Kenya elections heat up local conflicts over ethnicity, land

Ever alert: A Kenyan farmer patrols the edge of the Rift Valley after a spate of attacks in Kamweje village in Laikipia County . Kenya goes to the polls on August 8.  

Mathew Lempurkel knew two issues would fire up voters in the drought-ravaged region of Laikipia ahead of Kenya’s elections: race and land.

Mr. Lempurkel’s promise, caught on tape last month, that “white people will go home” if Kenyans voted for the Opposition on August 8 electrified his supporters and showed how national elections are inflaming long-running local disputes.

The widespread protests and ethnic violence that followed elections a decade ago are unlikely to recur since the 2010 Constitution gave counties more power and money and removed the winner-takes-all tradition of presidential patronage.

But on the plains of Laikipia, Mr. Lempurkel’s home, local politics can still be a spark for unrest as candidates’ efforts to win over voters can feed ethnic rivalries and a competition for ever-scarcer resources.

A growing population coupled by years of overgrazing and a regional drought devastated Laikipia’s grasslands last year. After their communally managed land became bare earth studded with cactuses, herdsmen brought their cattle onto private land, where grass still grew because the owners had built dams and prevented overgrazing.

Stephen Lengerded, a 22-year-old herdsman from the same Samburu community as Mr. Lempurkel, said 2,000 people came to his village and cut fences to let their cows graze on the neighbouring Mugie conservancy, whose manager is a white Kenyan.

Mr. Lempurkel has been charged with incitement of racial hatred for his comments, which were recorded by a member of the audience at a rally with Opposition leader Raila Odinga.

Complaints against big landowners include that they have too much land, continue to reap the benefits of colonial rule or care more about wildlife than people and their livelihoods.

The landowners, who include blacks and whites, retort that they purchased their land decades after independence in 1963 and that their ranches or wildlife parks provide jobs and tax revenue. They say overgrazing only exacerbates long-term environmental problems.

Deadly clashes

Hundreds of jobs were lost when herders began coming onto private land, forcing hotels and lodges to shutter and cattle ranchers to sell off cattle before they were shot or stolen. The government of President Uhuru Kenyatta was slow to react to the encroachments even when clashes turned deadly because it was fearful of alienating voters, said white Kenyan rancher Maria Dodds. She was shot at every day for nearly a month, she said.

Some farmers suspect the attacks may be aimed at forcing rival ethnic groups, such as Mr. Kenyatta’s Kikuyu, to flee. “Every time there is an election, there are attacks, but this year is the worst,” said John Kamau, a Kikuyu farmer on patrol with a machete. His ethnically mixed village, on the rocky lip of the Rift Valley, adjoins the 400-sq-km Laikipia Nature Conservancy, a private park where hundreds of armed herders have camped.

Gunmen shot landowner Kuki Gallman, a famous Italian-born conservationist, in the stomach earlier this year. They also killed six police in Mr. Kamau’s village, Kamwenje, last month and have launched so many raids many people now walk an hour to another village to sleep after a long day working on their farms.

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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 4:34:21 AM |

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