Land grab cartels chipping away at investor confidence in Kenya
Land grabbing is a chronic, malignant and deeply rooted problem and sadly a familiar tale to every Kenyan. Fraudsters are increasingly falsifying documents while conniving with civil servants to secure title deeds, robbing Kenyans of their precious land, damaging businesses and fuelling investor hesitancy.
The problem stems from the unshakeable composition of these criminal networks. Historical cases have seen the involvement of individuals that hold sway on various rungs of our political, legal and regulatory framework.
Indeed, incidents have included employees inside ministries, high-ranking political officials, and police officers. Land cartels are sophisticated, protected criminal structures built on such foundations that have become increasingly difficult to break down.
Their actions are organised and robust. For example, land grabbers often claim they bought land from a deceased individual before their death, using forged ownership and sale agreements ratified by power-wielding cartel members.
Police are then deployed to physically commandeer the land. At the same time, the cartels higher ranking individuals threaten, blackmail and cajole the rightful owners into deterring them from chasing justice.
As a result, many individuals and businesses find themselves too scared or unable to fund the legal battle ahead of them. This pattern of events resonates with several land grabbing attempts that have come to light in recent years, demonstrating that even the most powerful landowners are vulnerable.
For instance, four men were last month detained on suspicion of spying on President Uhuru Kenyatta’s land in Karen, Nairobi, with the intention to grab and sell it.
Land grabbing poses a massive risk for investors and businesses. Simply put, why would they consider purchasing land to build localised operations if there is a threat that they could have their land stolen overnight?
Many international conferences advocating deeper partnership and investment in Kenya and Africa as a whole have ramped up over the last few years, be it AFSIC, the African Development Bank’s African Investment Forum, or the UK Government’s new Africa Investment Conference.
Unfortunately, a key theme continues to resonate throughout these events: that in many instances, the risks are too great, the rule of law too weak. This is deterring and limiting the potential for investments that could dramatically accelerate economic development.
The extent of the challenge and potential damage from land grabs have been on the government’s radar for many years. Plans to fully digitise the national land ownership system and bring forensic capability and efficiency have stalled time and time again.
Meanwhile, Kenya’s competitors on the continent —Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda — have made impressive commitments and progress in adopting the latest digital systems that are tamper-proof and legally robust.
Such a system is perfectly feasible given that Kenya has been a leading light of administrative technology advancements for some time. The country has been forging ahead with the digitisation of financial and identification systems and is working with the African Union to roll out the digital platform for verified covid test results and vaccinations.
These initiatives have been applauded – yet shockingly, the land ownership system continues to operate as what could seem to be a ‘purposeful’ and ‘beneficial’ paper-based system. However, real hurdles do exist, stalling and slowing the digitisation process to date.
Data quality has proven to be a significant difficulty, exacerbated by damaged and missing land records, while outdated procedures and practices and a lack of interdepartmental integration haven’t helped.
But land is a critical commodity to economic growth and development. The issue needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency, given the growing confidence and increase in rampant activities of land cartels.
Indeed, a digitised land ownership system wouldn’t just relieve innocent Kenyans from exploitation by fraudulent land cartels. It would also dramatically enhance investor confidence, close loopholes, improve efficiency and accessibility, fast track titles processing and reduce land transaction costs.