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War over slum house rents looms large

By | April 29th 2009

By Mwangi Muiruri

Marianna Wanjiku has 55 rental houses in Kibera’s Gatwekera, Lang’ata constituency.

But since 2001, tenants have refused to pay rent.There are others who have taken over the houses to rent to other people.

"I have lost Sh2.64 million in the hands of goons who took over my houses," she laments.

This has seen tension remain high in the area as illegal groups supported by tenants solidify their grip. The conflict has been exacerbated due to ethnic and political influences fuelled by local politicians.

Youths protest high cost of rental houses in Kibera, Nairobi. It took the intervention of their MP Raila Odinga to calm them down after anti-riot police failed.

And according to the Kenya Tenants Welfare Association chairman, Kennedy Miheso, the conlflict has spread to Mathare, Kariobangi South, Mukuru and Babadogo in Nairobi.

"The same is replicated in Kisumu, Rift Valley and Western provinces," he claims.

The coordinator of the Rift Valley Internally Displaced Person’s welfare Kimani Ngunjiri says most landlords in the volatile regions are yet to get back their houses.

Right to own property

"You fail to understand why there is a Government of National Unity. Does reconciliation mean status quo of the post-election violence remaining in place?" Ngunjiri poses.

Embakasi MP Ferdinand Waititu says his constituency was affected "but we are working with the Government to revert the houses to their rightful owners."

He says the worst affected areas are Dandora and Kariobangi.

"We are going to negotiate. They pay rent or get out of private houses," he vows.

Former Starehe MP Maina Kamanda says about 100 landlords in Kasarani are yet to have their houses back.

"It pains to have a government and it cannot safeguard private properties of its people. These people must be made to vacate the houses they forcibly took," he says.

Kamanda says the trend is also prevalent in Huruma, Laki Summer, Baba Dogo Mathare Area I and 4A as well as Korogocho.

He blames the provincial administration for laxity and bias in solving the matter.

According to the Kibera Landlords Multipurpose Cooperative Society chairman, Mr Ezekiah Kamau Kariuki, more than 550 structure owners are suffering in the hands of these gangs.

Kariuki was area chief between 1967 and 1995 and says landlords opted to stay away when tenants ignited violence in November 2001.

Kibera residents struggle to put out a fire. Landlords usually start fires to evict tenants while tenants burn the same houses and then build their own structures eventually repulsing the landlords. Photo: Said Hamisi/Standard

He says they cannot offset the arrears at ago and cannot be kicked out since there is fragile peace to be nurtured.

But he is quick to add that there will be no free houses since all tenants must pay rent or eventually be forcefully evicted.

He argues that, the fragile peace cannot be invoked for the benefit of landlords while oppressing tenants. "We all want a compromise that will satisfy both parties," he says. But the dominant tenancy being from one tribe competing with the minority tribe of landlords has resulted in a lopsided application of justice.

The landlords claim the officers are afraid to upset the majority.

In one incident, Ann Gathoni, complained to the chief on March 9, that Calvin Kevin Otieno had refused to pay rent for one year.

The chief summoned Otieno. "I gave him the letter but Otieno said he could only honour the chief’s summons at his own pace. But on second thought, he told me that if I pay him Sh2,200, he would vacate my house plus other four tenants he was renting my rooms," Gathoni says.

Gathoni paid the money so that the houses could revert to her. "I intended to bring cooperative tenants since I was incurring more losses."

Upon receiving the money, Otieno wrote a letter to the chief confirming receiving the cash and existence of an agreement with the landlord that he will vacate the house, which to date, he has not.

"Others are not moving. Why should I move?" he said when CCI approached him.

According to the Structure Owners Association Secretary General, Mary Kanyi, they have sought Government intervention by writing to Justice and Constitutional Affairs ministry, Internal Security PS Francis Kimemia, the Nairobi Provincial Commissioner James Waweru and Housing minister Soita Shitanda.

"Whereas Karua (Former Justice Minister) visited the area with the Prime Minister Raila Odinga, others have given us a cold shoulder," Kanyi states.

But when Karua raised the issue in a joint rally with Raila in Kibera, the crowds rebuked her.

Raila told Karua to keep off matters of tenancy in the slum since area residents understood the dynamics of the issue and had the key to the stalemate.

On his part, Kimemia says the provincial administration is under strict instructions to resolve the issue and make sure no one is illegally occupying private property.

Genesis of the problem

"Our structures of administration have been advised accordingly and so far we are getting encouraging feedback from the ground. This is an issue that has to be resolved soonest possible," he says.

Before 2000, the landlords say the tenants were paying normally.

According to Kanyi, trouble started during a campaign rally when then president Daniel Moi and Raila Odinga — who had joined Kanu — visited the volatile slum on October 31, 2001.

"Raila seized the moment to say landlords were overcharging the tenants. It was then that the two politicians said we were supposed to charge half the prevailing rates," she says. The houses that cost Sh1,000 reverted to Sh500 and others reduced to Sh250.

Political incitement

As the 2002 General Elections drew near, Raila had already teamed up with Narc and their campaign agenda was providing subsidised housing. His supporters are said to have translated that to mean free housing and they refused to pay. On November 28, 2003 they sued Raila through Kamau Kuria and Kiraitu Advocates and enjoined the Attorney General and the Commissioner of Lands.

They sought to have Raila restricted from interfering with landlord/tenant relationship even in dispute resolution mechanism.

In his replying affidavit, Raila hit out at the landlords, calling them "structural owners on temporary occupational licenses."

He said his stand was informed by Government’s joint venture with UN Habitat to rehabilitate the slum.

He said the suit was scandalous, frivolous, vexatious, irrelevant and inadmissible hence instituted just to annoy.

"The landlords would occasionally threaten to throw out defaulting tenants, sometimes hiring Mungiki to collect rent, but the tenants in the ride of assured political representation vowed to stay put," says Moses Owino, an elder at Gatwekera village. The issue was not helped when a senior politician said: "Siafu itaingia pangoni imtoe nyoka," (Safari ants will invade the interiors and kick out the snake.)

"This was perceived to mean that the dominant tribe in the area will invade and kick out the minority tribes," Owino says. As the bruising but ethnic propelled campaigns progressed, it became a sectarian issue conveniently packaged to allude a war pitting PNU (snake) versus ODM (safari ants) supporters. A build up of tension and more grabbing took place after the disputed 2007 General Elections when violence erupted across the country.

"Ethnic driven rivalry saw the landlords being evicted and the tenants now assuming not only automatic free housing but also becoming landlords in the plots of other landlords," says Ms Kanyi.

But Chief Ouma is optimistic that the issue will be resolved amicably "if only politicians will keep off." Ouma says since he assumed office after the poll violence he has managed to have more than 1,000 landlords collect at least Sh50,000 from defaulters.

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