Exit Karen saga, enter Athi River: How Portland is being robbed of Sh40 billion land

A man watches helplessly as his house is demolished for illegally occupying the East African Portland Cement land, October 14, 2023. [Peterson Githaiga, Standard]

Even as the controversy on East African Portland Cement land saga boils over with an outcry following demolitions of houses and other structures by what the government says are illegal settlers, we revisit how the story has unfolded in this piece that was first published by The Standard in 2015.

Kenya's oldest cement maker is about to lose a Sh40 billion parcel of land in what could be the biggest land heist to hit a corporate entity in over a decade, Business Beat can report.

East African Portland Cement Company (EAPCC) acquired 16,000 acres in Athi River eight decades ago, and we have established that the firm is in the last stages of losing a land battle it has waged with four groups and powerful land grabbers.

Investigations have revealed that about 11,980 acres - which is more than 75 per cent of the cement maker's property in Athi River - are in various stages of going into private hands.

This becomes the latest land-grabbing syndicate in town, coming just weeks after the Sh8 billion Karen land saga and Lang'ata Road Primary School playground grab.

Sending shockwaves

But what is set to send shockwaves among legitimate land-owning companies in Kenya is the revelation that top Government officials have abandoned the firm.

Correspondence shows that Ministry of Lands officials are weakening the cement maker's land ownership claim by issuing contradictory land documents.

On one hand, the National Land Commission (NLC) has recognised that the land in question belongs to Portland and compensated them for about 102 acres acquired for the construction of a section of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR).

EAPCC was paid Sh610 million last month after NLC completed its own investigations on who owns the land and paid the firm for the section needed for the railway line.

But instead of this being an open-and-shut case, other individuals and groups are showing up with titles allegedly issued to them under mysterious circumstances.

Structures put up on East African Portland Cement land, March 2015. [Paul Wafula, Standard]

Ironically, it is the State and pensioners who will be the biggest losers in the land grab.

This is because the Government, through the Treasury and the National Social Security Fund (NSSF), have a combined stake of 52 per cent in the cement manufacturer.

French company Lafarge is the second-biggest shareholder in the firm, with a 41.7 per cent interest. Combined, the Government and Lafarge have 93.7 per cent shareholding in the cement maker, which was incorporated in 1933.

The cement maker has four parcels of land that have so far been encroached on.

One of the parcels, LR 8784/4, is 1,338-acre plot located just behind Daystar University and was valued by Portland at Sh800 million over three years ago.

But the price has shot up to Sh8 billion, going by current market rates.

A Mr Sammy Kithilu now claims to be the owner of this land, which he sub-divides and sells. The most active site of this piece of land is fenced and has more than 20 makeshift structures on it.

The second piece, LR 10425, has 4,271 acres and sits directly opposite Kitengela town.

A group known as Settled Villagers now occupies this piece. The group also goes by the name Wamuchoki. This land has more than 40 illegal structures erected on it since 2013.

Colonial government

Kitanda na Mbuzya, a splinter group of Settled Villagers, on their part, have laid claim to a 2,072-acre piece, whose title is LR 7815/1.

The fourth parcel under contention is LR 10424, a 4,298-acre plot that extends from the Kenya Meat Commission (KMC) past Athi River all the way to the railway line.

Portland is fighting over ownership of this parcel with a group, Aimi Ma Lukenya Society (AML), that boasts membership of between 300 to 400 people.

Combined, the total acreage under threat is 11,979 acres, which Portland estimates to be worth more than Sh40 billion.

However, going by what NLC is paying for compulsory acquisition of land in the area for the SGR project, an acre is worth at least Sh6 million.

This means that the land in question could fetch as much as Sh72 billion if divided into one-acre plots and sold. It could be even more valuable if subdivided further or sold as housing development estates.

A title presented in court shows that Portland acquired the parcels of land from the colonial government from as far back as 1960.

Yet, the groups claiming to own the land have only been registered in the last five years.

A woman weeps as her house is levelled during the demolition of houses erected on East African Portland Cement land, October 14, 2023. [Peterson Githaiga, Standard]

To further complicate matters, the five policemen who had been deployed last year to guard sections of the land were withdrawn under mysterious circumstances, giving the grabbers free reign.

