Kenya's land trouble

April 07, 2003|By SUN STAFF

ARMED WITH machetes, hoes and stakes, some 5,000 squatters invaded a 2,700-acre private sisal plantation in Kenya last month. "Go and build your houses on the pieces you have acquired," exhorted an organizer. "We shall take more for those who did not get any today."

This incident has officials worried. Land is an emotional issue throughout Africa. The last thing Kenya wants is a wave of farm takeovers by the landless. That could endanger the stability of the East African country.

President Mwai Kibaki faces a thorny social and political problem: Seventy percent of Kenyans on the Indian Ocean coast are squatting on tracts owned by a handful of individuals and big corporations, according to one estimate.

His predecessor, Daniel arap Moi, kept those passions in check by directing squatters to unpopulated areas. That wreaked ecological havoc. Hundreds of thousands of squatters invaded the Mount Kenya foothills, clearing large swaths of forests. As a key rain catchment area was damaged, Nairobi, the capital, began experiencing serious water shortages.

It's ironic this happened in a country that is host to the International Center for Research in Agroforestry, an organization dealing with tropical deforestation, land depletion and urban poverty. It had all the required expertise, but President Moi refused to listen to its advice.

President Kibaki has a chance to rebuild the bridges that his predecessor destroyed to international donors and aid organizations. He must do so. Otherwise, Kenya's considerable problems are certain to deepen.

The squatting problem would not be so serious if Kenyans had other ways than shambas (small plots) to earn a living. But decades of cronyism and endemic corruption have spoiled the economy of a country that once was among the continent's most dynamic and promising.

There is rising anger about social inequalities. A recent audit revealed that between 1990 and 1992, the government gave away at least 752 pieces of public land - ranging from cemeteries to fire stations to hospitals - as political payoffs to the well-connected. Illegal logging was allowed in national forests.

Mr. Kibaki has pledged to end this plunder and practice transparency in his political decisions. Foreign governments and donor organizations must insist that he keeps his word as a condition of renewed aid.

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