Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Equal Justice - Even For Owners of 56,000 Disputed Acres?

It’s hard for me to get my mind around someone who owns a 56,000-acre estate. Here in the American Midwest, even after considerable consolidation, farms tend to be pretty small In Jane Smiley’s early-90s bestseller, for example, it was a great prize for a farmer to own a thousand acres.

Thomas Cholmondeley’s farm in Kenya’s Rift Valley is 56 times that size. Its very existence reflects the deeply problematic legacy of white colonialism in Africa in general and Kenya in particular. Over a thousand people were killed in the Rift Valley in 2007 in clashes arising out of tension due in part to disputed land. Many people there feel the land was stolen by the British and not properly transferred back to the black tribes when Kenya became independent in 1963.

So one day in March 2006, Cholmondeley, then 37, came upon a black poacher on his land and confronted him. The poacher, Robert Njoya, also 37, was checking illegal traps, accompanied by two machete-wielding friends and six dogs. Cholmondeley fired shots − to frighten off the dogs, he claimed. But one of the shots struck Njoya in the buttocks. He bled to death, despite Cholmondeley’s effort to render first aid.

What sort of justice would you expect an heir of white privilege to receive in Kenya, after a fatal shooting under these circumstances? Cholmondeley was held in jail for three years, with numerous procedural postponements. The defense argued he lacked intent to kill and pointed to the first aid attempt as a mitigating factor. But the fact also came out that, only a year earlier, Cholmondeley had shot and killed an off-duty black game warden under unexplained circumstances.

Finally, in the spring of 2009, the presiding judge reduced the murder charge to manslaughter and found Cholmondeley guilty. In May, the judge sentenced him to eight months in prison, in addition to the time already served. Cholmondeley was released in October, free to return to his vast acreage.

What type of regime is in place on the Cholmondeley estate now, one wonders, to keep poachers at bay?

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