Kenya’s opposition leader wants to dismantle white-owned ranches

Illegal grazing.
Illegal grazing.
Image: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic
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The Kenyan opposition leader, Raila Odinga, has announced that he will dismantle white-owned ranches in Kenya if he wins in August’s general elections. Odinga said the violence that has engulfed the restive Laikipia region in central Kenya has been due to mismanagement by a handful of large-scale ranchers.

“These ranches are too big and the people don’t even live there,” Odinga told The Times newspaper. “They live in Europe and only come once in a while.”

Laikipia, once an idyllic spot for tourists and conservationists, has become the site of brutal killings and arson after a biting drought swept the Horn of Africa region and intensified competition over grazing land. Over the last few months, herders in search of fresh pasture have invaded luxury lodges, farms, and conservancies—shooting wildlife animals, looting, and vandalizing hotel cabins. The herders have been goaded on by local politicians, who are using historical grievances to spur them to invade and forcibly occupy the holdings of all large landowners in the area, black and white.

The situation has also exacerbated in recent months, with the killing of Tristan Voorspuy, a dual Kenyan and British national, and the shooting of Kuki Gallmann, the prominent Italian-born Kenyan author. The government deployed the military to quell the violence but was criticized after reportedly shooting hundreds of cows to force the illegal herders to flee.

The idea of redistributing land among blacks and whites is not new to Africa. In 2001, Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe introduced laws to evict white landowners, who controlled more than half of the country’s agricultural land. The initiative proved disastrous for the country’s economy—so much so that the government even asked some of the farmers to return. Some of the redistributed land reportedly ended up unused or abandoned, since those who took over sometimes lacked farming skills or didn’t have the money to fund the farms.

Cows belonging to Samburu tribesmen walk around the carcass of an elephant killed by armed cattle herders in Mugui Conservancy, Kenya February 11, 2017.
Cows belonging to Samburu tribesmen walk around the carcass of an elephant killed by armed cattle herders in Mugui Conservancy, Kenya.
Image: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

On Aug. 8, millions of Kenyans will go to the polls to elect a new government, and tensions are escalating as the electioneering season gets underway. Politics seems to be fueling the wave of unrest: A member of parliament for Laikipia North was arrested in March for inciting violence and participating in the killing of Voorspuy, but was later cleared of the charges.

The violence has also opened up old wounds about land ownership in Kenya—a problematic issue that has been the cause of much violence in the country’s postcolonial history. The farm invasions have also fed the debate about decolonization, or poor Kenyans reclaiming land from white settlers.

Odinga blamed the government and the ranchers for their failure to introduce a “long-term solution” for these properties. “There’s a need for a rationalization to ensure that there’s more productive use of that land,” he said.