By Kevin Mwanza
NAIROBI, April 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kenya suspended a land distribution programme on Thursday after nine people were shot or attacked with crude weapons in six days, with local officials facing investigation for their role.
Land minister Farida Karoney said deteriorating security forced her, in consultation with the interior ministry, to stop the allocation of 44,000 acres (17,806 hectares) of land in Mwea about 100 km (62 miles) northeast of the capital Nairobi.
"You can't settle people when they are fighting," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
"The suspension is just to allow the security agencies to intervene and reduce the temperature there so that the process is finished without loss of lives."
Conflicts over land are common in Africa, especially where colonial governments evicted indigenous people, leaving newly independent states to resolve disputes between communities with ancestral ties and more recent occupants and buyers.
Ownership of the land in Mwea has been in dispute for decades after people were forced off the land by the British. The issuance of title deeds since 2016, in a bid to resolve several claims that had been in court, has inflamed tensions.
Four people were shot by the police on Wednesday after a group tried to attack a crowd at a land allocation exercise, interior ministry spokesman Mwenda Njoka said by phone.
This followed an earlier attack on Friday, when a gang carrying machetes and sticks set upon five people driving to a land allocation event and burned their vehicle.
"We will be investigating the role of administrators and politicians involved," Njoka said.
"People will be arrested and taken to court and if they are our administrators involved we will take disciplinary action," he said, referring to local officials under his ministry.
Land is an explosive political issue in Kenya and has been one of the main drivers of conflict since independence in 1963, with politicians often stoking ethnic tensions to provoke clashes and displace communities that support their opponents.
The governor of neighbouring Kirinyaga County, Anne Waiguru, said on Friday that the issuance of titles would cause "chaos" as her community had been unfairly excluded.
Local officials issued about 7,000 private title deeds in 2016, according to the National Lands Commission (NLC), an independent state agency set up in 2012 to manage land issues.
"Some of them have been living on the land for the last two years," said Josphat Kithumbu, a lands official for Embu County, adding that his office had already issued more than half of the titles.
"What we are dealing with now is a security, not a land (issue)."
(Reporting by Kevin Mwanza; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)
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