Let war against graft begin with the land question

Like most folk, I give a cautious welcome to National Environment Management Authority (Nema) efforts at reclaiming riparian land along the Nairobi River. Of course all the destruction and wastage could have been avoided had all parties adhered to the rule of law from the outset. For that reason I have little sympathy for those whose influence and cash allowed them to construct illegally in the first place. Besides, they have made their money at the public expense. In words of Martin Luther King Jr the ark of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. What goes around comes around. 

That explains the welcome but the caution remains because over the years I have watched similar initiatives at repossessing public land fizzle out. It is still not clear what is motivating this particular move nor where is it headed. The fact that reclaiming the riparian land quickly followed the bulldozing of 25,000 in Kibera makes me suspicious. Just as the nation’s outrage and conscience was stoked over the Kibera forced eviction, the bulldozing of malls threw a dampener on the plight of the slum dwellers. They are now forgotten as we talk about Ukay and Taj Mall. The message delivered is that this government does not discriminate; whoever breaks the law regardless of their position in life will be dealt with. That is the justification and the half-truths that are hard to digest. 

Social cleansing

Forgive the scepticism but the Nairobi river initiative may well be the cover to do the social cleansing of the poor from informal settlements to meet the demands of the IMF and World Bank to receive the next round of ‘global assistance.’ The cost of mortgaging the country to the Chinese and IMF after acquiring extravagant loans is back to haunt us and on all counts it is the poorest of citizens who will pay the price. Those global institutions may have also insisted on Nema doing its work but at the end of the day it is the poor, vulnerable and dispossessed who will carry the heaviest of burdens in this venture. The so called private developers will not be bankrupt; they will just relocate their investments, an option not available for the former Kibera residents.

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There may be a little more confidence in Nema too if they extend their recovery project beyond the capital and made it a national venture. For half a decade colleagues at Haki Yetu have tried every option available to highlight the plight of the fisher community in Mombasa County whose landing sites have been continuously grabbed and sold off by the now defunct Mombasa Municipal Council. Opportunists and prospectors have built villas and hotels on these sites denying the fisherman storage and landing facilities as well as denying the public access to their own beaches. Most of these developers have also extended their construction towards the ocean thus breaking the 30 metre rule from the high tide watermark. 

Blocked the causeway

These buildings are also on riparian sites and the poor artisan fisher communities suffer the most. As a result only 5 per cent of the 200,000 tons of fish produced nationally come from the Kenyan coast. This also explains why the fish you eat in Mombasa tourist hotels is more likely to come from Vietnam or China than from our own shores. Fisher folk will definitely welcome Nema extending its work to the Coast and while they are at it they should also demolish a storied hotel at Nyali Bridge and the buildings of a company that has blocked the causeway at Kibarani and eliminated Mombasa’s status as an island. 

Of course all of this information and much more can be found in the Ndungu Report on Illegal and Irregular land in Kenya. That commission of inquiry gave us several volumes detailing the 200,000 illegal titles probably amounting to five million acres of stolen public land in the country. The now infamous National Land Commission (NLC) barely lifted a hand to implement that report although the matter of public land is its primary mandate. Instead of resolving the matter it has instead become part of the problem and has outlived its usefulness. 

If this regime is sincere about fighting corruption then it must begin with the land question and disband the NLC immediately paving the way for its revamping and restructuring. Perhaps then we will begin to believe that this time the land question can be comprehensively addressed. In the meantime, thanks Mr Kenyatta but our gratitude is laced with caution. 

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- [email protected] @GabrielDolan1

NemaNairobi RiverNational Environment Management Authoritycorruption