Open Eye: Land rights... the unfinished business of colonialism

OU lecturer Dr Lotte Hughes documents the displacement of the Maasai people in a new book, which reveals how land claims are deepening ethnic divides
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In 1997, the San (also known as Basarwa) communities were evicted from their homelands in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve by the government of Botswana. Last December, Botswana's High Court overturned the eviction, ruling that the San were wrongfully deprived of the land, and should be allowed to return. But this was a limited victory, in that only the 189 plaintiffs were allowed to move back.

However, other indigenous peoples have rejoiced at the San verdict, hoping it signals imminent victory for other such communities. But does it really herald a spate of similar wins across Africa? I believe this is doubtful.

The San case was brought in a domestic court, using domestic laws, which are not applicable in suits against former colonial powers. And the San are returning to lands which are not occupied by anyone else; elsewhere, alienated land has long been settled by other African communities, who would themselves have to be displaced to make way for returnees. The San eviction was quite recent and easy to prove, whereas other forced removals took place 80 years or more ago, and are less clear-cut.

Many land losses which are now the subject of claims took place in colonial times. Independent governments and former colonial powers are often united in refusing to entertain restitution claims. They fear it would open a Pandora's Box, undermine bilateral aid and trade links, and spark civil conflict. That is partly why agreement has not been reached on the UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

One group currently seeking restitution is the Maasai. Their claim relates to land taken by the British in the 1900s, when Kenya was British East Africa. Under two Maasai Agreements (a misnomer, since the Maasai say they never agreed willingly), thousands of people were forcibly moved into reserves, resulting in a massive rise in diseases, drought and famine.

I have talked to Maasai elders old enough to have taken part in the moves as children - many were literally on their deathbeds. "The British finished us," said Daudi Ole Teka. "They cheated our prophet by giving him beer. When he got drunk, he was told to put that sign [on the agreement]."

Today, Maasai activists want any available land returned, and compensation. But nothing much is available, and no one is willing to relinquish the fertile bits. Britain maintains it handed all responsibility for this matter to the Kenyan government at independence in 1963. The latter firmly defends private property rights, and has cracked down hard on protest.

It is tempting to see the San victory in romantic terms - of noble indigenes in a pristine wilderness, pitted against a heartless government. Indigenous claims are more problematic than that. Cultural identification with certain tracts of land can deny the fact that different communities historically co-existed there. Claims are pitting one group against another, deepening ethnic cleavages. Land claims are the unfinished business of colonialism, and they are not about to go away.

Dr Lotte Hughes is a lecturer in African arts and cultures at the OU: Her latest book, 'Moving the Maasai: A Colonial Misadventure', is published by Palgrave Macmillan