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Anxiety as Omani kin plot to sell their houses

By Patrick Beja | August 25th 2020

A section of Mwembekuku in Mombasa County, part of the houses owned by the descendants of Omani rulers. [File, Standard]

The future of 50,000 tenants on land owned by absentee landlords in Mombasa is now in peril after reports emerged that the landlords want to auction the properties.

This follows the collapse of negotiations between the two sides last year.

The 50,000 residents are classified as tenants at will under a land tenure system unique to the Coast region. They live on land that is not legally theirs and pay annual rent or rates to absentee landlords living in the Middle East and Europe.

It is a legacy of unequal land ownership that developed on the coastal strip following centuries of Omani rule. In the 19th century, the coastal strip was transferred to the British colonial rule, which largely retained the land tenure system.

Most of the landowners left Kenya over 50 years ago to return to the Middle East and Europe, but some of them or their descendants live in Kenya but are largely unknown to tenants.

The tenants pay the rent to the landlords’ agents.

Kenya’s post independent governments have not solved this problem either, choosing instead to let the two sides negotiate. One of the options floated is for the tenants to buy the properties but the two sides have not agreed on the price.

In 2007, most of the tenants stopped paying rent after the then Lands minister Kivutha Kibwana ordered a stoppage of the payments to facilitate new negotiations. These talks collapsed.

The collapse of the negotiations, facilitated by the National Land Commission (NLC), has sparked new anxiety after reports of the planned sale.

The tenants are now pleading with the government to intervene and help them get a lasting solution.

The tenants on Mombasa island, Kisauni and Nyali are set to present their memorandum to the NLC this week after mediation on land prices with the descendants of the former coastal rulers (Liwali), represented by Seif Said from Oman, collapsed last year.

Historical injustices

While the NLC proposed that the house owners without land or tenants-at-will acquire the parcels on which their homes were built at between Sh400,000 and Sh500,000, the landlords insisted on Sh12 million to Sh14 million or even more per property.

Mombasa County Council of Elders had also joined the mediation before it collapsed. Said used to fly to Mombasa from Muscat in Oman to represent the landlords.

In Mombasa County, the affected areas are Bondeni, Mwembekuku, Mji wa Kale, Kaloleni, Sparki, Majengo Sidiria, Sarigoi, Guraya, Kiziwi and Ziwani on Mombasa island and Maweni village in Nyali.

Other areas are Mnarani in Kilifi, Maweni and Mambrui in Malindi and Old Town on Lamu Island.

“We are not living there for commercial reasons; these are our ancestral homes where our people were for centuries but they now want to uproot us,” protested Mwembekuku Welfare Association chairman Abdullahi Farah yesterday.

“In our memorandum, we are pleading with the government to treat this matter as part of the historical injustices on land and resolve it.”

Rajab Sumba who served as Mayor of Mombasa from 1974 to 1982 and is now the council of elders coordinator urged the government to take over the land and formally settle the tenants.

Public trustee

According to the former mayor, the disputed land was given to former Mombasa Liwali (governor) Salim bin Khalfan as a public trustee by Omani rulers but his descendants refused to give it back to Mombasa residents after the reign of the Sultan of Zanzibar that ended with Jamshid bin Abdullah.

“Liwali Khalfan held the land on behalf of Mombasa people as a public trustee and it should have given back to the rightful owners. It was wrong to convert the public land to family land because Khalfan did not buy it,” Sumba said.

He said Sultan Jamshid, who was rescued by the British government during a coup in Zanzibar and given asylum in Europe, was compensated for his interests in the coastal strip, similar to what was given to white highlands settlers at independence, hence his descendants should relinquish the parcels they continue to lay claim to in Kenya.

In 1984, former president Daniel arap Moi issued a decree that the affected tenants in Mombasa acquire ownership of plots on which they have built houses at a set price of Sh15,000 for parcels located away from the roads and Sh30,000 for those along the roads.

However, the Liwali heirs reportedly refused to comply with the directive, hence complicating the settlement.

The house owners now want President Uhuru Kenyatta to intervene and resolve the dispute as he did on the Waitiki farm in Likoni, Mombasa in 2016. Former Kisauni MP Said Hemed and former Mombasa Democratic Party (DP) chairman Farid Mote are among the house owners who also own land.

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