Startled managers

The police have also failed to implement a court order stopping further encroachment and activity on the land. This has emboldened the connected individuals, who are attacking the lucrative farm from different corners.

The emergence of a new title, purportedly issued by the Registrar of Lands to one of the groups, has startled Portland managers, whom insiders say have taken different sides in the fight.

It is also not clear how outsiders could successfully mount such a coup on Portland land without the help of insiders at the cement firm.

Our attempts to get the side of the various groups involved in the land saga were met with violent objections after goons waylaid our vehicle and forcibly drove us off the parcel of land.

The presence of armed policemen did not stop the men in a Toyota Probox vehicle from chasing us off the land, despite there being a court order barring them from the property.

We witnessed their 'power' first-hand after one of the men purportedly called a senior police officer in the area, informing him of our presence, and then threatened to call a 200-strong army of his boys to burn our vehicle and confiscate our property.

We were forced to turn back for our safety.

Hostile takeover

However, we were able to speak with Ms Josephine Nduku, a representative of one of the groups laying claim to the land. Ms Nduku said her ancestors lost the land to Portland.

"We have many members. This is the land of our ancestors and we are only here to reclaim it," she said.

But what started as a minor occupation by squatters and farming groups is now shaping up to be a hostile takeover, with the grabbers already sub-dividing the land into smaller plots and selling it to unsuspecting buyers.

In the course of this investigation, this writer was offered an eighth of an acre for Sh150,000, with friendly repayment schedules and an offer to be assisted to put up a temporary structure on the land to "protect it from land grabbers".

Sections of the land have also been earmarked for the construction of big residential estates in coming months.

When Portland launched investigations into the occupants of the land, one of the groups, AML, mobilised its members and filed a court case at the Machakos High Court in September, claiming the land was sold to them in 1980 for about Sh5 million.

On the second day of the hearing, AML's lawyer failed to present a title deed that could be compared against Portland's.

Further drama ensued in court when the Deputy Land Registrar came without a title to help the court determine the legitimate owner of the land.

In the next hearing, the lawyer came with the title, but the Deputy Registrar did not show up.

When he showed up, he said he could not differentiate between the two titles and was given 45 days to verify ownership with the help of forensic auditors, as he had requested.

The case will be heard this week.

Changed ownership

Portland, the first cement manufacturer in East and Central Africa, started out as a trading company, importing cement mainly from England for early construction work in the region.

Trouble on the parcel of land the firm acquired decades ago escalated last year when the firm realised that there was someone else claiming to hold a title deed to the property.

Mavoko MP Patrick Makau confronts police officers overseeing the demolition of houses illegally occupying the East African Portland Cement land, October 14, 2023. [Peterson Githaiga, Standard]

Correspondence shows that EAPCC decided to write to the Ministry of Lands seeking to establish if their title had indeed changed ownership.

On November 19 last year, EAPCC received confirmation in writing that the land belongs to it. That is when the lobbying began.

It is alleged that on December 5, officials from one of the groups met with a top CID official, whom we cannot name for legal reasons, at a popular five-star hotel and offered him 15 acres of land.

Soon after, however, Portland received a court order, restraining several groups from encroaching on its land.

But this has not helped it in its fight to hold on to its land after administration police at Kitengela developed cold feet and have been unable to enforce the order.

AML also has a search letter signed by Charles Ngetich and dated April 2014 that shows the land is theirs.

However, court documents show that Mr Ngetich was transferred in January last year. Further, he has denied signing the letter as he does not work for the Lands Registry, but for the Lands Commission.

A splinter group from AML has now changed tack. It has acknowledged the land belongs to Portland, but wants the cement maker to give it to them on adverse possession grounds - this happens when someone occupies land for more than 12 years.

However, there is no evidence on the ground that any part of the land has been occupied for over a decade.

The recent visit by Business Beat revealed the group is still registering members and putting up fresh structures on sub-divided plots.

-This article was first published by The Standard on March 31, 2015, and written by Paul Wafula

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