Standing near a pillar of what until a day before was the gate to his compound, Mr Kamau Kiriti stares blankly into the horizon as the bulldozer methodically tears into the four-bedroom house that has housed him, his wife, and child for the past two years, anguish written all over his face.
As the first wall comes tumbling down, Mr Kiriti answers a call on the cellphone he is holding in his right hand.
But he does not seem able to concentrate on the call, which ends in less than a minute.
In just about five minutes, the once posh house, which he built gradually from 2005, is reduced to rubble.
The Sh5 million he spent buying the land and constructing the house, including a Sh1 million loan, has all been literally laid to waste before his very eyes.
“Wamenirudisha hadi zero lakini yote ni ya Mungu. Bado niko young, bado nitatafuta. Najua Mungu atanisikia. (They have reduced me to zero but I leave everything to God. I am still young; I can rise again. I know God will remember me),” Mr Kiriti, 32, says softly as he slowly backs away to let the bulldozer pass on its way to another house a few metres away.
He then joins the more than a dozen young men assisting him to salvage what has remained of his house, his untucked shirt covered in sweat, his grey trousers dusty, and his face contorted in pain.
“I got to know about it yesterday (Saturday) when they started demolishing houses around here. I started removing the doors and windows at night but they caught up with me before I could finish,” Mr Kiriti, a businessman, says as he picks up metal bars from the rubble.
“I have a title deed to this land. I got it from Mavoko Municipal Council,” he says of the 80 by 80 plot located in a place nicknamed Migingo in Syokimau.
The bulldozer that has just demolished his house is one of a number that has left tears and heartache in their destructive wake as they pull down houses said to have been built on land belonging to the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA).
Where palatial homes kissed the sky up to last Saturday is now a ruin patrolled by tens of armed police officers.
On Sunday, cars and lorries were parked by the roadside. Many families whose houses had not yet been demolished were frantically removing doors, windows, ceramic tiles, iron sheets, furniture — basically anything removable — and packing them away, praying that by the time the bulldozers arrived, they would have removed everything that they could.
The Karagachas were one among the many such families. Mr Karagacha, 39, his wife Susan, and about 20 young men and women were frantically removing what they could.
He had managed to convince the four police officers standing menacingly nearby to give him more time to salvage whatever he could.
In just a few minutes, his five-bedroom maisonette that took him four years to build would be reduced to rubble.
The Sh10 million he invested in this dream home, which the family moved into only last September, would soon be no more.
“Serikali yenu ndiyo inafanya kazi hii (your government is the one responsible for this), no notice... we would have vacated peacefully,” he finally opens up, and one cannot help but notice the rage seething in him.
“This government does not seem to want the common mwananchi to survive. You see, by building this house, we had hoped to cut our expenses. Some of us have mortgaged our salaries to realise this dream...” His wife chips in: “It is as though we don’t have a government.”
“We started living in the house just the other day. No one told us there was a problem,” Mr Karagacha says.
A new murram road lies two kilometres away. Mr Karagacha, a businessman and a father of four, says the road was constructed by the Mavoko Municipal Council.
Like Mr Kiriti, Mr Karagacha says he has a title deed issued to him by the council and documents to show that he is the rightful owner of the land he bought for over Sh2 million.
So how is it that land acquired and developed over a number of years with the full approval of the council is suddenly repossessed and millions of shillings worth of investments laid to waste.
Who is to blame? Is there more than meets the eye in this whole sad tale?
While the affected residents cannot escape blame, the government and its various agencies also take a portion of it.
KAA had issued notices in the media asking residents of the area, and other regions including one near Wilson Airport, to cease further developments and vacate the land.
It said this was out of concern for the safety of the airport and aircraft as well as those who had settled on the land.
According to KAA’s head of corporate affairs, Mr Dominic Ngigi, as reported in our sister publication, the Business Daily, the demolitions were not being carried out by KAA, but were a “Cabinet decision enforced by the provincial administration and the Kenya police.”
The demolitions are said to have been sanctioned by the Cabinet, claiming that the settlers had encroached on the land, threatening the safety of aeroplanes at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
According to the Mavoko Municipal Council and the residents, the acquisition of the land and subsequent development was above board. The mayor, Mr Patrick Makau, said the council had issued the necessary documents and that, in its view, the acquisitions and developments were legal.
