The History of Riparian Land in Nairobi: How far are we Going Back in Time?

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The issue of land in Kenya has always been an emotive and delicate matter to deal with. In some parts of this country, loudly talking about land is a threat to life. In such places, people only talk about land in hushed tones.

The land has caused the loss of lives in some parts of this country. The ongoing operation to flush people out of the iconic Mau Forest, despite the fact that it is aimed at conserving the largest water tower in the country, it all boils down to one thing; land.

Although many people believe that we should not talk about land in Kenya because it is a subject that will never end, am of a different opinion. We should talk about this issue. We should purpose to address the problem.

The problem why issues concerning land cannot be resolved in this country is because we are always fighting the symptoms and not the causes. We are always reacting to the symptoms when it comes to treating the ‘disease’, become blank because we are aloof of the root cause.

When the government kicked off the exercise of demolishing buildings in Nairobi saying that they had been constructed on riparian land, people started cheering on. Many people believe that the government is doing the right thing. I want to believe so too but I have some reservations. It is good to reclaim public property but doing so without first going back to where it all begun like running around with your eyes closed.

The ‘riparian’ land in Nairobi did not just fall from heaven the other day. It is land that has been there since time immemorial. It was there during Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s time, it was there during Mzee Moi’s time, it was still there during Mzee Kibaki’s time, It was also their during President Uhuru Kenyatta’s first term in office. It appears, we just came to learn of it the other day. That is not my point of discussion though. My point is, where did it all kick off?

Let me take you on a journey back in time. The riparian land issue started way back in the 1960s. Let us say, 1960 but became embedded in someone people’s ‘DNA’ after 1963. When Kenya got the independence, the truth is political bigwigs, those who thought had ‘fought’ for independence and deserved ‘rewarding themselves for ‘work well-done’ allocated parcels of land across the country to themselves. Nairobi was not spared.

Since they were people of ‘power’, they got all the ‘necessary papers making the land ‘legally’ theirs. They then moved to the banks and took loans using the documents and refused to pay back the loans. Most banks had to sale the plots, most of them on ‘riparian’ land.

Some of these plots have been bought and sold many times and 99 percent of those owning them did not buy from the banks but from people who had bought them from other people who had also bought them from others.

Most of Nairobi Central Business District has rivers flowing underneath the buildings as all that was riparian land. However, it has been built and is functioning and engineering solutions have been found for them by our qualified Engineers in Kenya.

Going through the records of buildings that have been demolished and those earmarked for demolition shows all clean titles, meaning the Ministry of Land had okayed them. They also show all permissions like NEMA, City Council, ministries, health that were duly sought and issued.

There are many things that the people leading the demolitions in Nairobi are not telling us. I would like to ask them a few questions:

  1. How on earth do you call a property that has all the right title deeds, all the authorization documents from relevant authorities illegal? How does the same government that authorized and legalized them make them illegal?
  2. What happens to genuine property owners who constructed their houses before NEMA and before devolution? Is it in order to illegalize all that was legal before NEMA and the Water Laws were brought into the picture?
  3. There are buildings that have canals in Nairobi. They have been earmarked for demolition. Has the team leading the demolitions met with the owners and found out whether they have broken any law? As any due process of law been affected?
  4. After demolitions, what next? Are we demolishing so that the same pieces can be grabbed and resold to other ‘unsuspecting’ Kenyans? Where is the plan that shows, what will be done after the demolitions? Has anyone seen the plan?

The Uhuru Highway had road reserves that were “legalized” and sold and huge buildings are already existing there including hotels – are we going to demolish these too?

The issue of land injustices

If indeed the government is serious about reclaiming all land that belongs to it, then the issue of land injustices should not be left behind.

Year in, year out, the subject on land injustice has often been an issue, with politicians using it as a milestone to bolster their political careers.

This has been an issue in the coastal region, parts of the western region and in the greater rift valley. The fact is, there is encroachment in the riparian zones, forests have been taken over leading to deforestation, just but to name two that we have been talking about for years.

Is the government going to travel back in time and address all these?

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