How East Africa created ‘reserves’


THE European land alienation that led to the creation of ‘land units’ or ‘reserves’ in East Africa, had a direct and serious consequence on the Kikuyu people who lost good land, mainly in the Highlands.
For the Kikuyu people, the Swynnerton Plan which instigated professed ‘pragmatic changes’ in land tenure and in the laws that governed the process, the entire pattern of African economic and legal forms, juxtaposed against those of the European settlers had consequences for the nature and form of indigenous African development.
The Kikuyu population had burgeoned over the decades. Compensation with inferior land failed to quell the enmity which grew and festered over the years.
Their grievances, motivated by a powerful feeling of frustration and land hunger resulted in the formation of The Young Kikuyu Association, The Kikuyu Central Association and The Kenya African Union.
Various commissions to address the rising tension and agitation were mooted by colonial authorities, which eventually led to the 1930 Native Lands Trust Ordinance, aimed at setting aside native reserves, with “…additional lands for the natives, as and where…” the need arose.
In 1923, the Devonshire White Paper provided that Kenya was “…an African country and native rights were paramount” ; the Hilton Young Commission Report of 1929 endorsed the white highlands and native reserves and called for “…satisfaction of native requirements…,” but was ignored.
The Native Trust Board was established by law, to manage the reserves. However, the Ordinance had limitations allowing the crown to grant leases and licenses for public use, including to European settlers, in the reserves.
When the discovery of gold in the Kakamega Reserve prompted the government’s acquisition of the reserve.
It clearly proved that security of tenure was subject to imperial interests.
Agitation for total independence did not cease with such token and unilateral measures that still preferred colonial interests to the interests of the majority of Africans.
The colonial authorities identified the solution to the problem as lying in the ‘individualisation’ of land tenure that resulted in the Swynnerton Plan.
Colonial policies and laws viewed communal land tenure as retrogressive and detrimental to development and efficient utilisation of land holdings.
Accordingly, the Morris Carter Land Commission was set up to address some of the ‘native grievances’ and made several recommendations; principally the need for more land and rights, on the erroneous assumption that problems in the reserves were “… mainly due to overpopulation, bad land use and defective tenure arrangements …”
To ameliorate the situation, the authorities crafted and introduced further laws and plans to co-opt the ‘more civilised (indigenous) Africans’ in order to deal with “…the dangers posed to colonial hegemony ….”
A similar Morris Carter Commission was set up in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), in 1925, that resulted in the Land Apportionment Act of 1930, which formally legalised the separation of land between indigenous people and the white settlers as the solution to similar discontent in Rhodesia.
In Kenya, R.J.M. Swynnerton argued that “… Sound agricultural development is dependent upon a system of land tenure … make available to the African farmer a unit of land and system of farming whose production will support his family… He must be provided with such security of tenure through an indefeasible title as this will encourage him to invest his labour and profits into the development of his farm and enable him to offer it as security against such financial credits as he may wish to secure…”
While the goal behind the Swynnerton Plan was officially economic and the individualisation of land tenure, the plan, according to some, was motivated by a desire to “…. create a middle class population, anchored to the land and which had too much to lose by supporting the Mau Mau” – the African armed struggle for total liberation in Kenya.
Comparable to the land purchase areas in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), the Swynnerton Plan sought to secure land tenure for the rightful owners by promoting ‘acquisition of title’ (an anathema to indigenous people), thus hoping to intensify the development of African agriculture and their submission to rule.
Ostensibly, individualisation, like the purchase areas set aside in Rhodesia, would confer exclusive rights over parcels of land, thereby removing possible conflicts.
The middle class, who had also acquired Western education and embraced its form of civilisation, was eventually be “…groomed to take over the reins of power…” and chose to retain the status quo.
However, the disinheritance of indigenous lands, coupled with overpopulation, high poverty levels and increased insecurity in the reserves, continued to fuel indigenous African discontent and the demand for the return of their ancestral lands intensified.
In Swynnerton’s estimation, the mounting political problems in Kenya over land could be resolved simply by restructuring the colonially-imposed property rights regime in areas occupied by Africans.
When, in 1963, Kenya gained independence, individualisation of land tenure had taken centre stage, with legal and policy frameworks geared towards entrenching the existing state of affairs.
However, pastoralists, like the Kikuyu and Maasai, with other indigenous communities resisted the individualisation of their lands.
The Maasai, equally faced dispossession of their lands, through the 1904 and 1911 Anglo-Maasai treaties that provided for their eviction “… to create space for the settlement of European immigrants whose agricultural and other commercial activities were anticipated to power economic development in the new Kenya Colony”.
Their appropriated lands were converted into individual settler-farms and ranches.
The appropriation, and further dispossession of Maasai land, was sanctioned through the recommendations of the Kenya Land Commission of 1932, mandated with “…evaluating current and future land needs of the African population, to determine whether it was feasible to set aside more land for African communities and evaluate African land claims over land alienated to non-natives.”
The recommendations included inter alia that the Maasai be “…forced to lease out their land to other communities, particularly the cultivators… to bring tsetse-infested areas into cultivation … and help relieve overcrowding in other African areas, particularly in the Kikuyu reserve.”
The creation of national parks and reserves, mostly situated on Maasai land, further dispossessed the Maasai people of their traditional ancestral land, and they have not succeeded in reclaiming their lands, despite repeated efforts, resulting in violent clashes whenever they return to their lands for grazing purposes, especially during periods of drought.
For the Maasai, who lived in harmony and managed their resources equitably in an environmentally friendly manner, their attachment to, and conceptualisation of, their land and resources is articulated in the proverb: “Sons and land cannot be given away” – aptly capturing the rationale behind the Maasai idea of communal land tenure.
Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field. For comments e-mail:


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