobilize political allies even across class lines to defend their case. And this is where ethnic identities are at times used to create blocks of solidarity which impede progress in defense of a decaying social, political and economic order.

To be precise the land question is not an ethnic issue: it is a national issue. It has always shaped and impacted upon the national fortunes of our country. But ideologically it has quite often been presented as an ethnic issue, pitting one ethnic group against another, and creating conflicts at levels of ordinary peasants away from the real perpetrators of social injustice: the lot Prophet Amos speaks about. Let us wake up and protect the innocent so as to make progress at this transitional time.