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Land fraudsters wreak havoc on Kenyan families

Land secretary Jacob Kaimenyi. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG
Land secretary Jacob Kaimenyi. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG 

Many Kenyans are losing their land in fraudulent transactions despite the existence of laws to protect them. The Ministry of Land has thousands of such reported transactions.

The fraud has become so entrenched that many families are living a nightmare. The scams could be costing the economy about Sh60 billion annually, according to Cesare Mbaria, the Director of Survey.

Mr Mbaria told the Business Daily that the figure is the estimated cash that the government loses in land rates, court cases and lost investment opportunities when disputed land lies idle.

He linked the frauds to conspiracy between land surveyors, lawyers and brokers, adding that land issues are emotive and should be handled with care and integrity.

The Land ministry has 7,052 cases of property fraud. According to the ministry’s principal communications officer, Joseph Kamuto, the rot has been made worse by collusion with professionals mandated to check the fraud.

“We are aware of a cartel which has membership of government officials, land crooks as well as crooked lawyers who ‘legalise’ cases of outright fraud in land transactions,” Mr Kamuto said.

Some of the tricks applied by the crooks include manipulating illiterate land owners to surrender their title deeds and eventually ownership is transferred illegally.

Another trick involves government officials issuing succession letters to strangers leading to families losing part or whole of their heritage.

Some lawyers, during the drawing up of land agreements to facilitate sale, declare the acreage already sold leading to losses for families.

The scam has spread across the country with brokers identifying ‘‘idle land’’ — owned by the government or private developers — and colluding with crooked surveyors and Lands ministry officials to subdivide it and sell it off to unsuspecting buyers.

“This scheme is executed under the name Mradi, which is Kiswahili means project. The selling point is that the land is owned by a registered company and it is available for sale,” said Mr Mairura Omwenga, chairman of the Town Planning Association.

For instance, many cases of land fraud have been reported in Nairobi’s Eastlands. In 2004, the Commissioner of Lands directed companies operating in Eastlands to stop land allocations citing “grave irregularities” after a parcel of land intended for Ruai Police Station was allocated to a private developer.

In 2005, the chief of Ruai was directed to work with the Land ministry and stop the sale of public land. But the grabbing went a notch higher in 2006 prompting the then Nairobi Provincial Commissioner Michael Waweru to order investigations into the disappearance of public utility plots.

In 2007, the Land ministry issued an alert about “massive corruption in the allocation of land in the area.”

But this did not stem the irregular allocation and today many land shareholders have lost their property to the well-oiled scam.

“Many shareholders have been dispossessed of their lifetime savings as the land grabbing spree goes on unabated,” read PC Waweru’s letter.

“A top cop in this country owns 2.5 acres, another 74 plots, a senior Prisons officer owns three acres and other highly placed professionals in the Armed Forces own on average two acres each.

“Those in the Judiciary, Provincial Administration and politicians own on average an acre each,” said David Wanjii, an official with Embakasi Settlement Scheme and Welfare Group.

Former area MP Ferdinand Waititu, who is gunning for the Kiambu governor’s seat, said cases of land fraud are ‘‘a national disaster’’.

Said Mr Waititu: “There are groups that grab private and public land and moot a cunning way of selling them off in the name of resettling squatters.”

Interestingly, Mr Waititu’s name cropped up in the shady deals where Mr Wanjii claimed that he had grabbed a piece of land measuring four by six kilometres in Ruai.

Mr Wanjii said the legislator was subdividing the land and disposing it. But Mr Waititu denied the claim.

“I would be happy if people stopped dragging my name into this mess. I’m known to have asked in Parliament what the Government was doing to stop the land fiasco in Embakasi,” he retorted.

Mr Waititu asked the former Local Government ministry to: “Provide a list of public utility land grabbed in Embakasi, the action it intends to take on the grabbers, and whether the issued title deeds will be cancelled.” He later said: “To date, I am still waiting to be given a satisfactory answer.”

As the victims cry out, Interior principal secretary Karanja Kibicho admitted that cases of land fraud were a threat to internal security since they were likely to fuel strife and lead to murders, besides losses to individuals and the economy.

He said the ministry had directed all county commissioners to audit land transactions.

In a letter dated November 30, 2014, Mr Kibicho said “cases of innocent Kenyans losing huge sums of money to suspected land fraudsters are on the rise... This matter could occasion serious insecurity if not dealt with. In some instances, people have resorted to killing each other and this should urgently be investigated and stopped.’’

Mr Kibicho added: “Compile a list of major land dealings, especially involving major/unique land buying companies that are characterised by mysterious killings and delayed completion of transactions and settlement.”

The letter demanded that all such cases be discussed by regional security committees which should advise the National Security Advisory Committee for further action.

As the situation worsened, Lands Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi said the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) had been called in to help deal with the menace.

DCI director Ndegwa Muhoro confirmed the move, saying the anti-fraud unit would go flat out to help eradicate the menace.

Mr Muhoro said the DCI had eliminated fraud and brokers at the Department of Immigration and promised to replicate the success at the Lands ministry.

Prof Kaimenyi said collaboration between the two institutions in the fight against fraud in the lands docket would go a long way in improving service delivery.

He said the initiative, together with the ongoing audit of internal systems in the Lands ministry by the Ethics and Anti Corruption Commission, would clean up the docket.

Land principal secretary Mariamu el-Maawy said that while addressing cases of fraud in the sector is a short term measure, more infrastructural interventions were being put in place to secure the sector.

“We are implementing scanning and digitisation of land records in 14 registries across the country. A further 2.3 million land records have been scanned and preserved,” she told the Business Daily.

“The period between 2017 and 2018 will see a further 20 registries digitised and 10 new ones established, during the period 2018 to 2019 the remaining 20 registries will be digitised.”

She linked the mushrooming of fraud to the analogue era of land administration.

“Non-integration of systems in the various departments, slow adoption of technology due to lack of a comprehensive sensitisation programme, deficiency in skill levels, and obsolete facilities were the catalysts of such rot becoming endemic,” she said.

However, she said, ICT infrastructure installation had been going on and so far the ministry had established Internet connectivity in 18 out of its 56 land registries.

The ministry had bought and installed a document management system, she said.

However, she conceded that more ought be done to tame runaway land fraud. She said research on land matters should be taken seriously, adding that technology should be optimised and used in all land businesses and investments.

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