Early this month, Lands minister James Orengo told anti-graft agency boss Prof Patrick Lumumba to stop engaging in theatrics and focus on his job.
He said the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission (Kacc) should concentrate more on prosecuting economic crimes than making noise about it.
“I take great exception to the director of the commission who, instead of doing his job, is out there demonstrating.
“If he wants lessons in demonstrating, then I can organise counter demonstrations,” Me Orengo said.
In a swift rejoinder, Prof Lumumba summoned his linguistic prowess to respond scathingly to the minister.
“I fail to understand how your involvement in the struggle for multi-party politics is related to the performance of the Ministry of Lands and the protest by the legal fraternity.
Please do not pooh pooh the message against corruption and poor service delivery at the ministry because you dislike the messenger; nor should you forget the antelope of corruption in the pursuit of the squirrel of personalised attacks,” wrote Prof Lumumba.
The legal fraternity led by Law Society of Kenya chairman Ken Akide and Prof Lumumba had organised a demonstration in Nairobi, accusing Mr Orengo minister of being soft on corrupt officials in his ministry.
Mr Orengo defended himself vigorously, challenging the Kacc boss to investigate and prosecute any official found culpable.
The public spat between the two masters of the English language, ugly though it was, best captured the unlikely situation Mr Orengo finds himself in. A revered father of the second liberation who joined the government for the first time in 2008, his performance in the Ministry of Lands has been seen by some as lacklustre.
Coming from a revolutionary background dating back to the mid 1970s where he teamed up with a group of young Turks referred to by then Attorney General Charles Njonjo as “the seven bearded sisters” Mr Orengo has fought for reforms for more than two decades.
The other “sisters” were Abuya Abuya, Chelagat Mutai, Koigi Wa Wamwere, Lawrence Sifuna, Mashengu wa Mwachofi, and Chibule wa Tsuma.
The “sisters” rubbed Mr Njonjo the wrong way by demanding accountability and parliamentary oversight.
Many, however, now see Mr Orengo as a pale shadow of the firebrand politician he was those days.
But in an interview with the Saturday Nation on Thursday, Mr Orengo denied he was sleeping on his job.
“When dealing with land issues you have to be cautious because you are dealing with some people, some of who have rights,” he said.
He was, however, quick to point out that he had repossessed more than 1,200 properties across the country.
“We have repossessed land belonging to the judiciary, police, ministry of Health and other public property in Nairobi, Kisumu, Mombasa, Eldoret Kisii, Meru Eldoret, Kakamega, Kwale and Malindi,” he said.
He said since he became minister, he had increased revenue collection from Sh800 million to Sh8.3 billion. “If I were given Sh9 billion for three years, I would generate Sh20 billion for the government,” he said, adding he did all that without assistance from the Kacc or Attorney General.
He said the demonstration was staged by people who had lost land. “Indeed, my life is in danger and I have reported the matter to the relevant authorities. The repossessions have been massive, including 2,000 acres in Nairobi,” he said.
He said the government was spending a fortune to build roads because it was paying off people who acquired public land fraudulently.
Mr Orengo lamented that his ministry was the least funded, getting about Sh3 billion a year despite its size.
“Even the ministries of Regional Development, Youth and Sports, Foreign Affairs and East African Community get more,” he said.
He said despite the hullabaloo, he had succeeded in ending land grabbing. He also counted the integration of the national land policy in the new constitution as one of his success stories.
He said computerisation was the most urgent agenda and the Parliamentary Committee on Land had recommended that his ministry be allocated Sh1 billion for this.
One of his promises on assuming office was “to clear the rot in the ministry that has been a lair of corruption and inaction.” It now remains to be seen whether this promise will be fulfilled or the accusations against his stewardship of the sensitive portfolio will be a blot on an otherwise illustrious, if chequered, political career.
Demands for bribes
Among the criticisms levelled against the ministry are rampant demands for bribes to find “lost” files and the long time it takes to do valuation reports.
The Institute of Surveyors of Kenya has also accused the ministry of lack of goodwill in drafting the National Land Commission Bill, saying stakeholders were ignored.
“We have also observed long queues the public and our members endure to enter Ardhi House. Documents are misplaced and one is only informed several months later,” the institute’s chairman, Mr Collins Kowour said.
Mr Orengo has, however, denied the allegations, saying he had opened a banking hall in the office to fast-track payments. He also denied that he had ignored a Kacc request to repossess a disputed mall in New Muthaiga in Nairobi.
The court has ruled against Kacc, saying the company at the centre of the dispute, Gemini Properties, had a registered land title, had made substantial developments and had mortgaged the property to Barclays Bank.
Prof Lumumba has written to Mr Orengo four times this year asking him to revoke the title of the former public land on Thigiri Ridge.
Mr Orengo said he did not respond to the letters as he had responded to the first one. “Once he wrote to me, I asked my PS to ensure that no transaction is carried out on that property until its status is fully known,” he said.
He said the Kacc should have come to the ministry before going to court.
He said he and Prof Lumumba had together recovered 600 public land titles this year without going to court. “He lost the case in court and in January 2011, sought my intervention. Why did Kacc find it prudent to bypass the ministry?” asked the Alliance High School and University of Nairobi alumnus.
“I find it dishonest to claim I am not willing to revoke the title yet there is a court ruling,” said Orengo.
“Unless he appeals the ruling, we will respect the orders against Kacc,” the Lands minister added.
Political science lecturer Dr Adams Oloo says Mr Orengo’s predicament is not isolated but seems to be the lot of other activists-turned ministers.
“Government is not like the opposition where you fight anything and engage in theatrics. Leaders like Kivutha Kibwana, Kiraitu Murungi and now Orengo have been mellowed by government,” says Dr Oloo.
He, however, says his rebellious tendencies have surfaced in instances like President Kibaki’s unilateral appointment of constitutional office holders.
Referred to by some as ODM’s unofficial attorney general, Mr Orengo has on numerous occasions rushed to Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s defence when goings-on in government do not favour his side of the coalition.
Additional reporting by Julius Sigei