Land-grabbing impunity

Sign outside Langata School

© Henry Owino

In early January, protests ensued over a school’s playground in Nairobi being ‘grabbed’, illegally fenced off and seized.  

The case of Langata Road Primary School is a classic land-grabbing one, a clear indication of government impunity, and indeed, it’s said to be the project of Deputy President William Ruto.

With the school located in a zone controlled by the government’s opposition forces, the information spread like a burning bush-fire, attracting public attention. A demonstration to oppose the move was set up.

Civil society organizations, parents and a group of children’s rights activists led a protest demanding the land be given back to the school. Pupils of the same school joined in the protest and tore down the perimeter wall, to express their anger towards the government. Police at the scene tear-gassed the demonstrators, including the pupils.

More violence ensued, leaving at least five pupils seriously injured; a police officer was also injured in the mix and several activists arrested for participating in the demonstration.

The public condemned tear-gassing schoolchildren who were rightfully demanding their land back. The officer commanding the police division who ordered the use of tear gas against children was suspended by Cabinet Secretary for the Interior, Joseph Nkaissery.

Nkaissery visited the school a day later and apologized to the pupils, parents, teachers and public at large. The Cabinet Secretary for Land, Charity Ngilu, also supported the children’s protest. She declared that the land in question belonged to Langata Road Primary School. Ngilu later named the grabbers, as she had promised citizens she would do. Four people were named – all of whom appear to be foreign investors. But citizens are not yet satisfied.

‘We want the names of the big fish who claim they are private developers,’ they chanted.

Their mistrust is understandable. It’s been 10 years since Daniel arap Moi stepped down as president, but the land-grabbing trend still continues through different means. Moi used to award his allies huge chunks of land without any documentation and ever since, land-grabbing in Kenya has become a common phenomenon, exploited by the very powerful as a money-making scheme. This goes against most citizens’ expectations of the current government.

The schemes involve foreigners and Kenyans who are well connected with the government, using the pretext of land leases as a shortcut to owning a piece of land, on the basis of ‘willing seller, willing buyer’. In some cases, a single piece of land may be sold to more than two potential clients at different times.

Critics say land-grabbing is a national disaster that could spark violence among communities, just like in 2007, and containing it will not be easy.

In fact, the situation is getting worse. An in-depth investigation has shown that many land-grabbers are high-profile individuals in the current government. The government has denied the allegations, saying that as citizens, government members are allowed to possess private land.

Nevertheless, the majority are misusing their senior positions to grab public land and register it under friends’ or relatives’ names. The few who are caught always spin the issue, saying the land belongs to private developers.

Kenyatta University, for example, the largest public higher-education institution in the country, is also facing problems with certain individuals who were rewarded land by former president Daniel arap Moi. The majority do not have the documents to prove their ownership, despite having served in Moi’s regime for over 20 years.

The Langata case is no different. According to Kenneth Okoth, the area’s member of parliament, the owner of the Weston hotel, located close to Langata, could be the same person who grabbed part of the school’s land. Okoth added that the hotel lacks a parking compound for vehicles, so the grabber might have wanted to expand for more space.

‘We want Cabinet Secretary Charity Ngilu to come out clear and name this private developer and the companies involved. The four people [who have been named] are just to cover up the truth of the matter,’ said Okoth.

‘The real land-grabbers are serving in this government and must be named and forced to quit,’ he emphasized.

 ‘Kenyans are fond of the saying “it’s our turn to eat”, so every person who comes to or forms the government tries to accumulate as much wealth as possible, even if it means grabbing it. Impunity in this country is costing citizens their rights,’ said renowned activist Boniface Mwangi.

Mwangi disclosed that sources have it that deputy president William Ruto is directly connected to the Langata Road Primary School land-grabbing scandal. He expressed his disappointment that the government, which should protect citizens, is misusing its powers to demoralize its people.

‘The land where the Weston hotel is built belongs to Langata prison, but we neither made noise nor took action against this, because the institution is for convicts. Unfortunately, the grabber is now expanding to a learning institution for our children; that one, we cannot tolerate any more,’ Mwangi stated.