Ruto to borrow Uhuru playbook in fixing the Coast squatter crisis

President William Ruto and Mombasa County Governor Abdulswamad Nassir when he met Muslims and Christians during inter-denomination prayers at Mama Ngina waterfront in Mombasa. November 5, 2023. [Omondi Onyango,Standard]

President William Ruto appears to have borrowed the playbook of his predecessor in tackling teeming squatter camps on private land at the Coast, his key campaign promise to the region.

A fortnight ago, Ruto toured the Coast and plunged into the murky dispute over the ownership of three plots in Mombasa and Kwale.

But he says the government will pay owners of Kisauni’s Kwa Bulo Settlement, drawing parallels with former President Uhuru Kenyatta’s handling of the Waitiki Farm in Likoni.

Similar to when the state acquired the Waitiki farm, Kwa Bulo is now witnessing a surge in high-rise buildings and bungalows, prompting questions about the economic status of the squatters whose land the state is purchasing.

Paid for land

However, both areas still harbour some of the most economically disadvantaged individuals. Reports reveal that at least 16 people in Kwa Bulo, who own modern houses and businesses, have paid for the plots they occupy.

Ruto announced that part of the Sh1 billion allocated for resettling squatters in the country will be used to acquire the 86.7-acre Kwa Bulo land for its current occupants.

Local leaders, including Nyali MP Mohamed Ali, have hailed this move as a form of justice for the squatters who have lived in fear of eviction for years. Ali saidthis marks the culmination of extensive lobbying efforts.

“It will end their fear of insecurity and forced evictions over their rightful land ownership. I am pleased to see the president address this,” said Ali.

In an interview, Kwa Bulo squatters’ chairman, Omar Tsori, said the settlement of families on the 86.7-acre land has been a contentious political issue. “It is true; due to our numerical strength, politicians have, in every election cycle, promised to settle us but leave us out to dry after we have voted for them,” Tsori said.

Another squatter, Jane Kahindi, expressed cautious optimism, noting that promises made in the past had often amounted to just that—promises. “We were promised the same thing before the Waitiki case. All politicians who come to the area promise the same thing. But it appears the president is serious this time round,” said Kahindi.

The government acquired the 930-acre Waitiki Farm in Likoni from Evanson Waitiki for Sh1.2 billion to settle over 120,000 squatters who invaded it in 1997.

Sheikh Abu Qatada Salim commended the government’s decision to bear the cost of the land and construct affordable houses for the squatters.

“He promised to give land title to the residents of the Kwa Bulo area. The good thing is that the government will compensate the land owner and build affordable houses for the people,” he said.

Price offered

According to court papers, the owners value the Kwa Bulo land at Sh800 million. An agreement in court indicates that the squatters agreed to purchase the land but rejected the offered prices.

“We have rejected the offer because it is expensive. There is a plot with a school, and they value it at Sh14.5 million. Someone cannot develop a plot and be charged for it,” said Tsori.

The settlement of squatters at Kwa Bulo began in the 1990s but has been plagued by court battles, open hostility, hatred, and occasional bloody conflicts.

The land originally belonged to World War 1 veteran Emmanuel Andrew Bulo, who was issued a title deed on August 23, 1922, under the provisions of the Land Titles Ordinance in 1908.

Records from the Mombasa county land offices indicate that Bulo initially found a few locals on the land and granted them a “stay order.” Over time, the number of locals on the land increased.

Defaulted land rates

After Mzee Bulo’s death in 1966, the title was transferred to Suleiman Bin Ali in 1967. Ali, a renowned long-distance transporter in Mombasa’s Bamburi area, reportedly defaulted on land rates, leading to the state repossessing the land in 1980. The state then transferred it to James Mwangi Gacheru and Francis Waita as tenants with equal shares.

Subsequently, it is unclear whether Gacheru and Waita sold the land to the government, as records indicate that the title was transferred to Kenya National Insurance Company Limited (KNAC) in 1981.

The now-defunct state-owned KNAC collapsed in 2000, resulting in all its properties in Mombasa, including Bima Tower and Kwa Bulo plot 39/1/MN, going into government receivership.

According to Tsori, after the collapse of KNAC, its properties entered government receivership, marking the period when the squatters assumed ownership of the land.

But in 2002, according to court papers, the land was taken over by Kenya National Assurance (KNA), a new private entity, which sold it to Kencent Holdings Limited in 2005.

“The company offered a down payment of Sh8 million, 10 per cent of the Sh44 million agreed. It was to pay the balance after our eviction from the land,” say suit papers.

Tsori said the deadliest eviction was in May 2005 at Kwa Bulo. One person was shot dead, and several police officers were injured.

“We moved to court in 2006 seeking adverse possession but lost the case. We also lost the appeal,” he said.

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