The land problem in Coast Province is a ticking time bomb, an investigation by The Standard reveals today.

While inequalities in land distribution is a national problem, the one in the coastal belt is unique, as the injustices are traced to the pre-colonial period and only the faces behind them have changed over time.

The report of the Ndung’u-led Commission on Land in Kenya cited the region as one where prominent political families, who mostly live upcountry, own most of the prime land. So explosive is the report that even President Kibaki backed away from sanctioning its release to the public, although this newspaperexclusively published sections of it several years ago.

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The result of the injustices in land distribution is the growing population of landless indigenous inhabitants, who are now being manipulated by groups like the Mombasa Republican Council for political gains.

This is the daunting task that the recently formed National Land Commission (NLC) is digging in to tackle.

Tuesday, NLC chairman Mohamed Swazuri said they would embark on investigating the complex land issues.

“We have a comprehensive mandate contained in the National Land Commission Act. Part of this is to investigate the land problems and resolve them,” Dr Swazuri said.

Swazuri, a former commissioner of the defunct Constitution of Kenya Review Commission, said the commission’s mandate was adequate to address myriad land issues.

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Most scholars say that while Arab invaders first disenfranchised the original inhabitants of the region, it was the Land Ordnance Act of 1908 that formalised the injustice when the first title deeds were issued.

This law, like the Mazrui Land Trust Act of 1914, continues to pose legal challenges in courts today, preventing the Government from addressing some historical injustices.

In 1989, the Government repealed the Mazrui Land Trust Act, which protected land owned by the Mazrui family along the coastal strip, and gave it to squatters. But two months ago a court ruled the repeal was unconstitutional and returned the land to the Mazrui family.

Last week, Lands minister James Orengo acknowledged that adjudication of land in the Coast has been irregular, but also, without being specific, said court rulings are frustrating efforts to address land injustices.

Although landlessness and the squatter problem are prevalent across the Coast’s six counties, the challenge is most acute in the ten-mile coastal strip. Until 1908 the Sultan of Zanzibar before its annexation together with Zanzibar and Pemba, to the then British Protectorate that included Kenya and Uganda, ruled the strip.

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However, an investigation of Government documents, including Sessional Paper No 3 of 2009 that was passed by Parliament in 2009, and a Ministry of Lands Document, The Current Status of Land in the Coast, shows manipulation facts by rival claimants to land in the Coast.

According to the documents, absentee landlords cause most of the landlessness within the strip, a phenomenon that was concretised when the British entered legal agreements with the sultanate to gain control of the strip. The strip eventually benefited Asian, Arab, Persian, and European landlords, a trend that was not corrected by Kenya’s first black Government of Jomo Kenyatta.

During this period vast acres of land in Lamu and Taita-Taveta counties ended up in the hands of the ruling elite in the Kenyatta regime. Over the years, the Government appeared to scratch the surface in a bid to address the pressure from the landless and subsequent land disputes.

Absentee landlords

A comprehensive report by the Ministry of Lands in 2009 says absentee landlords pose the biggest problem at the Coast where they own 77,700 hectares, almost the size of a county. Kwale District leads with 75,000 hectares under absentee landlords, followed by Kilifi with 1235 hectares, Mombasa District 301 hectares, and Malindi 234 hectares.

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Kenya Land Alliance national co-ordinator, Odenda Lumumba says tenants-at-will, who settled on land belonging to absentee landlords, should be allocated the land and offered security of tenure.

Lumumba also wants the NLC to investigate land allocations at the Coast and redistribute public land to the landless. “We demand a halt to all evictions of tenants-at-will on absentee landlords’ land. We want legal protection and security of tenure,” Lumumba said.

The report says over 128,900 squatters have been identified and registered at the Coast. Mombasa has had the lion’s share with 51,621 squatters registered, followed with Kilifi with 26,124, and Kwale 24,551.

Lamu has 22,017 registered squatters, and Tana River 1,427 squatters.

There are squatters on private land, indigenous squatters, invading and trespassing squatters, squatters illegally allocated land, but who have paid money, professional squatters, and tenants-at-will.

A presidential directive to regularise coastal squatters on Government land was first issued in 1978, which saw the establishment of regional settlement schemes.

Sheikh Juma Ngao, national chairman of the Kenya Muslim National Advisory Council, said Kenyans should support the NLC to implement land reforms.

In Mombasa, Waitiki farm in Likoni has remained a headache since thousands of squatters invaded it and built permanent houses.

According to Government records, the farm estimated at 940 acres, holds a huge population in Likoni after its invasion by squatters in 1998, following the Likoni clashes in 1997.

In Bamburi area of Mombasa, the Kagaa farm, estimated at 1,000 hectares, also poses a dilemma after the invasion by squatters. It belongs to the Kagaa Co-operative Society from Murang’a. There are several squatters on it, but recently the Sacco published a notice saying it would sell a portion of the land.

Swaleh Nguru in Mombasa and Ramisi farm in Kwale are others in the same soup, according to the ministry report. In Malindi, the most problematic schemes are Jimba, Chembe, and Kibabamche where triple allocations, including to prominent people, have been discovered.

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