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Mariam Abdalla (right) and her sister Mwatumu Mbaruku outside their home in Lamukani area in Mombasa County. [Maarufu Mohamed, Standard]

For nearly a century, two relatives have witnessed the struggle of thousands of fellow squatters in the Coast region.

For nearly a century, two relatives have witnessed the struggle of thousands of fellow squatters in the Coast region.

Mariam Abdalla and her younger sister Mwatumu Mbaruku were born in 1923 and 1929, respectively, in Kisauni, Mombasa.

Ms Abdalla was barely a year old when Mekatalili wa Menza, the renowned land rights crusader, died.

It is well documented that Mekatalili led a revolution against the British colonial administration between 1913 and 1924 when massive displacement of the indigenous Coast people was taking place.

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Nothing much has changed for the two nonagenarians who lead a life of destitution. The only evidence that the land on which they live belongs to them is an old coconut tree they say their forefathers planted.

But the widows and other 527 squatters have laid claim of ancestral ownership of a 135-acre parcel that is also being claimed by a private developer.

“We are evicted and our structures demolished every week. But we will not move an inch from our ancestral land,” said Abdalla.

The residents remain hopeful that the State will address the pressing issue despite past failed efforts.

According to court documents, one Gladys Njeri Njenga Kagiri inherited the disputed land from her late husband, Jeremiah Nyagah, in 1979. Nyagah had bought the land from the government in 1967 at an auction.

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“The developer claims he bought the land and was given the title in 1969,” said 83-year-old squatter Dama Karembe.

Mombasa lawyer Abubakar Yusuf said it was difficult for the indigenous people to prove ownership of land in a case where someone was issued with a title deed.

In another case, in July last year, the Environment and Land Court in Malindi ruled that a 5,752 acre parcel situated in Mariakani on the Kilifi/Kwale border belonged to the late Mumba Ngala Chome.

This ruling left the three sub-tribes of Mwabeja, Mwamundu and Mwakai of Mitangoni landless.

Court ruling

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“It is a battle that started 40 years ago. But we were shocked that the court ruled that the whole location belongs to the late Chome,” said Nazua Chiti Tsuma, a resident.

In Kilifi, at Magarini's Kadzuhoni area, 300 squatters have also been served with a notice to vacate 339 acres that allegedly belong to a private developer who has a title that was also issued in the 1960s.

For decades, Coast residents have cried for help from the government to resolve the historical land injustices.

During the 2017 election campaigns, President Uhuru Kenyatta promised to solve the squatter problem, which he lamented had been turned into a political tool during every election.

The Jubilee government claims it has issued over 1.4 million title deeds at the Coast, but the region continues to witness large-scale evictions and bloody conflicts.

The squatter problem dates back to the 19th century during the consolidation of the slave trade by Arabs who displaced the indigenous people from a ten-mile coastal strip.

When Seyyid Said transferred his capital from Oman to Zanzibar and extended his sovereignty over the ten-mile strip in 1840, Arab control over the Coast was secured.

This stranglehold continued in 1886 when the British and Germans entered into a treaty that created the 'mwambao', thus vesting all land rights under the sultan.

The problem was compounded by the 1908 Land Titles Ordinance Act. Through the law, the British decreed that all persons who owned land within the ten-mile strip should lodge their claims to be given a certificate.

But Kenya Land Alliance Coast representative Nagib Shamsan argues that most indigenous coastal residents made no claims to the land.

“They were not aware. But even if they knew, they could not have understood the requirements. Secondly, it had no relevance to their concept of land tenure,” said Mr Shamsan.

In Mijikenda culture and the land laws of many other indigenous people, the source of land rights was evidenced by first settlement, according to Abdalla.

She argues that whoever cleared or tamed bush land, cultivated or grazed on it obtained permanent use rights.

"For us, we only have the graves or shrines, communal boreholes and other historical marks of our forefathers to fortify our ancestral claims to the land they lived on," she said.

Shamsan claims that for the Mijikenda, ownership of land evidenced by title deeds was 'immoral', thus the British and Arab took advantage of them.

Migrant settlers

The coastal people suffered a second wave of dispossession after independence when post-independent settlement schemes tended to favour migrant settlers.

The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission identified prominent families that displaced the indigenous people and who currently own huge swathes of land.

In 1965, the government established the Office of the Commissioner of Squatters to address the thorny problem.

Analysts say the general perception that all landless people at the Coast are ‘squatters’ is misleading because it has been established that their occupancy varies widely.

Several reports reveal that majority of people are tenants-at-will on land with full knowledge of the landowners, commonly referred to as ‘absentee landlords’.

The tenants pay their rent or ‘ijara' to the descendants of pre-independence Coast rulers (liwali) or their agents. In August, it emerged that some pay as much as Sh11,000 per month.

Shamsan said the government should stop 'reinventing the wheel' on historical land injustices and implement existing reports.

“The Ndung’u land report, parliamentary reports by Mwangi Mathai and Jackson Angaine, as well as the TJRC can been used to address injustices in the country.”

Coast region Land fight Sisters

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