Land real issue for Kenya referendum No crusaders

July 4, 2010 12:00 am

, NAKURU, Jul 4 – For the churches, politicians and land owners crusading for a "No" vote in the August 4 referendum on Kenya\’s new constitution, the real issue is defeating a crucial land reform.

The "Reds" — colour attributed by the electoral commission to the "No" camp — are organising meeting after meeting where they brandish the spectre of legalised abortion and khadis, or Islamic family courts, to get their fellow citizens to vote against the new constitution.

In Nakuru, 150 kilometres (90 miles) north of Nairobi, a dozen Kenyan tele-evangelists, their flashy suits glinting in the sun, have just led a prayer session "against the draft constitution in the name of Jesus".

Prominent in their 3,000-strong audience are Daniel Arap Moi, president from 1978 to 2002, flanked by the apostle of the No vote, Higher Education Minister William Ruto.

When the issues of abortion and khadis courts are raised the crowd holds aloft a sea of yellow cards, seemingly oblivious to the fact that abortion is actually illegal under the new constititution, except in cases where the mother\’s life is in danger and that the khadis courts are already ratified under the existing constitution.

For many observers, the really contentious point in the new constitution is land, an issue that was already at the heart of the post-election violence in early 2008.

"The debate on khadis courts and abortion is a smoke screen. First, abortion is clearly illegal. The khadis court is not new," said Lumumba Odenda, national coordinator of the Kenya Land Alliance, a network of civil society groups advocating for effective land law and policy reforms.

The draft constitution provides for an investigation into the way vast tracts of land, much of it in the fertile Rift Valley, formerly owned by the state found its way into the hands of top politicians.

It also gives authority to a future National Land Commission to investigate "historical injustices" in land distribution.

"To them (the big landowners) it means you\’re opening Pandora\’s box," Odenda said.

"People who have got their hands on such big properties are really running scared. And they\’re scaremongering the ordinary people, saying it\’s you who are targetted."

"Moi, in the footsteps of (Jomo) Kenyatta, perpetrated the worst land grab by the country\’s elite in the 80\’s and early 90\’s. They even went for forests, river banks, swamps," he charged.

"A number of people that are in the "No" camp are beneficiaries of this," he said, churches included.

More discreet, but equally influential in the campaign are other big landowners who cultivate cereals or tea or who have private reserves. They are campaigning under the auspices of the Kenya Landowners\’ Association against what they see as "the nationalisation of land" in Kenya.

The association fears both a move by the state to confiscate land without compensation and a project to limit the maximum size of a piece of privately-owned land, a concept it sees as "very socialist".

The group also fears that foreign landowners could see their permanent ownership reduced to a 99-year lease.

"We\’re really there to make sure there is a balanced debate on land reform in Kenya and to make sure the State doesn\’t undermine the private property right," Christopher Foot, chairman of the Kenya Landowners Association, told AFP.

One month ahead of the referendum, the "No" camp is playing catch up with the "Yes" camp, symbolised by the colour green and headed by the two rivals who contested in the presidential election at the end of 2007, President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

The "Yes" camp was credited with 57 percent of voting intentions in a poll of 6,017 people carried out in May, but still looks fragile.

Several influential figures in the "Yes" camp are also big landowners and have been campaigning half-heartedly, earning the nickname "watermelons" — green or Yes-inclined on the outside and red or No-inclined on the inside.


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