Absentee land owners blamed for Coast feuds

Thursday, December 5th, 2019 00:00 |
Shamsan Najib, a member of Kenya Land Alliance.

The phrase  ‘Absentee landlord’ sticks out frequently whenever historical land injustices at the Coast are mentioned.  

Google search for the phrase displays about 997,000 results detailing a trail of definitions and meanings.

But immediate results by online dictionaries describe an absentee landlord as a person who does not live at and rarely visits the property they let.

While land rights champions at the Coast argue that it is still indefinite who exactly should be defined by the phrase, a majority of locals embroiled in landlessness are of the view that indeed absentee landlords are the root cause of their unending woes.

Shamsan Najib, a member of Kenya Land Alliance, says absentee landlord is a phenomenon that needs to be well defined and elaborated in accordance with Section 160 of the Lands Act.  

According to Najib, the Country has some favourable laws, but failures by the Ministry of Land and the National Land Commission to implement the laws has continued to condemn hundreds of thousands of Coast residents into landlessness.

Prior to independence, Kenya and other African countries were under colonial laws.

 It all began at the Berlin Conference of 1884–85 where European nations converged to create rules on how to peacefully divide Africa among them for colonisation, in a conference convened by Portugal but led by Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of the then newly united Germany.

Part of the agreement that emerged from the meeting was the General Act of the 1885 Conference of Berlin, as European nations were encouraged to aggressively colonise and exploit Africa’s human and natural resources or to lose their claims under the Principle of Effectivity, which allowed signatories of the agreement to jump each other’s claims if the claims were not being fully exploited.

One of the legislations brought in Kenya back then was the Land Titles Ordinance Act of 1908, which the colonial governments used to regularise land ownership. “In real sense they were not regularising land ownership, but were instead using the Act to grab the land from Africans,” says the land rights activist.

Shortly after their arrival in the country, through the enactment of the Land Titles Ordinance, the British colonialist came up with, the claim period in 1914 where Coast residents were given only six months to lay claims with the Recorder of  Titles in Mombasa for them to obtain title deeds.

“That claim period was unjust because natives were still fearful of the colonial masters. Slavery was still underway and so it was not conducive for Africans to make claims,” says Najib.

Squatter life

Kilifi Governor Amason Kingi also holds similar views. He says the set claim period did not favour Africans as most of them were at the time still tacked in their remote hideouts.

“Most of the Coast indigenous communities were still hiding in the Nyika Plateau. The locals returned to their native land after the total abolition of slavery only to find that their land had been given away to foreigners under the Land Titles Ordinance of 1908,” says Kingi.

As Najib explains, while Africans were away in their hideouts, Asian and Arab communities who were within Mombasa and Zanzibar greedily hogged expansive chunks of land at their disposal exposing locals to squatter life in their home turf.

“They abused the claim period and went on taking all the land that belonged to the indigenous community,” he says adding, “The Arabs from Oman were especially ruthless. They made the claims and obtained the documents, but on physical occupation they were absent.”

The situation was made worse for Africans after independence when a constitutional clause was inserted declaring that all title deeds given at the coast prior to independence shall be deemed lawful and valid. 

To address this challenge, Kingi proposed an amendment to the constitution as well as an insertion of a clause declaring all title deeds issued at the coast region prior to independence and, more particularly, under the Land Titles Ordinance of 1908 be declared public land for purposes of settling the locals who are the rightful owners.”

The Mazrui family, an Omani Arab clan that reigned over some parts of East Africa between the 18th and 20th century became beneficiaries of huge tracts of land as per March 21, 1912 agreement that enabled the family to acquire 10,000 acres of land in Kilifi County running from Kuruwitu to Watamu and bordering the Wanyika reserve. 

Used as collateral

 The same year, the British government enacted the Mazrui Land Act Cap 289 of 1914 specifically to protect the interests of the Mazrui at the expense of the locals.

In 1989, the government repealed the Mazrui Land Act for purposes of settling the squatters, but in 1991, Mazrui heirs went to court to challenge the government’s decision, and the case was ruled in their favour after a  court battle that lasted 23 years.Currently, 10,000 families live on the land deemed to be their ancestral land.

Najib says poor governance coupled with high end corruption at the lands registry and lack of political good will to push for implementation of existing laws has continued to worsen the situation.

“Well we appreciate the effort by Jubilee government to issue title deeds, but its not enough. We need to see more from our leaders,” the activist points out.

Besides the Omani Arabs, Najib says Coast is dotted with scores of absentee landlords who continue to condemn residents to landlessness. In Kisauni alone, he says there are over 100 absentee landlords.

“Some are people who bought land and then used it as collateral to secure loans. Once they get the money they choose to abandon the property with banks. These properties lie unclaimed yet they don’t generate revenue,” he says.

One such landlord is Mombasa based Pwani Jazazhomu Company Limited, which secured a loan of Sh17, 000 from Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC) in April 26, 1939, whose arrears accrued to Sh2.6 million by 2008.

In the same area thousands of squatters are on the verge of being kicked out by absentee landlords called Taita Taveta Teachers Investments Company limited.

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