Alarm in Coast over invasion of private land

Land invasions and irregular occupations at the Coast have put landowners, security agencies and the National Land Commission (NLC) in a huge dilemma.

The invasions have occurred mostly in Kilifi and Mombasa but also in Taita Taveta County, where thousands of squatters are laying ancestral claim to properties legally owned by local and foreign firms.

They have repeatedly disregarded pleas from the NLC, police and other state agents to stop invading private property.

Many of the invasions are spontaneous upon alleged expiry of land leases, but also due to organised action by gangs emanating from incitement and political conspiracies.

In Kilifi, a Kenyan of British descent David Taylor was hurt in a racially-motivated arson attack early this month after thousands of local squatters were evicted from a 230-acre farm in Bofu area which initially was owned by a white man but was sold to private investors.

Two fresh land disputes have erupted in Kilifi over the future of the 11,750-acres Vipingo Sisal Estate and the 150 acres belonging to the defunct Kilifi Cashewnut Factory. On Wednesday, 98 squatters were violently evicted from the defunct factory’s property and thousands others who have been occupying it since April thrown out by police. The 98 squatters were charged for trespass but after police left the property, thousands of the squatters reoccupied it and rebuilt houses pulled down on Thursday. The factory collapsed in the early 1990s and assets were later sold to a private investor, Millenium Management Limited, to recoup a loan. Local squatters say the factory land ought to have been given to them because it is in their ancestral homeland. Residents led by Kilifi Senator Stewart Madzayo, a retired judge, are protesting the sale of the sisal estate by REA Vipingo Plantations to Centum Limited, a public-listed firm, and are accusing some local leaders of colluding to transfer the land to Centum early last year, without their participation.

Centum denies it is occupying any land claimed by squatters and has pledged to assist those living in the estate with economic opportunities and jobs. But squatters allege they hold original rights to this land and ought to have been consulted when REA Vipingo Estates divested last year.

They also want to be compensated believing that proposed developments by Centum will displace and impoverish them. On May 17, Mjuma Community Development Group, a lobby fighting for the reclamation of the estate sued Centum, Vipingo Estate and the national government for orders to return the land to the local community following the lapse of the Vipingo’s lease. Now NLC says the police should arrest the gangs behind the bloody invasions, terming forceful occupation of private and public properties across the coast region as a sign of lawlessness but local land rights activists and Miji Kenda elders have warned that evictions could spark more chaos.

Caught in crossfire

NLC, however, is caught between squatters and landowners and the commission is often accused of siding with the landowners.

“We ask the security agencies to deal with these gangs. They invade the land and later sell it and we cannot allow that. Some of those squatters are those not happy with our determinations after arbitrations with land owners,” said NLC vice chairperson Abigael Mbagaya, who is also in charge of Kilifi County.

In other cases, politics is believed to be fueling the recent spike in land invasion. Kenya Land Alliance (KLA) Coast Chapter chairman Nagib Shamsan faults Coast political leaders for failing to speak strongly against the invasions.

“Many parcels of land have been invaded by three types of squatters and this invasions are fueled by assertion by the government that it will buy and settle squatters on private land,” said Mr Shamsan.

Last week, armed police officers also thwarted an attempt by local farmers to invade and occupy a disputed land in Kanamai area of Kilifi.

According to Mrs Mbagaya, the NLC would not support land invasion under the pretext of historical injustices. She called on police to flush out the occupiers from private and public land. Squatters and Mijikenda elders, however, accuse NLC of siding with the ‘land grabbers’ claiming that the commission had ruled in the favor landowners.

The elders led by chairman of Kaya Fungo committee Katana Nzioka accused NLC of “betraying the trust” Coast people had in it.

“What we have always rooted for is peaceful settlement of the numerous land disputes in the region and we call on the national government to intervene before these disputes degenerate into bloody conflicts,” Mr Nzioka said. The kaya elders were flanked by representatives of the squatters Mr Chidzaya Ndegwa and Ms Joyce Riziki as well as chairman of the Pwani Youth Peace Trust Association Nguma Charo and others who called on the state to stop evictions.

In Kilifi, other than Majengo Kanamai, several plots in Mtwapa have been invaded and so are those in Kikambala, Kijipwa, Sabaki and parts of Mariakani like the 7000-acre land in Mitangoni area.

In Mombasa, more than 10,000 squatters have invaded and occupied an 87-acre land in Kwa Bolo area in Nyali. Nyali MP Hezron Awiti has always urged them to stay put. He wants the government to buy off the land for squatters. Other areas where private land has been invaded in Mombasa include Dunga Unuse, Mwembe Legeza, Bogobogo, Funga Shati, Bububu, Kisauni and Vikwatani in Nyali constituency.

Other parts in Mombasa affected include Junda, Lamkani in Kisauni and Bangala in Jomvu constituency.

In Kwale, NLC says that the owners of a 270-acre farm in Shimoni had agreed to part with 50 acres for resettlement of squatters. In Taita Taveta, more than 5,000 squatters have encroached into the 3,000 acre farm that was owned by former area MP Basil Criticos.

NLC had in 2013 stopped evictions pending the enactment of the Community Land Bill and the Eviction and Resettlement Bill.