There's no political will to tackle systemic grabbing of public land

A bulldozer demolishes a house on land that belongs to the East African Portland Cement Company in Athi River on Monday. [Peterson Githaiga, Standard]

Whenever I spot a bulldozer moving along with gusto and intent, I get butterflies in my stomach. If you have ever experienced forced evictions and demolitions, you know the trauma remains with you for years.

The violence and destruction this huge, steel beast can inflict on families from Gaza to Mavoko is devastating. President William Ruto had promised Kenyans that what occurred in Athi River this past week would never happen while at the helm. Now we know; there goes another broken promise.

But that it happens and will most likely continue 60 years after independence is a terrible indictment of the contempt held for the rule of law and the natural law. There is no justice or mercy in bulldozing families into oblivion, not much different than what Israel is doing in Gaza.

The general public are suffering for sins of successive dynasties who especially in the 80s and 90s looted what public land their greedy hands could get hold of. The country is left with a pretty dismal public land tenure system as a result.

Crude and cruel methods to repossess illegally acquired land are reserved for the naïve third-party buyers while well-connected mega thieves from the Kanu era we hope face punishment in hell as their offspring squander their remaining loot here on earth. There is no political will to address loss of public land and so what we witness from time to time are selective, opportunistic and crude demolitions while there is no policy or framework to address the land grabbing phenomenon once and for all.

Some 20 years ago, Mwai Kibaki set up a Commission of Inquiry into Illegal and Irregular Allocation of Public Land. The Commission became popularly known as the Ndungu Commission after its chairman, Paul Ndungu. Their report and its many annexes revealed as many as 200,000 illegal titles in the country, probably amounting to four million acres. These pieces of land were dished out as “political reward and for speculation purposes”.

The land grabbers started with the settlement schemes, moved onto the ADC Farms, KARI, Forests, State Corporations, Prison Farms, Riparian Sites, Road Reserves, public beaches and fish landing sites. No place escaped as nine hectares was carved out of State House, Nairobi and another 140 hectares from the Presidential Lodge in Cherangany, locally known as the Duke of Manchester.

It did not end there as Malindi State House became the private property of a Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner. When all the available land was gone, they went for government houses and wait for it, in Mombasa they grabbed all public toilets. If you have a fast bowel or a weak bladder, be advised to keep well away from the coastal city.

The Ndungu Commission did not just expose the extent of the rot, they offered genuine remedies that up until today are gathering dust in boardrooms. The first recommendation was to establish a Land Titles Tribunal that would operate on a full-time basis for one year, to verify authenticity of every title. Thereafter, they offered possible solutions to land that was undeveloped, partially developed or fully developed. All very logical, consistent and doable, but no one showed the slightest interest in implementing it.

Instead, the National Land Commission was established to protect public land, or whatever of it remained. It has systematically been starved of resources and capacity lest it might take its mandate seriously.

In a flurry of excitement, it recently announced that it was ready to tackle historical land injustices through the Alternative Justice System (AJS). But after a bright start, its light has faded and is currently struggling with the Lands Ministry to retain its powers on compulsory acquisition.

This culture of looting public land and assets was a weapon devised to reward patronage and maintain power. Due to the reluctance of successive regimes to address this impunity, the public believes systemic looting is still a government privilege and right.

Consequently, they assert that privatisation of parastatals without the approval of Parliament is a prelude to massive looting of public resources. If you doubt them, they will quickly mention Weston Hotel.