Ruto yet to start his land reform agenda at Coast over a year later

President William Ruto [centre] is received by Governor Fatma Achani [left] during the groundbreaking ceremony of the Mwache multipurpose Dam Project in Kwale County. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

President William Ruto is yet to resolve the squatter problem at the Coast more than a year into his presidency.

During campaigns, Ruto promised to buy land owned by absentee landlords to resettle squatters.

The president has continued with regular visits to Mombasa, Kwale, Taita Taveta, Kilifi, Tana River and Lamu, meeting locals to assure them of his plan to implement campaign pledges.

The president says that Sh1 billion has been set aside in the 2023/2024 budget to buy disputed parcels like the 86.7-acre Kwa Bulo Farm in Nyali to settle 10,000 squatters.

For years, ODM has portrayed itself as the party with answers to the land question at the Coast.

In its land reform agenda, ODM has promised to implement the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) and the Ndung'u Land Commission reports to address historical land injustices.

The squatter problem cuts across the six counties at the Coast. In Mombasa, about 15,000 families or 100,000 residents face eviction after disagreeing with landowners.

These parcels are registered in the name of Liwalis (governors) and residents are tenants-at-will and have built houses on land owned by the so-called absentee landlords.

A tenancy-at-will is a land tenure that can be terminated at any time by either the tenant or the landlord. It exists without a contract or lease and usually does not specify the duration of a tenant’s rental or exchange of payment.

In Kilifi, an estimated 200,000 squatters live in the expansive Mazrui land at Takaungu, which has been at the centre of court battles for decades.

Ruto’s Sh1 billion allocated for resettling squatters has been described as a drop in the ocean even as the Kenya Kwanza administration grapples with public debts.

But the Ruto regime appears to borrow a leaf from former President Uhuru Kenyatta who used Sh1.25 billion to buy 930-acre Likoni Farmer from Mr Kamau Waitiki to settle squatters.

In the Waitiki deal, President Kenyatta had asked the occupants of the land to pay Sh182,000 each for their parcels. Leaders like Nyali MP Mohamed Ali have hailed Ruto’s plan as justice for the squatters.

In 2016, the State used the Settlement Fund Trustee to purchase the Waitiki Farm in Likoni and issued 7,807 title deeds to the settlers on the land, who later paid Sh182,000 each.

Other parcels bought similarly during Uhuru’s time include settlement schemes in Chakama (Kilifi), Mtwapa (Kilifi), Mwakirunge 1 (Mombasa), and Kombani in Kwale County.

Figures from the Ministry of Lands indicate that Coast received 700,000 title deeds during Uhuru’s 10-year rule, which was more than 230,000 the region got from independence to 2013.

Kilifi County got 52,000 land title deeds between 1963 and 2012 but during Jubilee regime it received 110,000 title deeds.

A political analyst, Maimuna Mwidau, argues that although Ruto has demonstrated political goodwill to fix the squatter problem his plan has been held back by lack of funds.

"Maybe this plan will wait until the economy improves and the government slays the ghost of corruption that has drained the country's resources," she argued.

To succeed, however, Ms Mwidau argued that the government must identify the parcels to be acquired from landowners just like the Waitiki farm in Likoni, and negotiate a fair deal.

Kenya Land Alliance (KLA) Coast regional coordinator Nagib Shamsan argued that Ruto’s plan to use Sh1 billion to buy land from absentee landlords would not have an impact.

Instead, he asked state to audit all stalled settlement schemes and complete their allocation, then embark on new schemes later.

He also argued that there was a need to audit every penny spent by the Settlement Fund Trustees (SFT) to raise the level of accountability in acquiring land for the settlement of squatters.

According to him, stalled settlement schemes include Mwakirunge II and Chelang'a in Mombasa County and Gathecha and Chakama in Kilifi County.

"The government should complete the stalled settlement schemes before buying land for squatters in new settlement schemes. The SFT should be allocated more funds and subjected to audits to speed up settlement of squatters," he argued.

Shamsan argued that the national government should localise the settlement of squatters by working closely with the county governments to resolve the local land issues.

“We have all the laws we need to solve the land issue but we lack people with integrity and enough funds to deal with this problem once and for all. If it is the revolving fund we have it but the problem is it is not allocated enough budget,” Shamsan argued.

In the first Kenya Kwanza regime’s budget, Treasury Cabinet Secretary Njuguna Ndung'u proposed an allocation of Sh1.2 billion for registration of title deeds.

Ndung'u also proposed Sh2.6 billion for the settlement of the landless, Sh755 million for the digitisation of the land registry, and Sh138.3 million for the construction of land registries.

Ruto has promised to revive the 1963 one-million-acre scheme and the Africanisation policy has ignited a political firestorm, critics term it as a fallacy aimed to hoodwink voters.

The revolving fund to buy land to settle the landless was first introduced in 1965 but later abandoned until 1972 when the late Jackson Angaine land committee recommended its revival.

“We must define who an absentee landlord is. It is like any person who lives outside the country but has appointed a lawyer to collect rent is seen as an absentee landlord. We have to carefully handle this matter and strictly follow the law,” cautioned Shamsan.

In his first year in office, former President Kenyatta demonstrated his determination to tackle the squatter problem when he handed over 60,000 title deeds, including the freshly processed and those stuck in the land registries for years.

“Squatter problem, I admit, has been serious in Coast region since this country attained independence, but my government has taken the matter seriously and we have started to adjudicate land and prepare titles deeds,” Uhuru said.