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Pastoralists Land Rights Not Subject to Forced Sedentarisation

In Memory of Arch. Lemukol Ng'asike

With dynamics like urbanization, mineral exploration, emphasis on legal documentation to prove private land ownership, adoption of other economic practices to supplement the diminishing economic power of pastoralism, and of course power play surrounding the politics of land ownership in Kenya, the debate on whether pastoralists land rights really exist keeps on knocking on our doors.

Tied to this nebulous debate is another tricky concept that may prove to be a blow against pastoralists rights, and in particular the protection of their land. The thing seeks to introduce this requirement that “real” ownership of pastoral land should stem from “permanent residency”.

When distilled further, this requirement simply says for pastoralists land rights to exist, pastoralists must shun nomadism and adopt a sedentary lifestyle – a clear case of cultural substitution propagated as the “perfect way” to secure pastoralists land rights.

I think I know why such ideas have gained prominence. The definition of “real” ownership of land with regards to pastoralists’ lands remains a hidden subject only known to a few people – mostly government bureaucrats and politicians. The motivation behind this cover-up is equally not known to many. But this won't block some of us from poking holes on this skewed thinking.

One, what informs a person’s “permanent residency”? Is it owning a piece of land in say, a town? What about that herder who for the last forty years has been transiting between say, point A and B in search of pasture and water for his livestock? Should we rule out his demands for recognition as a land owner on the basis of him having no well-defined piece of land?

Concerning the existential threats emanating from mineral exploration, why should this particular herder remain optimistic that his views will be sought when land ownership is subject to possession of papers? Could this be a technical move to lock out those believed to be ignorant from profiting from mineral wealth? How can this lost optimism be regained?

Two, if paper ownership is that important to effect pastoral land ownership, does this translate to forced sedentarisation? What informs this belief that nomads are inferior to sedentarised folks? Could it be an advancement of that old narrative that banks on packing people into permanent settlements so as to administratively control them? Must governance be tied to sedentarisation? Does this mean that nomads have never invented their own governance systems that can be adopted by the state?

I can spot the demons who propagate this anti-pastoralists’ narrative. The first is the Kenyan state. It is guilty in many respects. First, it has refused – knowingly – to ask itself the question: “who is a pastoralist?” And by doing so, it has never and it will never know what pastoralism entails. As a result of having not this crucial knowledge, it will never create policies and all other legal instruments that will protect and advance pastoralists land rights. Call it a case of well-crafted sabotage.

The second demon is the county government – that mini-state that is legally mandated to stand with pastoralists. Should it surprise all of us that county governments where pastoralists control significant demographic majorities have taken a back seat on matters pastoral lands? Like the Kenyan state, these mini-states seem to understand one thing: That time to give pastoralists land rights the front space is yet to come. I fail to understand what informs their timing. It is definitely not the citizens’ grievances.

Some farcical propulsion of pastoralists land rights only materialize when the political class smells the presence of oil companies prospecting for oil in pastoral lands. Proactive defense of these rights are totally absent. Ironically, these are the same people we see as saviors!

But this state of hopelessness won’t last forever. Today’s pastoralist is not the same as that clogged-minded pastoralist of the past. The present one knows his rights. He knows who are the barriers towards full realization of these rights, and he hesitates not to explore other options to protect his rights.

The point still remains solid: Securing pastoralists land rights can never, and should never be tied to forced sedentarization. Any move to forcefully effect this skewed concept will be resisted. And so this is what I have to tell those who cling on this shaky perspective: Go try your luck in another planet, not among the pastoralists.


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