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Devolution and the politics of communal tenure reform in Kenya

Devolution and the politics of communal tenure reform in Kenya
African Affairs 119:476

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Date of publication
June 2020
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Increased legal access and the devolution of natural resource administration are generally seen as sources of power for local communities and their institutions. However, beyond this widely held expectation, the politics of land reform suggest that legal recognition of rights and devolution is not the only issue with implications for communal tenure reforms. Misconceptions about communal tenure, which are rooted in history, and their appropriation by local elites in the processes of communal tenure reform are characteristic of both colonial and post-colonial governments in Kenya. Although typically articulated and promulgated to enhance political representation and to devolve control over resources to the local level, unresolved issues in the reform process have worked to undermine the legitimacy of communal land rights in contemporary Kenyan society. A case study of the post-2010 community land legislation process demonstrates the continuing relevance of historically conditioned political and ideological representations of communal tenure built during the colonial period and reproduced in policy in independent Kenya. This paper offers reflections on the centrality of sustained communal tenure misconceptions, fetishization of formal governance institutions, and the institutional and power configurations that primarily benefit powerful stakeholders as sources of the current breakdown in the implementation of community land law.

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