Monday, 18 February 2013

The Politics of Land Reform

It is highly regrettable that we Kenyans simply cannot have an intelligent conversation on land reform. It was deeply troubling for the Inspector-General of police to purport to warn us against having a national discourse on the issue yet land reform is one of the foundations in which the Vision 2030 pillars are anchored on. Ours is an agrarian economy in which land is the primary source of wealth and the most productive resource. Our land-tenure system however is faulty and has been identified as an impediment to economic development.

To be sure, the driving force for undertaking land reform is usually political, not economic. Don’t be fooled by the irony; whereas the driving force for undertaking land reform is political, the purpose for undertaking land reform is underpinned by sound economics. The irony only serves to prove that in every true democracy there is more politics than economics in economic policy formulation.


Prior to the Mexican Revolution of 1911, land in Mexico was concentrated in the hands of a tiny wealthy minority who had large haciendas ranging from 1000 acres to over 400,000 acres. The revolution of 1911 was largely supported by those who had lost their land to greedy land moguls and other rural poor. Persistent rural unrest over the land issue since the revolution has forced successive Mexican governments to redistribute land to the poor from to time. As of today, extreme pressure for more radical changes has subsided.

The Chinese land reform of the 1940s and early 1950s is another case in point. The Communist revolution was led by the rural poor. Prior to the reform about 40 percent of the arable land was tilled by tenants who would surrender up to half of their harvest as rent to the landlord. After the revolution, land was transferred to the tenants and landlords received no compensation whatsoever. In fact, many landlords were tried publicly in the villages and either executed or sent off to perform hard labour under harsh conditions.

I know this sounds scary but the fact of the matter is that the land problem in Kenya is just as serious as it was in China. Only 20 percent of Kenya's land surface is exploitable for sedentary agriculture but a tiny wealthy minority mostly favoured by birth and access to power hold about 50 percent of the 20 percent of the country that is arable. This means that more than a half of the arable land in the country is in the hands of barely 20 percent of the 38 million Kenyans. About 30 percent of the population is absolutely landless while about 50 percent of the population on average own less than 1.0 hectare of land.

Our situation is a powder keg for a revolution but one thing that prevents it from exploding into a full blown revolution is the 50 percent of Kenyans who on average own less than 1.0 hectare of land. They feel they have something to lose from land related turmoil even though many of them are quite poor and incapable of making good use of their trifling parcels. Land reform is not meant to affect those who own trifling parcels of land but they too feel threatened because some of it was acquired irregularly and a lot of it underused.
 
Proper well thought out land reforms targeted at the 20 percent who own up to 50 percent of the arable land is necessary. Such reform can have a major impact on agricultural productivity and income distribution in rural areas. Small peasant farms with insecure tenancy contracts owned by absentee landlords should be overturned and tenants made owners. This kind of reform is the panacea for the rampant squatter and absentee landlord problems in Kenya. This is essentially what happened in the Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean land reforms of the 1940s and 1950s, the best known successful land reforms, and look where they are today.
 
The abhorrent actions we have witnessed in Zimbabwe where large, highly efficient modern farms are broken up recklessly and subdivided among ignorant ill-equipped peasant farmers is certainly not the way to go. Subjecting such farms which often supply agricultural produce for export and serve as crucial food security bulwarks to reform will require policy ingenuity.
 
The constitution has laid the foundation for comprehensive land reform; it is the enabling legislation proposed by the next government that will determine the success of land reforms in Kenya. If the eleventh Parliament is dominated by individuals opposed to land reform, you can be rest assured that the scope and content of the reform measures contained in the enabling legislation will not lead to any meaningful reforms.
 
The presidential debate coming up the day after tomorrow represents a great opportunity to interrogate the presidential candidates on the various issues touching on land reform. It might not be a standard debate as it has been reduced to a round-table discussion that is cluttered by non-starters but the moderators should endeavour nevertheless to ignore the rhetoric and identify the critical issues surrounding land reform perhaps with the help of land experts and activists and then proceed to establish the position of the candidates on those issues. Hopefully they will establish their positions on the problems of squatters and absentee landlords; confiscation, compensation, and redistribution of land; afforestation and protection of water towers such as Mau and The Aberdare; and land-related historical injustices.

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