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For the Maa, land injustices have a long history

From left, David Sankori, governors Joseph Lenku and Kajiado senator Philip Mpaayei in Kenyewa-Poka Ward on August 4.
From left, David Sankori, governors Joseph Lenku and Kajiado senator Philip Mpaayei in Kenyewa-Poka Ward on August 4.

Before the arrival of the British colonisers, the Maasai lived more to the north of their present position in an area that came to be known as the White Highlands


In early December 1997, a group of Maasai youngsters stopped the Peugeot car of the Kajiado District Commissioner, Musikali Mutemi.

They aimed to admonish the administrator following interference by KANU in the nomination process for its parliamentary candidate in Kajiado Central constituency.

The administrator was accused of being a party to the alleged rigging.

After the car stopped, which did not carry the DC at the time, a conversation ensued in the following manner: Maasai: “Sema Moi ni mbwa” (Say Moi is a dog). Driver: (refuses to answer).

Maasai: ‘Mimi nasema hivi, sema Moi ni mbwa’ (I am telling you to repeat that Moi is a dog).

Driver: (refuses to answer). The car was then set upon with clubs.

This story exemplifies the negative feelings towards KANU then prevalent among many of the local people after the elected candidate, Stephen ole Leken, was dropped to give way for the incumbent MP, David Sankori.

Similarly, in Kajiado South constituency, the same style of politics was played, thus relieving Geoffrey Parpai of his candidacy in favour of the incumbent, Philip Singaru.

This obstruction by KANU in the nomination of its candidates triggered a shock wave of anger and frustration.

It caused an “earthquake” that hit the political landscape in the Maasai area. As a result, KANU is no longer the natural option for the Maasai electorate.

The 1997 elections ended the monopolistic position of the ruling party in Kajiado South constituency; in Kajiado Central, the opposition party Safina almost won the seat.

What remains to be seen is whether the tide away from KANU by the Maasai electorate is definitive.

Politics in colonial days, 1900-63 

The Maasai of Kenya mainly inhabit the districts of Trans Mara, Narok and Kajiado in the southern part of the country, bordering Tanzania.

Before the arrival of the British colonisers, they lived more to the north of their present position in an area that came to be known as the White Highlands.

Protests against the loss of their northern area have been raised since the 1904 and 1911 treaties between the Maasai and the British were signed.

In return for giving up the northern pastures, the Maasai were guaranteed that the southern reserve would be closed to non-Maasai.

Since then, the process of land loss has continued and has become one of the main political issues in the Maasai setting.

In 1960, shortly before independence, the Maasai — fearing that the closed status of their districts would be lost — created the Maasai United Front (MUF).

The driving force was John Keen, born in 1929 in Laikipia, the northern area, the son of a German father and Maasai mother.

Stanley Oloitiptip, a Kisonko Maasai from the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro, Kajiado district, became the first chairman. Within a year, the two men had clashed.

Keen, who was also the organising secretary of the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), the party that sought to rally support from all small ethnic groups in Kenya, called for the dissolution of KADU-affiliated tribal organisations so that the party could devote its efforts to the independence question (see the Weekly Review, November 15, 1976).

In response, Oloitiptip organised a protest to KADU’s president Ronald Ngala and declared a vote of no confidence in Keen.

This marked the beginning of a long history of conflict between the two politicians representing the then Kajiado District.

Keen left KADU to become an independent member of parliament before joining the Kenya African National Union (KANU) — which was mainly a Kikuyu-Luo body.

Whereas KADU wanted some kind of majimboism (regionalism), KANU was considered to be a national party, which wanted freedom of settlement for every Kenyan in all parts of the country.

Keen soon rose within KANU to become the organising secretary in 1962.

At the time of the Kenya constitutional conference at Lancaster House (March-April 1962) in London, which discussed Kenya’s independence, the Maasai were represented by Justus ole Tipis, John ole Konchela (KADU parliamentary group) and John Keen (KANU).

Besides, a Maasai delegation, which included five more Maasai representatives, also attended the conference.

This delegation expressed their wish to continue to enjoy the security of tenure in their reserved area.

Also, they wanted their ownership of the lands which the Maasai had vacated as a result of the 1904 and 1911 treaties to be recognised as Maasai territory.

They also demanded that the territory should revert to its original owners once it was vacated by the European settlers.

The British government rejected these demands despite threats by Keen to go to the United Nations or the International Court of Justice.

It also dismissed a proposal by Keen for financial compensation amounting to £5,800,000 and a further £100,000 annually.

The KADU members within the delegation were less willing to accept compensation: they wanted the return of the land.

To the Maasai, this was a matter of life and death’ (KNA/MAC/KEN/52/11).

In protest, all Maasai representatives — Tipis, Keen and Konchela — refused to sign the final report of the conference, “The Framework of the Kenya Constitution”, because of what they termed “the refusal of Her Majesty’s Government to recognise the claim of the Maasai delegation that the land formerly occupied by the tribe in the Rift Valley should revert to them” (KNA/MAC/KEN/48/8).

The loss of these high potential pastures and the loss of even more land, later on, are up till today major aspects of Maasai politics.

Post-independence politics in Maasaiiand: The early years, 1963-83

In the 1960s, Keen clashed with Oloitiptip several times.

His outspokenness also landed him in problems with the authorities on several occasions.

In 1967, he was detained for two months for blaming the heads of state of Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya for failing to make progress with East African unity.

And in 1975 he was fired from the Cabinet after a debate on the killing of J.M. Kariuki.