“I feel cheated because I followed the procedure required to obtain land here. I wonder why the Kenya Airports Authority waited this long to act. I have the papers,” Mr John Ogutu was quoted by the Sunday Nation as saying.
Mr Karagacha echoed his sentiments. “Where have they been when we were constructing these houses? And how do you explain the fact that we have power connection from Kenya Power? Aren’t these government agencies?”
The council has a map showing that the land in question was not part of the KAA land. The controversy deepened with allegations that another map showing that the land belongs to the authority surfaced on Thursday last week.
So, is it a case of a dysfunctional government that does not know what another part of it is doing, or are there people who benefited or want to benefit from this?
Mr Ibrahim Mwathane, a director at the Land Development and Governance Institute, says the Syokimau (and others like Kyang’ombe) evictions are an indictment of the country’s land administration system.
“What we are seeing in Syokimau and Kyang’ombe is the result of flaws in our land administration system where title deeds are regarded as mere pieces of paper and record keeping is inefficient. It is something that can easily cause anarchy if not dealt with,” said Mr Mwathane.
He adds: “People (investors) normally depend on the State for guidance. They get all necessary documents from government agencies. Where were State agencies like the Ministry of Local Government and Ministry of Lands from the word go? This case has been going on for long — where has the Ministry of Lands been? This is like punishing people for making investments.”
These questions keep popping up, especially since the government stepped up demolitions of illegal structures to give way for by-passes and expansion of major highways like Thika and Mombasa roads.
Unsuspecting genuine investors obtain titles with the support of officers in the respective local authorities and the Lands ministry.
They then proceed to develop their properties as policing agencies watch.
To make matters worse, these institutions even receive the statutory payments required to give the approvals and thereafter continue to receive annual rates and premiums.
Then something comes up and an audit is carried out. The approved developments are condemned as having been irregularly allocated or incorrectly located and are consequently brought down.
At the end of it, what penalties are visited on the concerned officers who validate the land allocation and approvals to developments in such cases?
“How can we continue to encourage a situation where these initial breaches of responsibility, regulations, and the approval process go unpunished? What more would you expect of an investor who followed procedure, attained the necessary documentation before proceeding to acquire and develop a piece of land?” asks Mr Mwathane.
“It should not be allowed. The government needs to come up with immediate policies to punish this impunity by holding authorising officers to account at a personal level.”
Kathiani MP Wavinya Ndeti, in whose constituency Syokimau falls, agrees. When she visited the area on Sunday, she described the demolitions as impunity of the highest order, saying “whoever is doing this should be accountable in the future”.
Lands permanent secretary Dorothy Angote laid the blame squarely on the residents for falling prey to land cartels and for failing to verify the documents they had before beginning their developments.
She was quoted in the Daily Nation on Tuesday saying: “If you have Sh30 million, why should you deal with a cartel?”
“The silence is ominous. There have been no explanations from the Kenya Airports Authority or the Lands Ministry. If the authority is the legitimate owner, that needs to be clarified without ambiguity. Why hasn’t the Commissioner of Lands issued an official statement to clarify who the rightful owner of this land is?” asked Mr Mwathane, adding: “There is a serious element of lack of accountability in this matter. The State must learn to be accountable to its citizens.”
But Commissioner of Lands Zablon Mabea said on Monday evening that the issue was between the KAA “and those who invaded the land and sub-divided it”.
“As far as we are concerned, we gave the land to KAA. We don’t know those characters,” he said, then accused the media of “making the issue look serious”.
Mr Mabea said he could not say when the land was allocated to KAA “because I don’t have the file now”.
As to why the Ministry of Lands had not issued an official clarification on the Syokimau demolitions, he said: “There are so many land cases going on around the country, we can’t be always coming out to issue clarifications. The problem with Kenyans is that they make mistakes and expect someone to clarify.”
The Lands officials have a point. It would have been to their own benefit if the land buyers had heeded the many notices issued by KAA and sought compensation from Mavoko Municipal Council and those who had misled them.
So, what next for the Syokimau residents? It is a long journey from a dream home to no home as they seek shelter elsewhere.
But most of them have vowed not to give up until they are compensated for their losses.
This latest conflict may be a another call for the long-awaited Land reforms to be urgently implemented to forestall a negative effect real estate investment.