Kenya: Why Raila & Ruto remain quiet on land justice issues

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Kenya 2022: Who will win the great race?

By Christine Mungai
Posted on Monday, 20 June 2022 11:30, updated on Tuesday, 28 June 2022 11:18

In this Saturday Feb. 9, 2013 photo, residents gather at sundown at 'Hope' camp for internally-displaced Kenyans from the Kikuyu tribe, near Nyahururu, in Kenya. The 624 people living at Hope Camp, a spot near the equator in a placed called Laikipia, is an illustration of one of the many lingering effects of the tribe-on-tribe violence that rocked Kenya after its 2007 presidential election. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
In this Saturday Feb. 9, 2013 photo, residents gather at sundown at 'Hope' camp for internally-displaced Kenyans from the Kikuyu tribe, near Nyahururu, in Kenya. The 624 people living at Hope Camp, a spot near the equator in a placed called Laikipia, is an illustration of one of the many lingering effects of the tribe-on-tribe violence that rocked Kenya after its 2007 presidential election. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

For the first time in decades, Kenya’s leading presidential candidates are skirting around the explosive issue of land justice – instead of exploiting it as a way to mobilise voters to their campaigns.   Both candidates – for different reasons – have chosen to accept the status quo on legal regime on land rights

The election is entering its final phase, after the candidates, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto announced their running mates – former Attorney General Martha Karua and determined campaigner Rigathi Gachagua.

Both candidates come with their merits and baggage, although Karua seems to helped Odinga more than Gachagua has boosted Ruto. Neither Karua and Gachagua, like their principals, have pronounced on land justice issues.

Flashpoint topic

For decades, the land question has been a flashpoint issue in Kenya’s elections.

Beyond the campaign rhetoric, political fights over land have triggered violent attacks and forcible evictions. That reached its apogee in the 2007 elections when the dispute over the elections morphed into armed clashes in which over 1,200 people were killed and some 600,000 chased from their homes. To date, no one has been convicted for organising this mass violence.

Many of the land disputes are rooted in the colonial regime that facilitated and privileged the European settlers. And then in the post-independence era, Kenya’s elite struck deals with the outgoing colonial officials and allocated themselves ownership of prime farm and residential land.

Yet in the national elections due on 9 August, land is hardly featuring in the rival campaigns. At most, the two leading candidates have referred to land issues in passing.

  • In mid-May, Ruto promised to resolve the land crisis on Kenya’s Coast region, ensuring that residents would be able to buy their own plots but has had little else to say on the issue.
  • Raila, for whom land justice was a top campaigning cause in the 2007, 2013 and 2017 elections, has had little to say on it this year.

Behind the absence of land issues

Three key factors seem to inform this lack of profile for land in the election:

First, Kenya’s electoral tensions over land are often rooted in the contested rights to owning land outside one’s own traditional homeland. Those disputes most commonly target Kikuyu people who hold land outside their ancestral home of Central Kenya.

For the first time since the return of multi-party politics in 1992, there is no Kikuyu candidate running for president on the ticket of one of the big parties.

This means the Kikuyu vote will split; it will be the swing vote this year. So without a Kikuyu presidential candidate, party campaigners believe they have little to gain from making land justice a flashpoint issue this time around.

Second, William Ruto’s campaign has tried to frame this election ages with its ‘hustler vs. dynasties’ narrative.

It is a cross-ethnic campaign which finds support among Kikuyus too and well as Ruto’s own Kalenjin base in the Rift Valley. The hustler theme has made the economy – especially for informal workers, small time traders, and landless people ­­– the major campaign issue.

“What’s on everyone’s mind right now is that economy is in the middle of a meltdown,” John Githongo,  the former anti-corruption czar who runs Inuka Trust, tells The Africa Report.

“People are worried about the cost of living, unemployment and corruption. We have a parallel dollar market for the first time since the 1990s. The country is in an extremely precarious economic position.”

Ruto’s ‘Hustler narrative’ tries to respond to these anxieties. Supporters say one of its core principles is that everyone deserves to prosper – that is regardless of whether they own or have access to land. Yet the reality is that most wealthy Kenyans have used the acquisition or inheritance of land as a building block to prosperity.

Land justice isn’t a strong tactic for the Odinga campaign.

This could reduce the urgency of the land justice issue this year.

Ruto also needs to nurture his Kikuyu supporters, says Githongo, so “the tactic of flaring up the land question – which frequently is code for targeting Kikuyus outside Central Kenya – wouldn’t work at all.”

Third, as Raila Odinga, one of the strongest campaigners on land rights, has been endorsed by President Uhuru Kenyatta and his family (one of the country’s largest landowners), the land question seems to have fallen off the radar. That may also undercut Raila’s credibility as an advocate for land justice.

“Land justice isn’t a strong tactic for the Odinga campaign,” says economist Kwame Owino. “It would be uncomfortable to talk it up and rustle feathers unnecessarily, considering the shoulders that the Odinga campaign is standing on.”

Dual beneficiaries

The lack of focus on land justice in this election is advantageous to the two front-running candidates. Both sides have a stake in maintaining the status quo on land, at least in the short-term.

“For the first time in decades we have elite consensus on the land issue, despite the fact that the problem remains,” says Githongo. “The political elite have decided it is not in their interest this time to make this too much of an issue, because it burns all of them.”

This status quo is a détente on the issue between the rival candidates but will not resolve long-standing grievances.

As Ambeena Manji, a professor of land law and development at Cardiff University, has argued, there is “scarcely a region of Kenya that has not suffered from historical land injustice, whether by displacement to make way for European settlers or to create game reserves, through evictions for mining concessions or from forests, because of unjust allocations under settlement schemes, or by displacement as a result of politically motivated clashes or irregular and illegal land allocation processes”.

But climate change, drought and other extreme weather, will exacerbate tensions in the coming years.

“The very skewed structure of land ownership, the worsening gini coefficient on land attesting to land concentration, the ongoing stranglehold of so-called ‘conservancies’ and the ongoing abuse of indigenous people’s claims, do not bode well for climate justice. Land justice and climate justice are intertwined and both remain unachieved,” said Manji.

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