Likewise, on the issue of land, he continued to criticise the establishment.

In 1978, he warned that unless steps were taken to ensure its fair distribution, the potentially explosive land issue in Kenya would get out of hand.

He pointed at corrupt individuals grabbing land in the Maasai area, though at one time he was also accused of favouring some friends and relatives in the Ngong Hills area.

He accused powerful individuals of misusing funds meant for the conservation of wildlife in the Amboseli area (see, for instance, Daily Nation 20/03/75; 17/09/81; 03/11/81; 03/06/82; East African Standard 31/05/79; 30/01/83; 10/11/84; Nairobi Times 24/09/78).

Outspoken and fearless

Although outspoken and fearless, Keen was blamed by his constituency residents for not bringing home the development they wanted.

On his part, he accused the local Maasai of still wearing the traditional dress and keeping to traditional ways of life, including moranism (warrior class).

He urged them to send their children to school and to modernise.

His rival, Oloitiptip, by contrast, defended traditional Maasai customs and worked hard as an assistant minister to bring development for the benefit of his family and friends in his home area.

By the mid-1970s, Oloitiptip’s star rose even further when he was made the first Maasai Cabinet minister (for natural resources).

Keen, however, continued to make life difficult for Oloitiptip.

The latter’s idea to revive the MUF in late 1976 was criticised and Keen demanded that his rival be thrown out of KANU for that idea.

Eventually, Oloitiptip lost his post of KANU district chairman (Daily Nation 15/11/76).

In 1981, after Keen was reappointed by the late former president Daniel arap Moi to the Cabinet as an assistant minister in the Office of the President, the two Kajiado politicians ended their feud. Yet, the peace agreement did not last long.

Keen announced the beginning of the end of the road for Oloitiptip when the latter was publicly accused of active involvement in shady plot deals by the former Olkejuado and Narok county councils (Daily Nation 05/02/83; 21/04/89; East African Standard 05/02/83; 27/03/83).

County council land and forest land had been handed out to Oloitiptip and his political supporters since the mid-1970s.

Maasai elders of the rival Matapato section of Kajiado South constituency openly rejected Oloitiptip by April 1983 (Daily Nation 28/04/83).

The following day, another group of Maasai elders protested, saying Keen had incited them to undermine Oloitiptip (Daily Nation 29/04/83).

In May 1983, President Moi announced that the next general elections would be held a year in advance to enable the political system to elect honest and dedicated leaders (IED 1997:124).

At a KANU rally in July, Oloitiptip was accused of not being development-conscious, practising divisive politics in the district, and mismanaging public funds.

Oloitiptip hit back at Keen, saying he did not want to waste time and energy “quarrelling with a dying horse” (Weekly Review 29/07/83:11).

Each of the two titans supported rival candidates in their respective constituencies.

At one time the Weekly Review concluded: “If there were any awards given to the district with the longest record of political squabbling among its top politicians, then there is little doubt that Kajiado would hold the dubious distinction” (Weekly Review 26/08/83:17).

Tipis Vs Konchela

In neighbouring Narok, district politics were dominated by Justus Kendet ole Tipis for Narok North and John Konchela for Narok West for most of this period.

Like Keen, both men had been to the Lancaster House conference.

They also had their differences, but were not engaged in fighting each other as much as their Kajiado neighbours did. At one time, Tipis was the president of the Maasai United Front.

When KADU dissolved itself, he joined KANU and was made an assistant minister for tourism and wildlife before the 1967 elections, which he lost to Moses Marima.

He returned to parliament after beating Marima in 1974 and was appointed an assistant minister for home affairs.

He also became KANU’s national treasurer. By 1977, it seemed as if his political career was coming to an end (Weekly Review 10/01/77).

Tipis had tried to organise the elections in the middle of 1976 while prominent persons were not around.

However, he was challenged and in the December 1976 Narok District party elections, he was defeated by William ole Ntimama, who until that date had kept a low profile in national politics but was building a strong empire in his Narok District.

A few weeks later, KANU headquarters announced that it would allow petitions from a few branches in the country, including Narok.

Tipis was a member of the appeals committee and a repeat was ordered.

Ntimama’s appeal to President Jomo Kenyatta fell on deaf ears. However, he trounced Tipis a second time.

When the general elections came in 1979, Ntimama was prevailed upon not to run against Tipis by President Moi (Weekly Review 31/1/97).

Tipis gives Ntimama nightmares

So, in 1979 ole Tipis was elected unopposed as MP for Narok North.

He used his position to make life difficult for Ntimama, who was then Narok County Council chairman.

This intensified when Tipis was appointed minister of state in the Office of the President in charge of internal security and the provincial administration.

Although Ntimama survived a probe committee set up to investigate the affairs of the Narok County Council, he was unable to withstand Tipis’ harassment after he announced in early 1983 his intention to run against Tipis in the 1983 elections.

He was arrested a few weeks before the polls and was charged with holding an illegal meeting.

He appeared in court and returned home some days later to announce he would stand down in favour of Tipis. Again Tipis went in unopposed.

In both the 1979 and 1983 elections, Francis Sompisha outvoted John Konchela, once an assistant minister for works, in Narok West, which later became Kilgoris constituency.

The two had been competing over the seat since the early 1960s. Narok West was also the home of the late Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s second vice president, who had retired from politics earlier and died in 1990.

Narok South constituency had remained firmly in the hands of the late Meshack ole Nampaso from 1969 to 1988.



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