Posted on August 30, 2004

Cargo Cult

Aidan Hartley, Spectator (UK), Aug. 28

Laikipia—I watched tribal warriors invade private farms on Kenya’s Laikipia plateau this week, driving vast herds of cattle before them. The phalanxes of il moran looked magnificent in their ochre and beads, and my spine tingled at the sight of their spears flashing in the sun. When Nairobi’s government quite reasonably moved to evict them, saying this was not a ‘Zimbabwe-like situation’, they lit bushfires and left a trail of wanton vandalism. Wielding tomahawks, knives and knobkerries, they clashed with security forces, and in the mêlée one trespasser was tragically shot dead.

‘How do you make a good white wine?’ goes a joke in Zimbabwe. Answer: ‘Take away his farm.’ But Kenya isn’t Zimbabwe, thank God, and this isn’t about black and white. What is unfolding in Laikipia is a curious tale of colonial treaties and modern ambulance-chasers.

Last year, Britain paid £5.5 million in compensation to Samburu and Maasai pastoralists who claimed they had been injured by unexploded ordnance discarded by British troops training in the bush around Laikipia. The UK’s MoD knew that the majority of claimants were bogus, but paid anyway because it was in the process of renewing a defence pact with Kenya. I personally know Samburu who were given up to a hundred large based on what they readily admit were fake claims. Anyway, the cash might have been spent on clinics, schools or Aids projects. Instead it was squandered on vehicles that were later pranged, sheep, booze and whores. A year on, there’s zero to show for it, except that among the pastoralists there has developed what anthropologists might call a cargo cult.

Local charities behind the MoD lawsuit — already funded by the European Union and assisted by UK personal-injury lawyers — grew even fatter off the claimants’ profits. Dreaming of more huge payouts, they launched a series of fresh schemes. In one, they alleged that British troops had systematically raped hundreds of Laikipia women. This case collapsed when it was discovered that the proof was based on forged documents.

In recent weeks, leaders of these local charities have raced around in vehicles with pockets bulging full of cash, urging the pastoralists to invade the ranches. The agitators allege Laikipia, which is where I live, was stolen from them in the so-called 1904 Anglo–Maasai treaty. Under that agreement, they claim the plateau was given to European settlers under 99-year leases and that these expired on 15 August. Now they want the land back.

The 1904 treaty takes three minutes to read, though the BBC, Reuters and UK newspapers appear not to have bothered to do this yet. This fascinating document, signed by the druidic chiefs of the Maasai and the British, dealt with a part of Kenya that had been almost entirely depopulated as a result of the great rinderpest and smallpox epidemics of the late 19th century. Rival clans then massacred the remnants of the Laikipiak Maasai, who had inhabited the plateau for perhaps half the time that the Europeans have now been in Kenya. The 1904 document had nothing to do with allowing leases for European farmers. It gave Laikipia to the Maasai and promised to endure so long as they ‘as a race shall exist’. As so often happens, perpetuity ended quickly, as seven years later the treaty was nullified by a second agreement. The Maasai were moved to lands in the south. A portion of Laikipia went to the Europeans, while the forest-dwelling remnants of the Laikipiak were given their own substantial area, which is where they remain today.

The charities want to paint this as a racial issue, which is evil. At Uhuru in 1963, much of Laikipia was broken up into settlement schemes for Kikuyu smallholders, though many of these have already been invaded or intimidated into leaving by the cattle-keeping peoples. Black Kenyans own some of the ranches, while men with plummy English names who are of mixed race run others. Laikipia was once known as the Khaki Highlands, rather than the White, because this was where the colour bar broke down. The couple of dozen ethnic European landowners left in Laikipia are devoted citizens or tycoons with Kenyan companies who contribute hugely to the local economy. At the earliest, their leases expire in 2057.

Even today many feel bad about what happened to the Maasai, who attract plenty of sentimental admiration. Before the British arrived, the Maasai ranged from Uganda to Mombasa, up to north of Mount Kenya and down to way south of Kilimanjaro. They never settled, though they usually murdered other tribes wherever they found them on the road. Today the pastoralists and nomads still own vast tracts of land, which their overpopulated livestock numbers have irreparably devastated. In the age of private title it’s up to them if they keep it or sell it. The parts they lost long ago are now occupied by millions of people attempting to build a modern economy.