Farmers and herders clash in controversial Kilifi land lease deals

A herdsman looks after his cattle amid a searing drought in Kaloleni, Kilifi County

A herdsman looks after his cattle amid a searing drought in Kaloleni, Kilifi County, in November 2021.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

It used to be a symbiotic relationship. One that put money in farmers’ pockets while assuring herdsmen of pasture for their livestock during the drier periods of the year.

This arrangement, where farmers in Kilifi County welcomed nomadic pastoralists from drought-hit regions and leased out their lands for grazing for a pretty penny, is now turning out to be the bane of locals.

A prolonged drought has turned disputes over grazing rights into a veritable tinderbox as local farmers and nomadic pastoralists clash over land ownership. Mr Hamisi Charo from Ndarako village knows only too well the agony of conflict.

Last December, his family forcefully surrendered their land in Goshi for ten months, losing Sh300,000, in order to compensate a herder for a camel that had succumbed to drought.

Mr Charo said a group of women were fetching firewood in a thicket when they spotted a dead camel. Its owners, he claimed, cunningly allowed the women to share the meat. However, no sooner had they finished divvying up the carcass than the herders detained them, accusing them of killing the camel.

The herders reported the matter at Bamba Police Station. Within no time, police officers arrived and arrested Mr Charo and another man alongside the three lactating mothers together with their babies.

Dead camel

They spent three days in the cells. Mr Charo was arrested as he was present during the incident and even took photos of the dead camel before the women started dividing the meat.

“I was told that, if I wanted my freedom, I should confess to having killed the camel and agree to compensate the herder. I had no choice other than admitting to the offence and surrendering my land to the herder for the next ten months,” he said.

He claimed that similar incidents had happened in Ng’ambo , Shirango, and Jila villages.

Dingiria/Mapotea Assistant Chief James Randu accused the herders of reneging on their agreements with farmers.

“The herders always run to the police whenever they are caught in the wrong.”

“In cases of trespass, the police always victimise the complainants, belligerently questioning them and asking them to produce proof of land ownership, which they often do not have,” said the administrator.

He claimed that herders lease vast swathes of land on the cheap, only to rent them out to fellow herders for a tidy profit.

‘Sell their birthright’

“They are now trading with our land and it is becoming a security threat because the profits are substantial, which raises the stakes in a conflict,” he added.

Mrima wa Ndege Chief Samson Chai said poverty had subjected the locals to “the indignity of having to sell their birthright to outsiders”.

“We have always discouraged the leasing of land to outsiders in order to utilise it for food production, but locals are leasing out their lands for over six months at a time,” he said

Mr Chai said that, unlike other years when the herders used to move back to their regions during the rains for fear of tsetse flies, they now continue to stay.

Some of the land lease agreements are set to expire in 2024.

End conflicts

Mr Chai advised locals to avoid leasing out their lands to several people at a time but focus on a single herder to end conflicts.

“We are centralising group ranching because it will be easier to monitor a single herder rather than many,” he said.

He called on the Land Control Board to pronounce itself with finality on the boundary between Ganze and Chakama.

“The people of Vitengeni do not know where their boundary lies, while herders are claiming that the ranch extends to Ganze,” he said. In 2018, angry locals set ablaze thousands of acres of farmland in the dispute.

Acting County Commissioner Geoffrey Tanui yesterday promised to follow up on the matter.