Lands Minister James Orengo's decision to lash out at a respected and learned colleague yesterday was not only in bad taste, but completely missed the point of why lawyers turned up at his offices last week waving placards.
The Constitution of Kenya entitles every citizen, including Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission Director and CEO Patrick Lumumba, the right to demonstrate for whatever cause as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others or endanger lives and property. The law does not discriminate on who should demonstrate, and such action does not demean the standing of the individual who chooses to exercise this right. As a seasoned lawyer and one-time celebrated political activist, he is the last person one would expect to wax sarcastically at such protests, but then maybe he knows something the rest of us don’t.
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The ministry has engaged in a futile attempt over the last few weeks to show that action is being taken on errant officials. The latest is its failed promise to reveal names of staff and others that are to be charged with corruption.
On Wednesday, a press conference to reveal the names was scuttled by Lands PS Dorothy Angote, with the promise that this would happen yesterday, but it did not.
Regardless, street protests are part of the legal arsenal available to every Kenyan fed up with corruption in the Lands Ministry, and who feels the minister and his team have done little so far to stop it. Lumumba was therefore right to show his solidarity with lawyers protesting the wanton corruption in Orengo’s ministry.
However, it would have made far more sense, and been perfectly in order, for the beleaguered minister to remind the KACC chief that members of the legal profession are at the core of the problems in the Ministry of Lands.
Yes, lawyers, some of them very senior and respected are the ones who have helped create shell companies for senior officials in the ministry to receive kickbacks for illegal payments, and assist in funneling the cash to the accounts.
It is also lawyers who pay corrupt Lands Ministry officials to produce duplicate or fake title deeds, to dispossess people of their land.
But it gets worse in rural areas where even crude methods are deemed sufficient to grab land in the name of the Government. Threats are issued, and many genuine landowners give in to intimidation out of fear for their lives.
In this respect, we recall the assistant chief in Sigomere, a bustlingtrading centre in the heart of Orengo’s Ugenya constituency, who led a couple of surveyors to harass legal landowners and confidently claimed his actions – they were illegal – had the full support of the area MP.
Such thuggish behaviour by an official of the Provincial Administration working in cahoots with Lands Ministry staff and speculators, is but a less refined form of the corruption occurring daily at the ministry’s offices. That such an official is still in office only adds a tinge of legitimacy to his claims.
Trail of graft
In reality, most illegal land deals are sealed quietly; millions of shillings change hands and are quickly stashed away in accounts of dummy companies linked to Lands officials.
However, powerful individuals often pull strings in the Provincial Administration to enforce the eviction orders. There are beach plots in Mombasa that are now the subject of court battles, and the trail of the corruption that is the genesis of the problem leads directly to Ardhi House in Nairobi. Orengo boasts of having recovered public land, but what of the hundreds of Kenyans displaced from their inheritance and who have no one to speak for them? The fact that the ministry has collected Sh8.1 billion in revenue pales in comparison to the size of the graft problem it must grapple with. The lag in land reform is a key hurdle to investment.
Being overly defensive will do nothing to change the current fourth place ranking of the Lands Ministry on Transparency International’s bribery index – after the Police, Ministry of Public Works and Immigration Department.
To the ordinary Kenyan, change in the ministry will mean being able to walk into any Lands office and tracing a file after paying for a search, without having to bribe an official who is already being paid by taxpayers.
When Kenyans no longer live in fear of assistant chiefs rattling off names of cabinet ministers to legitimise land grabs, when fictitious transactions that see genuine landowners lose their title deeds are history, then demos at Ardhi House will cease.
Until then, Bwana Waziri, it is futile to boast of raising stamp duty revenues when some of it is collected from illegal landlords who stole the land from the rightful owners!