Land dispute spawns violence, displacement

Even with a police escort, Geoffrey Boit feels vulnerable going back to his farm to salvage food in the strife-torn western Kenyan district of Mount Elgon, where a long-standing dispute over land ownership has led to inter-communal violence and the displacement of thousands.

"Even with police protection, we have to go through the forest to avoid detection by people who may attack us," said Boit, a 41-year-old father of five.

Boit now lives in the neighbouring Marakwet District after fleeing his home in Cheptandan, near the controversial Chebyuk Settlement Scheme, the flashpoint of the violence in Mt Elgon.

"I had planted a lot of crops on my farm but I did not get to harvest anything when the fighting started," said Boit, adding that one of his sons was killed in the fighting in Mt Elgon, on the slopes of the eponymous mountain along Kenya's border with Uganda.

The fighting has pitted two clans of the Sabaot community against each other and claimed at least 158 lives and left 140 injured, according to the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS). Government officials have put the death toll at about 80.

Most of the victims perished in the actual fighting while other deaths have been attributed to environmental exposure as a result of displacement, diseases related to poor nutrition and lack of access to healthcare, according to KRCS.

Despite the presence of security forces, tension remains high, with the number of displaced on the increase, said the KRCS, which has been offering humanitarian aid in the district since November.

Living in fear

The conflict has led to the displacement of at least 66,000 people; Mt Elgon's population was estimated at 137,600 in a 1999 census.

The displaced have sought shelter in churches, schools, mosques and government buildings. Some have resorted to begging, casual employment and commercial sex to make ends meet.

"Only the women and children stay indoors while the men keep vigil outside," said Andayi Shihanda, a public relations officer with KRCS.

"If the people stay in camps they might become easier targets for their attackers," said Mohammed Said, the KCRS chairman in neighbouring Bungoma District. Most people of Mt Elgon have rented houses in towns while others have moved in with relatives. Yet others have gone into the forest, only coming out whenever there is a food distribution.

History of a conflict
The conflict in the district is between one group of the Soy clan (part of the Sabaot), the Pok, and another Sabaot clan, the Mosop, who comprise the ogiek (hunter-gatherers) and the ogiik, pastoralists.

According to members of the Mosop community, insecurity is not the result of clan rivalry but rather a conflict stemming from years of skewed government land distribution.

Three decades ago, 600 Mosop families who inhabited the Mt Elgon forest were resettled in Chebyuk to make way for a game reserve. They were joined by members of the Soy community. In subsequent land reallocations, the Mosop got 65 percent of the land while the Soy got 35 percent.

Over the years many more people settled in Chebyuk and now lay claim to the land, with some having even sold their plots to unsuspecting buyers, further complicating the land-ownership situation.

Subsequently, the land was shared out equally between the two communities - 866 plots for the Pok, a sub-clan of the Soy, and 866 for the Ogiek, a sub-group of the Mosop - of a total 7,000 applicants. 

As a result, some people who had large tracts of land in the past ended up becoming landless as opportunists who applied for the land ended up being allocated plots before genuine applicants.

Claims of injustice led to the formation of the Sabaot Land Defence Forces (SLDF), a group believed to be behind attacks in the district, to fight what  they perceived as dispossession of land considered theirs. The first killings took place in August 2006.

Some of the internally displaced have fled to Bungoma, Teso, Trans-Nzoia and Busia districts, with others moving as far away as Uganda.

"Everywhere we move we are threatened. A time will come when I will not move anymore despite the risks," said Boit.

Said described the situation as "very volatile and sensitive. The people do not trust anybody," he said.

Cases of rape and other forms of violence against women and children have been reported; the large number of unaccompanied children also raises the possibility of abuse.

Food insecurity

Agriculture is the principal form of livelihood and the clashes are threatening food security, with most of the displaced left vulnerable after their houses and food stocks were burned. In addition, there is a lack of grazing land for livestock.

There has also been a lot of food wastage as the displaced feel too insecure to return to their farms to harvest mature crops, although in some parts of the district, people are returning home because of the lack of food elsewhere, according to William Kebeney, a minister in Kipsigon. Kipsigon is in Kopsiro division, one of four administrative divisions in Mt Elgon.

Food prices have also risen due to declining productivity, Kebeney said.

According to Shihanda, there have also been isolated cases of school stores being broken into "perhaps due to declining food supplies".
The fighting has also led to the stalling of economic activities in Cheptais - the economic hub of the district - and other markets that are major suppliers for the neighbouring towns of Kakamega, Kisumu and Eldoret.

According to aid workers, the situation for most members of the Mosop community who fled to Chepkitale, their ancestral home deep in Mt Elgon forest, is dire, with people living on the little maize they managed to salvage and wild honey.

"There is fear of an outbreak of pneumonia due to the cold on the mountain," Said said.

According to Sokwony Laikong, a secondary school teacher in the area, the people are living in makeshift structures and caves with more than 10 people sharing each structure. The people also have to contend with elephants that go to the caves in search of salt licks. Chepkitale is located within a game reserve.

The Mosops are aware of the hardships in Chepkitale but they do not want to go back, he said. "They have chosen to face natural hazards instead of machetes," he added.

"The biggest loss we have incurred in the mountains is loss of life; the rest can be recovered," he said.

Call for dialogue and increased security

According to Said, the people are in need of healthcare and sanitation, vaccination services, food and potable water.

The KRCS is distributing food and non-food items in 28 aid distribution centres in Mt Elgon and has a tracing service to help separated families. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has also donated family kits and medicine through the KRCS.

The people of Chepkitale also need a police post at Labot, an area in Chepkitale, to provide security, said Laikong. "The Mosop are fed up with Chebyuk," he said, "We need separation."

Photo: Ann Weru/IRIN
Abandoned and burnt homes in the Chebyuk settlement, Mt Elgon district

Meanwhile, delegates to a National Council of Churches of Kenya meeting in Bungoma called for all-inclusive dialogue to bring peace.

A Kapsokwony resident, John Were, remains sceptical: "I believe that dialogue is important but it will be very tricky coming up with a satisfactory solution because whatever favours the Mosop affects the Pok and vice-versa. 

"I think the solution would be for the government to find a new piece of land to resettle the Mosop. If this is not done I see a situation developing whereby those [Mosop] who want to leave might provoke the Pok and start fresh clashes so that those [Mosop] who will have remained are forced to move out to avoid a counter-attack by the Pok," he said.

The clashes were initially concentrated in the Kopsiro area of Mt Elgon in December 2006 and moved to Kapsokwony and then more recently towards Trans-Nzoia District, where six killings were recently reported.

In response to the fighting, the government has deployed the General Service Unit, a specialised police force. The government also extended an amnesty for the surrender of illegal weapons in the district.

The controversial land allocation has also been cancelled and a committee formed to establish whether the beneficiaries of the land allocations were genuine.

There have, however, been allegations that security forces were burning down food stores and granaries and claims that youths were hiding in forests due to harassment by the police.

"We are not confident that the security forces will bring peace," Were said. "Once the government announces that there is peace that is when the people are attacked."