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12 - Twilight Institutions: Land-buying Companies & their Long-term Implications in Laikipia, Kenya

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 January 2023

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Summary

Kenya’s protracted struggle over post-colonial land redistribution remains a complicated story. Following the country’s independence in 1963, the government led by Jomo Kenyatta encouraged investment in companies to buy land belonging to white settlers and subdividing these to meet smallholders’ demand for land (Boone 2012). However, the impacts of the government’s land redistribution and resettlement schemes were ambiguous (Leo 1989). Nowhere is this more evident than in the northern county of Laikipia (see Map 12.1). Currently, Laikipia’s landscape is divided into an array of enclosures, where smallholders settle according to shared ethnicity and land-use practices on the margins of neighbouring large-scale private conservancies, ranches and national parks. Wedged between these settler categories are pastoralists who negotiate access to pasture on large landholdings by force, through consented arrangements with private land claimants or simply by occupying seemingly vacant plots of absentee landowners (Letai 2015). Interrogating the origins of this fragmentation reveals the county’s history of differentiation and shifting domination.

Land-buying companies (LBCs) remain at the centre of land-use fragmentation, ambiguous ownership and disputes in Laikipia. Kenya’s independence ushered in a new political class with the financial means and entrepreneurial skills to establish LBCs in the 1960s and 1970s. In Laikipia they were able to purchase large tracts of former colonial ranches via loans from the Agricultural Finance Corporation, offering the government a crucial role as creditor in private land transfers – a role that it was unable or unwilling to take advantage of. The high demand for land eased the process of recruiting shareholders, with landless rural dwellers and smallholders making up a significant portion of those who sought land through LBCs. It was in this manner that land became an instrumental actor in Kenya’s political life, with LBCs harnessing desperation for land shares towards patronage and electoral votes (Branch 2011). This chapter shows how these companies operate as shadow institutions with a political clout that enables an evasion of accountability. The twilight practices of LBCs have fostered an uneven playing field where losers and winners are defined not by their willingness to follow the legal frameworks, but by their capability to seize the opportunities created by recondite authority and legal frameworks.

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Land, Investment and Politics
Reconfiguring Eastern Africa's Pastoral Drylands
, pp. 144 - 154
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2020

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