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Expert Opinion

Why unresolved land issues lay at the heart of displacement in Kenya’s Coast region

According to the Kenya Red Cross Society, violent raids in Mpeketoni and other areas of Lamu County have killed 65 people and displaced nearly 800 families in the last month. While the attackers have not been identified, experts and political observers fear that the incidents could fuel old tensions over land, and trigger violence between the communities that live there.

As many other parts of the region, Mpeketoni is characterised by inter-communal tensions. This is, in the main, due to the government’s long history of resettling displaced and landless people from other areas to land belonging to indigenous people. In short, when it comes to land, the customary, or traditional, rights of indigenous communities are all-to-often overlooked.

The role of land

Kenya’s Coast region has inherited a complex relationship with its land. Largely since the colonial era, when foreign settlers claimed large swathes of fertile land, there has been a practice of allocating land to outsiders with close ties to the respective ruling regime. This practice has since either led to the displacement  of indigenous people from what they consider to be their ancestral land or has left them exposed to evictions by returning absentee landlords.  These historical injustices have not been addressed and continue to cause havoc to this day.  As much of the land in Coast region is now owned by a few wealthy individuals, indigenous people are left vulnerable to land dispossessions, as many reside on land without owning formal title deeds.

In many cases, the recognition of indigenous communities’ rights to their ancestral land remain unrecognised, thus when they are displaced from it they are further not recognised as internally displaced people (IDPs). The lack of formal land title deeds leaves this population extremely exposed to forced evictions. There is little to stop absentee landlords claiming this land back for development purposes, for example, often leaving the indigenous communities out in the cold with no means of recompense. Evictions due to government-led development projects and land disputes further add to these issues.

Land dispossessions and unresolved disputes are thus a major trigger of tension and violence in the region, particularly for farmers and pastoralists for whom land has very high value. This increasing trend of privatising Kenya’s land reduces the amount left available to these two groups. Add to this the common occurrence of natural disasters such as floods and droughts, which can have devastating effects on agriculture and pastoralism, land resources become yet more limited, and tensions are yet fueled further leading to displacement.

While these issues over land are deeply embedded in history, today the prejudicial attribution of land is leading to wider separations and divisions in the country. In Coast region, for example, people consider themselves ‘Coastarian’ rather than Kenyan, and are often mistrustful of people from other parts of the country. Politicians often exacerbate these tensions by using the land issue in their election campaigns, promising people false hope of recovering “grabbed” land. With painfully slow adjudication processes and delays in government-led settlement programs, however, such promises are frequently empty ones. 

What needs to be done?

Despite this, the government of Kenya made some strong signals in terms of its commitment to resolve these land issues and have adopted several laws and policies to advance land reform and displacement, including a national act on the protection and assistance of IDPs. However, much more is needed.

While some important laws and policies exist, they are not being adhered to or implemented because, among other reasons,local and national stakeholders, particularly government authorities, are often unaware of them. Funding shortages and the government’s weak regulation of land at the local and national level has stalled any significant progress in ensuring that these laws and policies make any real change for the people on the ground.

Although the primary responsibility to address internal displacement lies within the government, other stakeholders, particularly businesses, also have a role to play. Those investing in Kenya’s land must be clear of the existing issues around it, and consequently ensure that they adhere to legal standards and respect the human rights of the local population.

Displacement in Kenya must be addressed, but it must also be prevented.  Tackling the root cause of this issue, the issue of land rights, in a fair and non-biased way is paramount if the country is to continue to succeed and prosper for all of its citizens, including those with a deeply rooted relationship with their ancestral land.

For more information on this issue, read our latest report (Unfinished business: Kenya’s efforts to address land issues in Coast region)

For updates on displacement in the Horn of Africa, follow @JohannaKlos or @IDMC_Africa