Northlands invasion exposes the ever-emotive land question, again

Intruders who invaded former President Uhuru Kenyatta's family expansive Northlands farm land located along the Eastern Bypass on March 27, 2023. [Silas Otieno, Standard]

The struggle for independence was a fight to repossess land. In sixty years of home rule, however, the best of that land has been possessed by successive ruling elites.

More than a million acres are in the hands of families of former presidents and probably even more occupied by their cronies and henchmen who preserved their power bases. Every effort at land justice and redistribution has been thwarted over the years.

What occurred on Monday at Northlands was not, however, a land settlement exercise but a settlement of scores between bitter rivals. The political instigators of the invasion would do well to remember that when you seek revenge you need to dig two graves - one for yourself.

By opening up a Pandora box they have set aside the rule of law - with obvious collaboration and connivance of the police - and set a dangerous precedent whereby political scores are settled on the land and property of your opponent. As a consequence, similar invasions may occur anytime anywhere, with the inevitable result that a new breed of landgrabbers emerge, and the poor remain landless

Worst of all, by setting aside the rule of law you are paving the way for anarchy and violence. The rule of law is the only legitimate weapon available for redressing historical injustices and land conflicts.

Last week, Haki Yetu launched its report on land-related injustices and conflicts in Lamu County, entitled "Excluded and Displaced in Your Own Homeland" as an effort to address that county's sad history of land injustices. The event took place in the mainland at Mkunumbi, the heart of the conflict area, and was attended by religious and political leaders as well as local administration and affected community. The detailed report outlines the historical and current injustices and offers a clear path for resolution. It bases most of those recommendations on the views that the affected communities and local leaders shared in a series of focused group discussions and interviews.

Five hundred and seventy people attended various forums and another 130 stakeholders were interviewed separately. The findings reveal that the local community have little confidence in the national government's willingness to address their land matters, but possess even less trust in the county government. The latter point is astonishing when we recall that responsibility for land matters has been devolved to the counties.

A mere 13,000 homes in Lamu possess title deeds, a figure that represents roughly 42 per cent of the population. Put another way, almost 60 per cent of Lamu population do not have titles. But more disturbing is discovery that less than 20 per cent of the indigenous population possess titles. That leaves them vulnerable to dispossession and likely to miss out on compensation when mega projects like LAPSSET, Wind Farm and Manda Bay are developed. From this research it is clear that most conflicts have taken place on land that lacks title. Lamu Court reports that 70 per cent of filed cases are on land. Respondents also said unresolved land matters have impoverished the community and left Lamu one of the poorest counties, despite its enormous potential to be food productive and prosperous.

The population of 144,000 is small but huge ranches are in the hands of a few well-connected folk who allegedly hire Al Shabaab militants to forcefully remove squatters who have lived and farmed there for decades.

However, corruption too is pervasive, with well-connected strangers frequently arriving with titles issued in Nairobi for land that is well placed for compensation for mega projects.

The story of Lamu could be replicated all over the country. The land question has never been addressed with the seriousness that it requires because those in power distributed and acquired land as if it were their personal property.

The chickens are eventually coming home to roost and Kenya must soon decide if it wants to go the Zimbabwe way of invasion, thus creating a new breed of land grabbers or adhere to the rule of law and do redress in an orderly, legal and fair way. The road it chooses will certainly determine the economic and moral fabric of the country for decades.