The Maasais’ land question

Story originally appeared in the Standard on September 27 2015



In early September 2015, business was disrupted in Kitengela town on the outskirts of Kenya’s capital Nairobi as a section of traders protested allocation of market space by the local county government. Riot police were deployed to quell the unrest as shops and banks, among other businesses, were closed.

According to sources, the Maasai are demanding half of the market space and the rest of the communities share the other half. Last Monday, riots erupted again over the market. But the quasi uprisings in Kitengela are not isolated. Kajiado, Laikipia and Namanga have experienced such riots. To understand events in Kitengela, Kajiado and Laikipia, one needs to know the attachment the Maasai have to land and the circumstances that led them to lose what many of them consider a birth right.

One also needs to look beyond the 1962 Lancaster Conference and settle on the events that unfolded on August 9, 1904. This was the date when the first agreement between the Maasai and the colonial government was signed.

“We, the undersigned, being the Lybons and Chiefs (representatives) of the existing clans and sections of the Maasai tribes in East Africa Protectorate, having, this 9th day of August, 1904, met Sir Donald Stewart, His Majesty’s Commissioner for the East Africa Protectorate and discussed fully the question of a land settlement scheme for the Maasai, have, out of our own free will, decided that it is in our best interest to remove our people, flock, and herds into definite reservations away from the railway line, and away from any land that may be thrown open to European settlement,” the agreement reads in part.

The Maasai, on their own volition, agreed to be shepherded into reserves. For the first time, they could not claim the distant pastures their ancestors fattened their animals on. And this would pose problems – both immediate and in future.

Regret was almost instant. And more than a century later, the sense of betrayal among the Maasai leadership continues to run deep. And they say, it is only a matter of time before these sporadic riots in different parts of the country escalate into something serious.

“It is a fact that we have lost our rights in the past and we continue to lose our livelihoods. All we are asking for is that the land that belonged to us is returned to us,” Narok North MP Moitalel ole Kenta tells The Standard on Sunday.

He says the colonial government reneged on an earlier agreement to revert land back to Maasai at independence. “None of this happened. Instead of what we had agreed upon, the land was sold to land buying companies from one tribe that was in power then,” ole Kenta says, ‘one tribe’ being the politically correct term for ‘Kikuyu.’

In Kajiado, us versus them narrative can be traced to 2011 at a meeting in Isinya that was held soon after the homecoming of a local politician who had just completed his Phd studies and had announced intention to run for an elective post. The Isinya event was conducted in Maa. Speaker after speaker on that hot afternoon roused the crowd. Among the key proposals from that meeting was the drawing up of a set of rules that would govern land use and acquisition in Kajiado.

Kajiado Governor David ole Nkedianye attended the Isinya meeting. Now, some of the ‘outsiders’ who elected him to office claim he is part of the problem. “We have been wrangling over space here for almost a month now. This is the biggest market in his county yet not even once has he come to address us, the sellers and tax payers of this market,” said Kitengela Market Vendors Association chairman Joseph Kinyanjui.

“But we know, a day after the initial chaos, the governor met the Maasai at the slaughter house. We do not know what was discussed there. Neither do we know why he did not come and address us too,” Mr Kinyanjui said.

But Mr Nkedianye said those bringing up issues from the 2011 meeting are missing the point. “The two things are not connected. The events from the 2011 meeting are not related to what is going on now,” he said.

“The trouble now is that there are people among us who think they have a bigger stake in Kajiado than others. Kajiado belongs to all of us.” The governor admitted attending a meeting at the slaughter house, but explained: “Those people were annoyed. I met them to calm things down. People should be patient and plans are underway to meet all aggrieved parties soon.”

The case of the Kitengela riots is a curious one. Corruption, greed and extremist views from local leaders add to an already charged situation. “We bought stalls here. Some of my friends have been selling since the late 90s. They worked hard to get their space. Why would other people just come and get allocated stalls at the expense of others,” Joyce Njeri said.

But the governor says that the tension in the area has been calmed. “We have no issues now. Things are calm and I plan to meet the representatives of all those involved so that we settle this matter,” Nkedianye said.

The traders claim that in early August, they received information that the county government wanted to make some repairs on the three-acre plot on which the market stands. This was to be done in four phases. “However, after the first two phases, our stalls had shrunk. Space, without our knowledge, was being created for people who were never sellers.People who have never set foot in this market,” Ms Njeri said.

Suddenly, it was decided that the market stalls were to be shared on a 50-50 basis with the ‘indigenous’ population. This meant that 50 per cent of us would lose out. Where would we go to to make ends meet?” Kinyanjui says this is what caused the Kitengela riots, adding: “Those who were allocated the contentious plots would come back to us and offer them up for sale. Some of them have no intention of becoming vendors. They just want to make quick cash and cause chaos.”

Some say the push and pull within the traditional Maasai regions has got all to do with political supremacy. “This cannot be further from the truth. It is not lost to us that some of our land is now a major cosmopolitan area. A series of historical injustices have conspired to marginalise our community. This is what we want addressed,” former presidential candidate Prof James ole Kiyapi said.

But, history has proven that the Maasai can be their worst enemies. In the nineteenth century, two Maasai clans engaged in a war that decimated their numbers and probably made things easier for an advancing colonial delegation.

For years, the Imaasai and the Iloikop fought the Morijo War, a struggle between Lenana and Sendeyo. Although Lenana won, the conflict had taken its toll. These wars still persist. This time allegiances are not paid entirely to clans, but to political parties as well. And this, pundits say, might be the Achilles heel in a communities search for reclamation of an ancestral right.

The leaders however say they will not evict anyone from their land. “But there are parcels we want as is. There are group ranches that belong to us. Those we want,” Hassan ole Kamwaro said. “And there are those that were bought by group ranches that were close to successive governments…lands that were supposed to be reverted to us. For those, we want compensation.”

But some observers say the Maasai are living in the past and need to dust their shoulders over the historical injustices and move on.

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