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In Kenya, the deep pull of land drove grievances – and ethnic violence

For the ethnic Kalenjins of Kenya's Rift Valley, the red, iron-rich soil is something worth fighting for, and many still resent the 'invasion' of other ethnic groups who bought coffee and tea plantations left after British colonial rule.

A man looks out over the open African plains in Kenya's Rift Valley.

ZUMA Press/Newscom

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It may be hard to understand the power of land in African society. But for the 70 percent of Africans who make their living from agriculture – either farming their own land or working as tenant farmers on the land of others – land is more important than gold.

To have even a small one-acre plot means the ability to raise enough food to feed one’s family for a year. Not having that land means risking starvation.

Small wonder, then, that some rural Africans can be persuaded by their leaders and politicians to kill in the name of land.

For the ethnic Kalenjins of Kenya's Rift Valley, the red, iron-rich soil is something worth fighting and killing for, and many still resent the “invasion” of ethnic Kikuyus who bought most of the Rift Valley's coffee and tea plantations after Kenya's British colonial masters left following independence in 1963. Many Kalenjins believe that these Kikuyu “foreigners” were given unfair advantage to buy tracts of land by the ethnic Kikuyu under Kenya’s first black president, Jomo Kenyatta.

These grievances form the basis of Kalenjin politics in the Rift Valley, and they are the underlying ideology for a group of powerful supporters of the Rift Valley’s embattled top politician, former agriculture minister William Ruto.

Mr. Ruto, who is plagued by a corruption scandal and by investigations into his role in the orchestrated violence that killed 1,200 people and displaced 300,000 after the disputed Dec. 27, 2007, elections, is now at the center of an investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague. He could be the first Kenyan to face charges of crimes against humanity.

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