Kenyan schools learn ABC of court to preserve playgrounds

Langata Road Primary School in Nairobi when it hit headlines after police fired tear gas at pupils who had joined activists to demonstrate against annexation of their playground.

Headteachers in Kenya have enough trouble keeping order and teaching basics. Now they need to learn the wily ways of court to protect their grounds from property developers keen to exploit thousands of schools that lack deeds.

In a global trend, citizens without ownership papers to land they had long considered theirs - be it fields, farms, homes or hospitals - are under increasing threat from developers who want to claim the real estate as their own.

The United Nations estimates about 70 percent of the world’s land is undocumented, prompting a mass of initiatives to create databases, make up for the patchy records and use technology to better protect undocumented assets.

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“The schools are almost like ‘canary in a coal mine’,” said Jennifer Duncan, Africa director at Landesa, a land rights advocacy group.

“They represent social interests of common people that will be jeopardized as long as land values are rising and systems are not in place.”

Patrick Gakung’u, principal at Garden Estate Secondary School in the Kenyan capital, knows the risks only too well.

He has been to court more than a half a dozen times to fight a land case between his school and the clutch of private developers who want to build on his grounds.

His efforts did little to stop the court from ruling in 2018 that the contested 2.6 acres belonged to the developers, not the school that had used them for more than two decades, leaving his 700 students without a playground should the developers evict.

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“Our students will have to walk a longer distance to access the school. They will have nowhere to play,” Gakung’u said.

Thousands of other schools face the same predicament as they similarly lack titles to their land, said Caroline Gaita of Shule Yangu, a non-governmental organization working with government agencies to document and title public schools’ land.

Kenya’s public schools, funded and managed by the state, offer education to millions of students aged from six to 18.

About a third of the 31,000 public institutions in Kenya have titles to their land, according to research by Shule Yangu, a fact that forced the Ministry of Education to start fast-tracking school titling in December.

“So long as a school has no title it is at risk of grabbing,” said Gaita, a member of the committee charged with the fast-track system.

Gaita said schools in urban areas where the value of land was higher were at a greater risk.

An acre at Garden Estate, a middle-income, residential area some 10km (6.2 miles) north of Nairobi’s central business district, is valued at about 80 million shillings ($794,000), making Gakung’u’s seven-acre site a prime target, he said.

Land records in most African countries date back to colonial times, and ownership is often unclear, especially where a plot has been held communally, the United Nations says.

TEAR GAS

Cases of state schools fighting for their land are not new.

Langata Primary School in Nairobi hit the headlines in 2015 when police fired tear gas at pupils who had joined activists to demonstrate against annexation of their playground by a real estate company.

“It was after this ... that we formed the Shule Yangu initiative. Only about 17 percent of schools were titled when we started,” Gaita said.

“There were so many other schools facing similar problems.”

Edith Olando, an official at the National Lands Commission (NLC) – an independent government body that arbitrates land disputes - said the agency was conducting an audit of the amount of land held by public schools across the country.

This data, Olando said, would be digitized and stored across the 62 land registries in the country.

Previously, public schools just needed a letter from local authorities to register at the Ministry of Education, she said, but now their land is registered under the Ministry of Finance.

“We are realizing there are challenges that cannot allow us to document schools,” she said, explaining most schools had not been surveyed, while others faced infighting or litigation.

The NLC is also working with Shule Yetu and Transparency International, an anti-corruption group, to form a legal team that would help schools facing challenges, and come up with an alternative dispute resolution mechanism to bypass the courts.

“We are looking for the low-lying fruits that we can finish with first,” said Olando, deputy director of land and administration at the NLC.

KEEPING IT SAFE

Resolving territorial disputes can be drawn out, with Kenya’s under-staffed 27 land and environment courts relying on often incomplete paperwork from registries, she said.

This makes it easy for cartels to collude with land officials to create parallel titles for parcels of land they want to acquire illegally, public land being the prime target.

“With increased population and demand for land, we are now experiencing grabbing and encroachment. That’s why the government decided to document it to keep it safe,” Olando told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Frank Pichel of the Cadasta Foundation, which develops digital tools for use in land rights, said the main challenge to documenting assets was the time it took and the cost.

 “It impossible for many to ever gain formal recognition of rights,” he said in an emailed response.

“My hope would be that by starting with a target group (schools) ... a broader process can be established.”

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Land GrabbingKenyan schoolsMinistry of Education