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Tick, tock… a ticking time bomb: Land fights in Coast over expired leases

Like all former settled colonies, Kenya has had her fair share of land injustices. There are thousands of people who have no fixed abode to call home and their generations have led a miserable life for almost a century. 

Land is the proverbial thorn in the flesh and has been the persistent cry all through the pre-independence and post-independence history.

Land disputes

Numerous commissions of inquiry have been formed to sort out this mess but their reports are gathering dust in some unknown shelves. Communal violence has claimed thousands fighting for their land but the quagmire deepens with each passing day. 

The problem is hieroglyphic, a maze that we cannot seem to slither through; a confusion that is seemingly congenial to some class of dishonest officials. Political will is lacking and nobody seems willing to right the wrongs.

Nowhere else is the problem more exacerbated than along the coastal belt. Here, it is raw and painful. Grievances over land are as old as Methuselah and as things stand, a new battlefront is emerging coupled with requisite militancy and ire of the locals. 

There are many ranches whose leases have either expired, about to expire, or just renewed without consulting the community from whom it was hived. Tired of begging in their ancestral land, thousands of ‘squatters’ are now laying claim to vast swathes of land.

In Taita Taveta, residents have laid claim to a 2400-hectacre gemstone-rich land ‘owned’ by Mkuki Ranch Limited, whose lease expired on December 31, 2019.

The lease was issued to Brigadier (rtd) Cromwell Mkungusi on January 1, 1975 in Mwatate and the expiry has triggered a huge fight that involves bitter locals, county personnel and senior national government officials.

Led by the Chawia Council of Elders, locals want the ranch to be subdivided to their 7,000 members, who regard Mkuki as their ancestral land while the county wants to hold it in trustee for the residents.

The elders petitioned the National Land Commission (NLC) last year not to renew the lease to the ranch, which has now incorporated local politicians. 

“One of us will conduct a search to establish the status of the land. It has been delayed by the lockdown in Nairobi,” said Ludlordvic Mcharo, chairman of the elders.

He said the ranch will revert to the county government and will be handled by a community land management committee, to be selected by residents upon supervision by the lands officer.

“We are yet to decide on what to do with the land, but it will be a decision made by members and the county government, which will temporarily hold it in our trust,” said Mr Mcharo.

Another elder, Gamalel Mwangi, urged tenants to stop paying their rent to the ranch. “The lockdown has affected the pace of the process. Once things go back to normal, we will resume our efforts to reclaim the land,” he said.

Community land

Last year, the county assembly said all leased land should be returned to the community.

The county lands chief officer, Reuben Ngeti, said they will follow up with the NLC to know the status of the ranch. “They should not renew the lease because it’s now community land,” he said.

In Kilifi, the Taireni Association of Mijikenda (TAM) has faulted the Settlement Scheme Act as biased. The association said it will be moving to court to challenge “the grabbing of all ranches” in Coast.

TAM chairperson Peter Ponda said the declaration of ranches as ‘settlement schemes’ was a plan by the government to settle non-locals. 

“This is one way of robbing locals of their land. Why should county governments establish ranches where people have already settled? All the purported directors of these ranches have taken huge loans, which are non-performing. In future, the government will repossess the land,” he said.   

Mr Ponda said the compensation of land grabbers has encouraged more people to invade community land.

“The Act is unfair as a majority of locals are usually displaced in favour of ‘foreigners’ since it states that 40 per cent of occupants must be non-locals. People who have lived on their land for half-a-century are pushed away,” said Mr Ponda.  

He blamed the government for supporting tycoons at the expense of the ‘legitimate owners of the land’.

“The government is giving us title deeds with the right hand but snatching them from us using the left. We have been made squatters by the colonialists, Arabs and now by our own government,” said Mr Ponda. 

“Our politicians have also become land brokers. Every land being sold in Coast has a politician’s hand in it. The Constitution gives county governments powers on land; they have a responsibility to protect the community but they are doing nothing.” 


He said thousands of locals are at risk of eviction in Vipingo, for instance, after the title deed for the parcel was recently issued to a businessman. 

“Title deeds for parcels of land where locals have lived for decades are now being processed without their knowledge. They are the legitimate owners who should possess those titles,” said Mr Ponda, citing Nyari Sisal Estate in Taru where locals are staring at evictions.

At Kambanga ranch on the border of Taita and Kwale counties, locals are also on verge of losing their land. 

Mr Ponda also alleged that politicians were behind the mess at Giriama, ADC Galana-Kulalu, Mabeja and Witu ranches, a view shared by Kilifi North MP Owen Baya.

“We have always been complaining about people from upcountry grabbing our land, but now locals, in collusion with land registrars, are responsible for the mess,” said Mr Baya. 

The MP said the Mombasa lands office had colluded with a section of local politicians to grab chunks of prime land in Kilifi, adding that about 14 title deeds “are about to be issued to individuals”.  

“In some instances, a title deed can have about 12 names, who are all linked to politicians. They can take their titles and keep them, but they will not get an inch of land in Kilifi,” he vowed. 

He urged Cabinet Secretary Farida Karoney to rein in cartels in the ministry that are colluding with politicians to frustrate local communities. 

In 2018, Mr Baya and Ganze MP Teddy Mwambire blocked the auctioning of the 66, 000-acre Giriama ranch. Purported directors of the ranch had failed to service a Sh250 million loan taken against the land.

The Nation also established that a Sh113 million was taken against Chakama Ranch by different companies.