Ambiguous Institutions: Peculiarities, Implications and Twilight Actions of Land-buying Companies in Laikipia, Kenya – University of Copenhagen

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Ambiguous Institutions: Peculiarities, Implications and Twilight Actions of Land-buying Companies in Laikipia, Kenya

In Kenya’s Independence years, many among the new political elite acquired former colonial ranches. Through the founding of land-buying companies, they subdivided the ranch lands for African smallholders. Doing so provided them with the opportunity to exchange votes for land. But as soon as a land-buying company was formed, the shareholders’ payments were collected and their gratitude manifested in electoral votes, the political patron would have lost interest in finalizing the land transactions. Instead, the politicians often oversold the land to more shareholders than the land could sustain. This gave politicians more support, but also made it impossible for the shareholders to acquire all the land they had paid for, even if they had already settled on it. Without an individual title deed the shareholders could not get bank loans to invest in their land. Having moved out of state space, instead they came under the jurisdiction of institutions that did not represent their interests. Still today, after more than 30 years, many shareholders continue to live with this insecurity, while vernacular land markets and absentee landlords have become the consequence of the in-between state of their land rights. As such, the land-buying companies represent the materialisation of institutional pluralism, imposing authority upon smallholders as a form of twilight institutions within a space of jurisdiction that is out of reach from the state.

Marie Ladekjær Gravesen holds a PhD in social and cultural anthropology from the University of Cologne. She has worked in interdisciplinary projects with researchers across the EU and East Africa with collaborative work covering peer-reviewed and popular science, web-documentary, and a museum exhibition. She has been a visiting researchers at the Centre of African Studies, Copenhagen University. Her research has focused empirically on the highly contested character of land claims in the Laikipia region of Kenya. In her Phd thesis, she explored the politics of ethnicity and environment by weaving ethnographic and historical data from different sides of the conflicting land claims. She demonstrates how these conflicts have emerged and shifted over time, offering insight on a range of similar contestations over land.