Are we going back to the claims of autochthony?

The question of belonging is a “burning” one – literally and literarily – in Africa today


By Dr Tom Odhiambo

Who can really claim to be an “original” inhabitant of a place? Are there really people who are indigenous dwellers of any place on earth? And what do we mean by origin(al)? Does it mean that if one can’t find the exact moment in recorded history or surviving memory when they started to live in a place then they claim autochthony to justify “origin, in relation to ‘others’”? Claims of belonging to a region or a place – to the exclusion of others – is currently being whispered in some parts of this country, or shouted in others. How, you may ask.

Well, as the elections near, we read more and more in the newspapers or hear on the radio about plans to “share” elective posts in parts of the country. In each county, there are negotiations among the elite on who will be the governor, deputy governor, senator, women’s representative etc. These talks, in counties with – supposedly – one ethnic community (say in Kisii or Murang’a) are about how the potato is shared between clans, ridges, interests or families. The supposition that these counties are ethnically homogenous can be contested but such exclusion will prevail for the foreseeable future.

But in more heterogeneous counties like Nairobi, Nakuru, Eldoret, Mombasa or Busia, the sharing becomes complicated. You must have read in the newspapers that one prospective governor of Nairobi plans to share out the elective seats in Nairobi “equally” among the different groups living in the city. So far, this MP hasn’t told us the formula his team will use to ensure that “all” Kenyans residing in Nairobi will get a share of the power and resources that come with the public office. How will a Goan, a Samburu, an Iteso, an Arab or a Pokot, who only claims Nairobi as “home”, get his share? Won’t all this sharing of seats only involve the big tribes – Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Kamba or Kisii – none of which can call Nairobi their native land? In any case, since Nairobi is ‘originally’ Maasailand (the British will say they founded modern Nairobi), what is their stake in the local government in Nairobi?

And this is the question that should occupy Kenyans throughout the country. What precedent have we set with the administrative and political structures in the counties? When governors aren’t employing their tribesmen in the local government, they are filling their offices will all shades of so-called “advisors” and “experts”, drawn largely from their clans or immediate families. In some counties, specific offices are reserved for “locals” – meaning citizens of the county who claim to be direct descendants of some families that have long established roots in the county. “Aliens” or “settlers” – irrespective of their numbers – will soon find it difficult to get into public office or make a legitimate claim to resources in some of these counties.

But this isn’t merely a Kenyan problem.

Boas and Kevin Dunn argue in their book, “Politics of Origin in Africa: Autochthony, Citizenship and Conflict” (Zed Books, 2013), that the question of belonging is a “burning” one – literally and literarily – in Africa today. Indeed, they show that many of Africa’s conflicts today are partly generated and sustained by disputes over claims of indigeneity.

They remind us that, “Autochthony is a strategy, not a fact. Proving one is indigenous is an impossible task, yet there is much to be gained by making such an assertion.” In other words, it isn’t easy to authenticate claims of belonging; but it can be profitable to assert your “localness” where, for instance, distribution of resources is concerned.

The question of resources was the original case against a centralised administration made by the so-called “small” tribes when they argued for majimbo in the independence constitution. It is the same matter that shadowed all the discussions about devolution of government towards the 2010 Constitution.

The same topic had animated debates after the postelection violence and crisis of 2007/2008, with claims that the central government had excluded a majority of Kenyans from public office, power and resources. It was couched in the form of complaints about domination of the government by one tribe.

And so, Kenyans wanted more say and involvement in governing themselves at the local level. This simply means we don’t want to be lorded over by “strangers” from the capital city or other parts of Kenya. But it is a short distance between wanting some kind of local autonomy and moving towards total exclusion of those who are deemed not native. Without doubt, in many of the counties, this struggle manifests itself as conflict over land – simply because land is still the major factor of production for an absolute majority of Kenyans.

If land isn’t used for farming and other agricultural related activities, it is serves as grazing land. So, in many parts of the country, pastures are dwindling as the population grows and demands for land for habitation and to grow crops increases pressure on the little that is available. If one adds onto this mix the Kenyan craze for investment in land for speculative purposes, then one begins to understand how and why future clashes over land in counties in the Coast, Rift Valley, Northern and North-Eastern regions will escalate. The last resort for most of the affected communities is claim to autochthony.

Already, one can see the tensions rise as communities divide up political offices among the different “locals”, completely ignoring individuals – often a substantive population – who have bought land and settled in these regions. The “foreigners” are generally requested to “respect the right” of locals to rule in the region. When the request is challenged, threats are issued and in some cases violence ensues. This is a situation that won’t change soon – it might actually deteriorate – as African economies depreciate whilst the population expands.

The other evidence of the resurgence of the claim to origin is the reported cases of land invasions in parts of the country. The media has recently highlighted cases of squatters invading and settling on “private” land. In many instances, it is difficult to argue with the defence the squatters offer: they say that their ancestors lived on the land in question but had been forcefully removed before it was occupied by foreigners. From a purely humanitarian point, this is a legitimate claim, especially considering that such individuals would have no other means of making a living except small-scale farming.

But on the other hand, what would stop an individual who can’t prove to belong locally or had any legitimate claim over the land simply appearing on one’s farm and demanding a part of it because locals are doing so? There is enough evidence that total strangers have invaded legitimately owned land before, claiming ancestral affiliation to the place. There is no doubt that cases of abuse of land rights abound in Africa. African states have been known to forcibly remove communities from their lands for supposed industrial development or for other public use only for such land to end up in private hands.

Economic exclusion and favouring of the regions from where the ruling elite come from are old narratives in Africa. Already this is a story that is popular on social and mainstream media in Kenya today. For sure, it will be a leading campaign issue in 2017, now that some members of the ruling class often suffer from amnesia and mock the rest of Kenyans with the argument that this is a government of two regions or tribes. But there is hard work to be done to restore the (sense of) national belonging that the same political class often demands of Kenyans.^

Writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi;


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