Mostly tears come of Africa’s land

Thursday September 16 2021
Tears pic
By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The violence in Laikipia County, on the face of it, is driven by drought-affected nomads looking for pasture in green farms and wildlife conservancies – many of them owned by white Kenyans, whose claim has colonial roots. Sprinkle in cynical local electoral politics, and it became very ugly.

Several voices, ranging from radical nationalists to pragmatists seem to agree on a need for some kind of land reform, in which the people who have little or nothing, or whose lands have been ravaged by the elements, get some soil to live on. It sounds perfectly sensible; or does it?

I used to hold strong reformists views on land, although I don’t believe a crude Zimbabwe-style cut-and-redistribute is the best way. However, one time a Ugandan friend, a very clever but quite controversial economist, shook my views about land reform very badly.

It came about during a very emotive debate about the resettlement of the people displaced by the war in northern Uganda. By the time the war that started in 1987 was tapering off in 2005, there were nearly two million internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in 251 camps across 11 districts in the region.

The conditions in the IDP camps used to make for heart-breaking reporting in local and international media. Men whose traditional authority had crumbled in the camps, because they were no longer in the rural economic context where their traditional control over the means of production gave them power over their wives and children, were drinking themselves to death or committing suicide. Domestic violence hit epidemic levels.

Rape and teenage pregnancies were rampant. Trapped in huts, with parents having sex next to their children, many young people basically ran out of their minds.

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There wasn’t a single person who didn’t think getting people back to their villages and rebuilding their livelihoods needed to be done with urgency. Except for my friend.

Despite the horrors of the camps, he thought it was still better to leave people there. Rather than dismantle them, his view was that they should be developed into urban, more spacious settlements because in the long-term the people would build a modern life there that was better than the drudgery of village existence, which is the only thing they were going to settle back into. In his firm opinion, all settlements based on land; selling it, reform, redistribution, or whatever remake anyone could come up was a lost cause. The pre-colonial land ownership, the colonial land grab, and the post-colonial settlements were all backward.

It was the first time I heard anyone so totally dismiss land, and reject the closure of the IDP camps. To him, the men who were being ruined in the camps, and the women who were suffering, were martyrs, soldiers falling in a war whose end would be glorious for their children. There was no deal over land in Uganda, or anywhere in Africa, that would ever turn out well because our attachment to it (and greed for it) made it nearly impossible for us to act rationally.

The war ended. The IDP camps were dismantled, and the people of northern Uganda went back to their homes to plough their gardens and rebuild. It is a fertile, peaceful region again. A few people have done well in the recovery, and become successful farmers. Most haven’t. And land conflicts, some violent, are common in the region again.

Not everyone went into the camps during the war. Many people move southwards, settling along the highway connecting the south to the north. There was military traffic along the highway, and the places along it were relatively secure. The displaced people set up with the imagination of many migrant communities. They built small businesses along the highway and leased local land for commercial farming. Many of them never went back. They became urban, cosmopolitan citizens with loose to no ties to the land. Maybe my crazy friend had a point.

So what would he say to a problem like Laikipia, which keeps rearing its ugly head? I guess he would argue that all four possible outcomes are good. That the nomadic herders should die with their cattle, and the problem will go away; the nomadic way of life and economy would collapse.

The second option, of herders seizing farms and conservancies, would also do. They would build new successful livelihoods on more water-rich grounds and eventually use their fortunes to move and invest in the towns and cities.

Thirdly, that the current owners keep it, but with their holdings now risky, they will be rational, sell, and go away, and the land will be bought by chaps who can more efficiently create value from the smaller parcels. Or fourthly, it all burns down leaving a clean slate to build something more suited to the 21st century.

I suspect both the Laikipia herders, and the landowners, will agree and be thankful about one thing; that he is neither Kenya’s president nor Interior Cabinet Secretary.