As Kenya struggles to implement its first post-colonial constitution, voted in with overwhelming support in July of 2010, MERC is leading a community effort to help bring about a new, democratic Kenya through a suit for the return of ancestral Maasailand at Mau Narok.
The Maasai community is determined that the outcome of this case be decided, not through intimidation, violence or the exercise of power by the strong over the weak, but through a ruling of Kenyan High Court. And the effort is succeeding!
In April, 2010, 52 petitioners representing the Maasai community, led by Meitamei Olol Dapash, filed a suit in Kenya Superior Court to recover 30,000 acres of Mau Narok, in northern Maasailand, land that was appropriated under British colonialism and continues to be occupied under independent Kenya. Research into history of this land was conducted by Prescott College students which resulted in a report, “A Century of Land Rights Denied” Those named in the suit have occupied and profited from the land since the 1970s or before. They include Simeon Nyachae, former Provincial Commissioner for Rift Valley Province, whose farms occupy 10,000 acres of Mau Narok, and the family of Mbiyu Koinange, former Minister for Internal Security, who occupy roughly 5000 acres. Both men were political associates of Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta. Others named include the Attorney General of Kenya and the Registered Settlement Fund Trustees and other titled and untitled land owners.
Because Maasai people are pastoral and semi nomadic, for centuries they have set aside the most well watered land for their communal use during periodic droughts. One of those “deep drought reserves” is Mau Narok, and thousands of people and their cattle survived by sharing the grasses and water there. Because the land is lush, it was lost to British settlers back in the early 20th century to grow commodity crops. Having been moved onto dry lands, the health and well-being of the Maasai community has fallen dramatically over the past decades as a result. Research conducted by Prescott College support the claims of Maasai community elders that Mau Narok was promised to them in the 1911 Agreement between Maasai leadership and the British government; the land was gradually taken from the community through the colonial era, under means that were illegal according to British colonial law.
At Independence in 1963, the Maasai understood that this and other land would be returned to them, as land was being returned to other Kenyan communities especially communities in central Kenya. Instead, the Maasai and other Indigenous communities were excluded from the land allocation policies developed by the British and KANU political party which brought Jomo Kenyatta to power. Attempts by at least two Europeans to transfer their land at Mau Narok to the Maasai community were thwarted by the Kenyatta government, and their land was distributed, apparently in at least one case without title transfer, to friends and political allies of Kenyatta, who himself took possession of tens of thousands of acres of Maasailand and Taitaland elsewhere.
The Maasai people who were removed from the land at Mau Narok continue to live at its borders and families are in fact divided by it. The land has been defended by gates and guards for 40 years, and Maasai people beaten when they try to take their cattle through it to reach the forest on the other side. Beginning in 2000, the Maasai community, under the leadership of Moses Ole Mpoe of Mau Narok, began to openly challenge the occupation of Mau Narok and sought to purchase the land for community ownership but those efforts were thwarted by the administration of President Kibaki. Following the release of research conducted by Prescott College faculty and students in 2008 into the history of the land, Maasai people began to move back onto a section of the land called the “Rose farm,” which had recently been sold to the Kenyan government. The court case was filed in the late Spring of 2010.
Many Maasai people risked their lives between 2010 and 2012 to ensure that the suit is brought by the community to regain the land is determined in Kenyan court of law and not defacto through the sale or settlement of the land before the court reaches a verdict. During that time, the government attempted to resettle on Mau Narok Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from other parts of Kenya, some of whom were left landless following the 2007 election violence, a tactic which promised to lead to unrest on the ground and further complicate the court case. The case was stalled as judges rejected appointment to it, citing its controversial nature, and many death threats were received by leaders of what was becoming a movement for civil rights in Maasailand. The government issued general arrest orders for all Maasai people occupying the land and stationed paramilitary police to move people off of the land.
On November 1, 2010, exactly one week before opening arguments were to be offered in court, the government began forcibly evicting Maasai people from Mau Narok. Over a thousand Maasai people traveled to Nairobi for the next court hearing on December 2, 2010, after eight Maasai members of Parliament, from Samburu to Amboseli, held a press conference in support of the case; that hearing was cancelled after the appointed judges did not arrive. The very next day December 3, after weeks of threats and intimidate, Moses ole Mpoe, a leader in the Movement, and a man traveling with him, were assassinated outside of Nakuru while a third was severely harmed.
Mpoe’s death mobilized the Maasai community and his funeral was widely attended. On February 19th, 15,000 Maasai people gathered on Mau Narok to show support for the court case, traveling from as far as Samburu to the North and Loitokitok in the East, a broad representation of the entire community. In April 2011, 50 Maasai activists and others were arrested during and following a peaceful protest; their arrests were thrown out of court the following December for lack of evidence. Police violence took an extreme turn in the months leading up to and following the arrests; young boys were beaten, women assaulted, cattle seized and held for fines. Throughout this time the Kenyan media took a brave stance and covered the case and the movement extensively. Maasai student land rights groups formed and organized opposition to government land rights policies and other issues, and a general
Today victory is in sight in the struggle for the return of Mau Narok. All government efforts to settle the land for other purposes have failed, and the issue will now clearly be settled in court. Kenya’s new constitution creates many fronts of opportunity: a reformed court; indigenous land rights and related provisions; and the establishment of the Kenyan National Land Commission (NLC.) In July, 2013, members of the NLC came to Narok to hear testimony from Maasai leadership about the Mau Narok case, which led the commission to issue a statement supporting the community’s claim to Mau Narok. We anticipate a final ruling during 2014.
The stakes are high. If this case is successful, many others will be filed by Maasai and other Indigenous communities in Kenya. This is a critical moment in the history of an extremely marginalized people.