In Kenya, the deep pull of land drove grievances – and ethnic violence

For the ethnic Kalenjins of Kenya's Rift Valley, the red, iron-rich soil is something worth fighting for, and many still resent the 'invasion' of other ethnic groups who bought coffee and tea plantations left after British colonial rule.

ZUMA Press/Newscom
A man looks out over the open African plains in Kenya's Rift Valley.

It may be hard to understand the power of land in African society. But for the 70 percent of Africans who make their living from agriculture – either farming their own land or working as tenant farmers on the land of others – land is more important than gold.

To have even a small one-acre plot means the ability to raise enough food to feed one’s family for a year. Not having that land means risking starvation.

Small wonder, then, that some rural Africans can be persuaded by their leaders and politicians to kill in the name of land.

For the ethnic Kalenjins of Kenya's Rift Valley, the red, iron-rich soil is something worth fighting and killing for, and many still resent the “invasion” of ethnic Kikuyus who bought most of the Rift Valley's coffee and tea plantations after Kenya's British colonial masters left following independence in 1963. Many Kalenjins believe that these Kikuyu “foreigners” were given unfair advantage to buy tracts of land by the ethnic Kikuyu under Kenya’s first black president, Jomo Kenyatta.

These grievances form the basis of Kalenjin politics in the Rift Valley, and they are the underlying ideology for a group of powerful supporters of the Rift Valley’s embattled top politician, former agriculture minister William Ruto.

Mr. Ruto, who is plagued by a corruption scandal and by investigations into his role in the orchestrated violence that killed 1,200 people and displaced 300,000 after the disputed Dec. 27, 2007, elections, is now at the center of an investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague. He could be the first Kenyan to face charges of crimes against humanity.

“The Kikuyu community invaded the Rift Valley and found little or no resistance in acquiring property or vast business enterprises, and they misinterpreted this to mean weakness on the side of the Kalenjin people,” read the minutes from a Dec. 20, 2009, meeting of the "Friends of the Hon. William Ruto," a group of prominent members of the Kalenjin community that this year has discussed plans to form a militia of young men to attack rival ethnic groups and obstruct the ICC's case against Ruto by intimidating witnesses. “Gradually [the Kikuyus] came to control all sectors of the economy.... Because of the acquired wealth stolen from the people of the Rift Valley, the Kikuyu community is in a position to systematically destroy us starting with our leaders and eventually taking control of all the sectors in the region with the help of these selfish sell-outs.”

Outbreaks of violence, such as the slaughter in the aftermath of the 2007 elections, are fundamentally political, but they feed off such grievances and find their most enthusiastic support among unemployed Kalenjin youths who see the gains of an outsider – even a desperately poor Kikuyu farmer – as a form of personal and collective loss.

Caroline Ruto, an ethnic Kalenjin and independent civic activist for youths in the Rift Valley – who has no family relationship with William Ruto – says that the older politicians like William Ruto, President Mwai Kibaki, and Prime Minister Raila Odinga all practice the same violent ethnic brand of politics, using people’s ethnic sentiment to help the leaders attain power and wealth.

“[Mr. Odinga] told us that [Mr. Kibaki] had really taken us back to the tribal days of [Kenya’s first president, Jomo] Kenyatta,” says Ms. Ruto. “But [Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement] became even worse than that.”

Simply removing a few politicians who have done wrong won’t solve the problem, without a larger effort to create a more educated electorate. “You take Ruto to The Hague,” she says, “and another Ruto will come up.”

The only solution, she says, is for voters to educate themselves and vote out the older generation of politicians, she says.

“Hope is with the youth,” she says. “They have a life to live, and the older generation has given up [on helping people]. The youth can read about issues. They can mobilize people and get out the vote.”


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