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The hidden agenda behind MPs' bid to cap land ownership

Land for sale, April 9, 2015. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

For the third time, the National Assembly wants to enact a law that caps the maximum and minimum size of land that one can own.

Curiously, it targets private ownership. Why not institutions, governments or companies? I fully support the Bill on the proposal about the minimum size of the land but not the maximum.

Dividing land into small pieces is profitable to the sellers but it is counter-productive to society in the long run.

Land has been divided into such small pieces that it’s almost being “dumped” into the market. Some will quickly argue subdivision makes it easy for the majority to own land and solves the housing problem.

The main purpose of buying small pieces of land is to build on it if one can afford to build. Such small land pieces lead to overcrowding and the provision of services like sewerage, roads, and recreation areas are left to individuals.

But let’s not blame the victims, it’s the regulators (read county governments) that have failed in enforcing bylaws in planning.

It also happens that the more plots there are, the more rates they collect. 

In rural areas, subdivision makes mechanisation hard and by extension, productivity falls. One of the rare machines nowadays is the tractor.

They were common after independence when land pieces were larger. Setting minimum acreage will reduce speculation and lead to more sustainable land use.

It will also force us to think more broadly beyond land. This will, however, go against the age-old tradition of sub-dividing land after the owner passes away. It’s such a powerful force because, for inheritors, it is probably the only asset they may ever own. 

Managing land owned by a group of family members is not easy, more so when married women can now inherit land from their fathers. Most of them end up selling the land to “strangers” who have more money than their siblings. 

Some laws are great on paper, but they will generate intergenerational animosity. And someone is asking why our men are so frustrated in the rural areas.

The cap on the maximum land size keeps me awake at night. What is the spirit behind that capping? Who is the law targeting?  If I own more than the set maximum, what happens to the rest of the land? Will it be bought at market price?

For what use? I foresee the nationalisation of land. What will stop the “nationalised” land from becoming private again? 

Let’s think more broadly. Why cap the maximum land ownership? What’s so special about land beyond giving us a livelihood through food and paradoxically being buried there? 

Excuse my language, but the proposed law demonstrates our narrow-mindedness.

If we want to cap the land size ownership, let’s do the same for the other factors of production. 

 Growing too big

Set a cap on how much capital one can own, the number of people one can employ and limit the number of enterprises one can start. We should even stop some firms from growing too big! We should even stop musicians from composing too many songs or writers from writing too many books! We should even cap the number of friends! 

In a democratic and market-oriented country, we should not define how individuals should diversify their wealth. Why interfere with my economic freedom? 

Let’s also accept that our obsession with land is not accidental. We lack alternatives. It’s a good investment as the value usually goes up. We should also stop thinking it’s a problem to keep land idle. Such land has future use, just like money in a bank. 

Should we not be focused on streamlining land transactions like the issuance of leases and titles? That will demystify land and increase its supply in the market and possibly reduce the price. 

Instead of capping land ownership, give us better returns elsewhere. We shall stop buying land and shift money there.

I would love to put money in the stock market if it were more vibrant. Obsessed with land, why didn’t we buy the stocks of Facebook or Google when there was an Initial Public Offering (IPO)? 

Legal solutions to economic problems are rarely effective. Longer sentences for crime without improving the economy will not stop it. Regulating maximum land ownership will not reduce the land shortage.

Population growth is the key factor in the demand for land. Why not cap the number of children?

Other caps have not worked like the interest rate cap. While do we think this one will work? What if I transfer the land to joint ownership or to a company? 

Why are we obsessed with land when the rest of the world is focused on space, with trips to the moon and onwards to Mars and beyond? And there could be plenty of habitable planets out there! And plots too…