The late South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the bible and they had the land.”
In Kenya, the biggest conflict between the European settlers and the native Africans was on the ownership of land. The Mau Mau movement originated on the premise of reclaiming the ancestral land of the Kikuyu from the settlers. The Europeans who colonised Africa introduced the concept of land ownership. Before then, the African tribes never really attached importance to private ownership of land. The land was communal. Whether they were farmers or livestock keepers, people in villages tilled the land together and shared the harvest.
The Ministry of Lands recently launched the digital land governance system. It is envisaged that the introduction of this digital land management system will reduce the costs of land transaction and increase transparency. For many years cartels have controlled Ardhi House, which houses all the records of land ownership in Kenya. Double registration and fraud have been the order of the day.
Kenya does not have a shortage of land. Our problem is the obsession of Kenyans with ownership. It is very common to see an individual owning thousands of acres that he does not use. People even kill each other over land. Even in counties with uninhabited land, people still fight over empty parcels.
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Even if the land governance system is digitised, it is still possible for people to continue having disputes. Unless the focus shifts from ownership to land use, the appetite for people to acquire land will continue to grow. The biggest challenge people in the coastal counties face is inequity in the ownership of land. Few individuals with connections to powerful people managed to appropriate huge tranches of land for themselves. The behaviour of some powerful landowners borders profanity. No wonder many of the incidences of insecurity in Kenya are linked to land issues. Even the rise of violent extremism at the Coast has a lot to do with the land. The Al-Shabaab group has exploited land issues to further their cause. Even more absurd is a few individuals owning almost 60 per cent of some of the counties, Laikipia being a good example.
For the challenges around the land to be resolved, we need to shift the focus from ownership to quantifying the value in terms of the use of the land.
The Frontier counties in northern Kenya collectively occupy more than 65 per cent of Kenya’s landmass. Most of these lands are productive contrary to the popular belief that they are not. The ministry, in an attempt to digitise the land governance system, should speed up a grand spatial plan for these massive patches of land. The community land in northern Kenya can be planned better by introducing zero-grazing zones and planning proper stock routes to the markets so that these arid lands can contribute to the economy of Kenya. Most important in this exercise is to increase the efforts to reduce conflict around issues of land.
The writer is CEO, Frontier Counties Development Council.