National government needs to reign in on land tenure debate

After the Nandi County debacle on land repossession, it is now Kiambu County’s turn—and the fire is spreading.

While in Nandi and the neighbouring counties the debate is for not renewing land leases for thousands of acres of land that currently house the vast tea zones, in Kiambu, Delmonte has already given up a section of the land it was sitting on to the county government in return for a deal on lease renewal for a portion of the other land it operates on.

No one knows when this rollercoaster will end as momentum on the clamour for land leases not to be renewed gathers pace in the Coast, Nairobi and Central Kenya.

One thing is clear: that the ramifications of this clamour will be felt by many and far and wide. The sad part is that aside from the political win, most residents will immediately begin feeling the effects of the decision on the economic and social front.

What is going on in Kiambu County bears all the hallmarks of what can go wrong when the land repossession debate is not handled with care as I stated in an earlier advisory.

After months of threats and arm-twisting, Delmonte was forced to surrender 635 acres of land to the Kiambu County government. The initial demand was for 6,500 acres out of a total of 10,000 acres. No one knows if the matter is now fully rested or if a new politician if voted in, a similar demand will be made.

Annual revenue

Delmonte is a Kenyan food processing company that operates in the cultivation, production, and canning of pineapple products.

The company produces canned solid pineapple, juice concentrates, mill juice sugar and cattle feed. As a result of Delmonte, Kenya now ranks among the top five pineapple exporters in the world.

 Delmonte employs about 7,000 workers with estimated Sh4.5 billion in annual revenue.   Disrupting the operations of such a firm will have economic ramifications to employees and the surrounding communities, no doubt. What is sad is that after all the clamour for the land to be ceded, the story has now moved on to indecision on how or what to do with the land.

The land, 635 acres, is now a word of mouth between Kiambu Governor Ferdinand Waititu, Thika Town Member of Parliament Patrick Wainaina and the larger Kiambu leaders.

While the Member of Parliament and Kiambu leaders want the land to be used to house hospitals, schools, markets and light industries, the good governor said the land will be used to settle slum dwellers who do not have land in Kiandutu slums.

Political issue

Problem number one:  it is not even clear what size of land was ceded. Media reports have included two figures-1,000 acres and 635 acres. So, even from the onset, which is which?

Problem number two: It is quite clear now that once the land was ceded, that instead of how and what to do with the newly acquired factor of production; it has become a hot political issue.

It is interesting to see that none in the Kiambu leadership had thought it wise to first address what would follow immediately the land was relinquished by Delmonte.

As we all know, once it becomes a political issue, it will take some time to solve and in most cases the solution will rarely be in the interest of the local residents. The next script is as good as done.

The political leadership will most likely call for public participation to decide on what to do with the land. This will then be followed by disagreement on personal ownership versus public utilities as different interest groups weigh in.

In the end, the poor residents of the area will lose out. It is time that the national government took a strong stand against this reckless trend of converting economically productive land to small idle speculative pieces that are not economically viable and a potential conflict hotbed.

The role of national government in protecting land as an asset and a key factor of production needs to be decisive and clear; otherwise we risk conflict as a country.

It is time to tame county governments lest they run amok with ill-conceived short term decisions on land tenures that in the long run neither benefit the local communities nor the national economy and merely cash minting schemes.

Like we all know, land in Kenya is such an emotive issue. Let us tread with care.

Ms Nyaboke comments on topical [email protected]

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land repossessionLand disputes