Claiming Land: Institutions, Narratives, and Political Violence in Kenya
This dissertation examines the relationship between land institutions and the process of political violence in Kenya since the onset of multiparty elections—from urban riots, armed cattle raids, and displacement campaigns. Recent explanations of political violence emphasize state capacity, ethnic fractionalization, elections, and the feasibility of rebellion. This study suggests that variation in land institutions is a crucial yet overlooked factor in shaping the dynamics of election-time violence. Three research questions guide the dissertation. First, Kenyans have very different experiences in accessing and securing land. How does variation in the set of local land institutions affect the formation of competing land claims between groups? Second, when do contentious land claims become effective tools for organizing violent conflict? Third, when do leaders use violence as a political tool?
The dissertation draws from 12 months of mixed-method field research that combines in-depth interviews, focus group discussions, and a household-level survey in the Rift Valley and Coast Regions. The qualitative portion is based on a three-stage micro-comparative case study aimed at developing six working hypotheses. I select each stage based on variation in the type of land institution, the salience of competing land claims, and the incidence of political violence. The quantitative survey aims to test the hypotheses generated in the qualitative case studies. I sample 760 respondents across four counties, two in the Rift Valley (Nakuru, Uasin Gishu) and two in the Coast Region (Kwale, Kilifi).
A central aim of the project is to examine how the underlying institutional arrangements that shape access to resources interact with multi-party politics in emerging democracies–leading to violent election outcomes in some cases, but non-violent outcomes in many others. The dissertation argues that the strength of local level land rights affects the patterns of political violence. Contentious land narratives develop in environments where land institutions fail to provide land security evenly between groups. Groups draw on these narratives to challenge the ownership rights of neighboring communities. Most land narratives in Kenya contain a message about which groups rightfully belong (insiders) and which groups do not (outsiders). Politicians can draw on these distinctions to frame the organization of violence. Violent outcomes are more likely when political leaders are able to use violence as a way to alter election outcomes in their favor.