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Why resettlement of squatters is a thorny issue for government

Police officers prepare to lob teargas at squatters protesting in Kwa Mulinge scheme, Mlolongo, Machakos County. [Peterson Githaiga, Standard]

Emotive and certain to stir debate, land ownership, administration and adjudication have come to the fore of politicians’ manifestos ahead of next month’s polls.

Squatters have been drawn into this debate in huge numbers, as have absentee landlords.

The resettlement of squatters, who were more than 600,000 in the coastal region alone just over a decade ago, according to The National Land Policy (NLP), has been discussed for decades.

Swathes of abandoned land, especially in the coastal belt, have been touted as possible resettlement areas, with absentee landlords often resurfacing to wreak havoc on squatters keen to bide time and hope to earn a piece of earth.

If they manage to stay put on such land in an open, hostile and continuous (uninterrupted) occupancy for over 12 years, such squatters are entitled to ownership through adverse possession.

Thrown out

But 12 years is a long time and in many cases, it is highly unlikely that landlords who are aware of the clause will let such time lapse before they show up and thrown out such occupants.

Even when the adverse possession clause is triggered, long court battles mean that the resettlement of squatters remains a big hurdle.

Towards the end of May, Deputy President William Ruto promised that if elected president, he would negotiate with absentee landlords at the Coast to purchase their land and resettle squatters.

“I am very much aware that land is a thorny issue in the Coast region. We have very many squatters and because there is a lot of undeveloped lands, we will buy it from the absentee landlords to settle you,” Dr Ruto said.

“We will establish a special fund to buy the land from absentee landlords. But if the need arises, we will use a compulsory acquisition programme to repossess the land and settle squatters at the Coast. We are ready.”

Squatters are people who occupy undeveloped land, or buildings, without the owners’ permission. In colonial times, this title was reserved for native labourers who worked on white farms.

Absentee landlords, as defined by the Sessional Paper No. 3 of 2009 on National Land Policy, are entities whose land is under occupation or use by others but who themselves are not regularly in residence or supervision of the land.

Abandoned land

They can also be defined as entities whose conduct amounts to the abandonment of the land.

“In this case periodicity in relation to absence is important in determining the fact of abandonment,” the paper explains.

They can also be defined as “owners of land along the Coast of Kenya who seldom use the land of which they are the registered owners; such land, where managed at all, being ordinarily under agents who may or may not have been validly appointed by the registered owners.”

While several counties in Kenya have to contend with the problem of excessive fragmentation of land leaving every land owner with just enough to support survival, the coastal region has struggled with the issue of huge chunks of land whose owners have vanished, leaving them unutilised or occupied by squatters.

In 2018, the government announced plans to nationalise thousands of acres of land owned by absentee landlords at the Coast after they failed to identify themselves or prove ownership before the National Land Commission (NLC).

Three years earlier, NLC had ordered absentee landlords to register and prove ownership of the huge swathes of land they owned at the Coast, where landlessness and the squatter problem are most acute in Kenya.

According to the NLP enacted in 2009, absentee landlords owned over 301 hectares of land in Mombasa County, 234 hectares in Malindi, 75,982 hectares in Kwale and 1,235 hectares in Kilifi.

It also indicated that absentee landlords, who owned nearly all the 80,000 hectares of land in the coastal strip, lived in the Middle East in countries such as Oman and Yemen.

According to the Sessional Paper No. 3 of 2009 on National Land Policy, the government’s plans to address the plight of squatters included facilitation of the regularisation of existing squatter settlements found on public and community land for purposes of upgrading or development and establishment of a legal framework and procedures for transferring unutilised land and land belonging to absentee land owners to squatters and people living in informal settlements.

Ibrahim Mwathane, a consultant in surveying and land information management, says the issue of resettlement of squatters on land owned by absentee landlords has been there for long and governments have had the chance to act on it since over a decade ago, and should not be politicised.

“This is a policy issue that has to be converted into a programme that can be applied. This requires a good plan because there has to be the availability of money and goodwill,” he says.

While the resettlement of squatters could be a step in the right direction, it is not a panacea to the land problem.

While it could offer land to construct shelter for hundreds of thousands, the subdivisions made to accommodate squatters may be too small to be economically viable, especially for agriculture, which is the main use of land in Kenya.

The country struggles to feed its people, with a lot of reliance on rain-fed agriculture. According to World Bank data, in 2018, only 10.2 per cent of land in Kenya was arable.

Since independence, the highest percentage has been 10.4 per cent, recorded in 2012.

According to the NLC and a Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report on the effects of land fragmentation and food security, which studied 13 counties in October 2021, Kenya has about 576,000 square kilometres of the land mass of which only 16 per cent lies in the high and medium agricultural potential areas supporting 80 per cent of the population.

This is higher than the World Bank’s 10.2 per cent but still not enough to feed Kenya.

“The high and medium potential areas mainly support commercial agriculture; approximately 31 per cent of the land supports crop production, grazing land occupies 30 per cent while 22 per cent is under forests,” read the report in part.

“The remaining land (about 17 per cent) is devoted for game parks and development of urban centres, houses and infrastructure.

“On the other hand, around 84 per cent of land lies in arid and semi-arid areas. Land under this category is mainly utilised as range land for ranching, pastoralism and agro-pastoralism.”

The Sessional Paper No. 3 of 2009 says the processes of land adjudication and registration deprived many members of the indigenous coastal communities of their land.

“This led to the area having the largest single concentration of landless indigenous people living as squatters. It also gave rise to the problem of absentee land owners,” the paper noted. “There is also a need to regulate the rights of land owners and tenants in the context of the prevalent practice of ‘tenancies-at-will’ and good planning practice.”

If the next government is keen on the identification of absentee landlords and resettlement of squatters, the country will have made a stride in the right direction, the first of many in what will be a long journey in dignifying squatters and utilising underused land.