In his book, Pierre Proudhon, a self-proclaimed anarchist, posed: “If I were asked to answer the following question: What is slavery, and I should answer in one word, it is murder, my meaning would be understood at once. No extended argument would be required to show that the power to remove a man’s mind, will, and personality, is the power of life and death, and that it makes a man a slave. It is murder. Why, then, to this other question: What is property, may I not likewise answer; it is robbery, without the certainty of being misunderstood?”
While in that context Proudhon’s ‘property’ referred to land ownership, the dictionary definition of property assumes a wider scope. So, while each one of us boasts at least some ‘property’ - a bicycle, a second-hand Japanese car, a dilapidated building or an acre or two of land, real property purchasable by the power of billions of shillings that routinely take a walk from Government institutions lies with the ‘robbers’ in Proudhon’s context.
Land ownership in Kenya is an emotive issue dating back to colonial times; yet successive governments have failed to resolve it. Unlike Zimbabwe where white settlers retained most of their land after independence until, much later, President Robert Mugabe chose to grab and re-distribute it among cronies and liberation generals, large tracts of land in Kenya were appropriated by powerful individuals immediately after independence.
In part, this led to the displacement of a number of people from other regions, but particularly Central, into the Rift Valley where land ownership issues recur every five-year electoral cycle. Indeed, in past elections, land has been the trump card for unscrupulous leaders. As late as 2017, individuals with established homes in parts of the country, but considered non-locals, were threatened with eviction if they did not go with the local political flow.
At the Coast, even as the Jubilee government recently undertook to issue squatters with title deeds, the contention on the ground is that most of the documents were duds. The people feel shortchanged by the Government and to date, demand justice where land matters are concerned.
In Nairobi, the land ownership puzzle continues to consign many to death through the illegal structures that are haphazardly put up daily in lower-income residential areas. It is inconceivable that an individual capable of buying land and erecting a building that costs millions of shillings would be cash-strapped to raise, say, Sh100,000 for approvals from the city authorities.
In part, the explanation for this is that many who own buildings in Nairobi do not have title deeds to the land on which they put up those buildings. Without that vital document to prove ownership, securing approval and licences from the Government is impossible, yet the mere absence of approval in the midst of a governance system steeped in corruption is not a deterrent.
The downside to this is that given our propensity for cutting corners and maximising profits while minimising input, lack of mandatory supervision gives carte blanche to forgo safety standards.
There must be political goodwill and a genuine desire to tackle the land problem in Kenya if we are to end unnecessary tension and loss of life every now and then. Establishing who owns what, unless the ‘real property’ owners in high places are against it for obvious reasons, cannot be such a daunting task for the authorities.
The recent issuance of title deeds in Nairobi was a good start. And yes, putting a cap on the size of land one should own will go a long way in solving the disgrace of Kenyan squatters. It is preposterous that an individual should own thousands of acres of land on which thousands of families have lived as squatters for decades, and more so where this occasions endless litigation.
However, should Government reluctance to embrace good governance and zero-tolerance to corruption surprise us when those with the greatest share of ‘property’ are either in the same government, have direct links with the government or are its agents and raucous defenders?
If, say, property in the form of expensive cars, palatial homes, helicopters, conglomerates, five-star hotels, and acres upon acres of land that some are reputed to own are the proceeds of theft, is there hope the cries of the down-trodden can be heard by the very slave masters?
We do not need to look past the numerous scams in Government - NYS, NCPB, KPA, KAA and KPC among others - coupled with the Executive’s procrastination over reining in corruption, to appreciate philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s opinion that all governments are the main lords and custodians of corruption and impunity.
To him, not only were governments exploitative, corrupt and unjust, they were also veritable agents of corruption and injustice. His prescription was that honest men must rebel against them, even refuse to pay taxes. For, why should we pay taxes for which there is no value in return?
Mr Chagema is a correspondent at The Standard; [email protected]