EDITORIAL: Directive on idle land a step in right direction

National Land Commission chairman Muhammad Swazuri. FILE PHOTO | ANTHONY OMUYA | NMG
National Land Commission chairman Muhammad Swazuri. FILE PHOTO | ANTHONY OMUYA | NMG   

The announcement that the government is, once again, taking aim at large tracts of idle land held by individuals and companies is a step in the right direction.

The Land (Extension and Renewal of Leases) Rules 2017, published last week, say no individual or firm is guaranteed automatic renewal of leases unless they are able to use parcels held in a manner that is beneficial to the economy. While the rules generally apply to all land irrespective of size, it is the politically sensitive large tracts that should be of great interest.

A few influential individuals and politically connected corporations have traditionally exploited the legal void to keep land that they practically don’t need.

Under the new rules, the government(s) must review ownership by scrutinising names of company directors and their citizenship status, record of paying rates and rents, and any existing charges before granting extension.

This hints to an intention to put an end to the common habit of hiding behind phantom companies to acquire large tracts of land that are then only held for speculative purposes.

It is also instructive to note that the rules place the responsibility on the shoulder of the government to notify landowners about expiry of their leases - five years before the tenancy period ends. That effectively removes the element of surprise that previously fuelled corruption in the transactions.

For a country that has grappled with corruption in land offices for decades, the newly published rules offer a crucial starting point.

We can only urge the counties and national government to move with speed to ensure that the important natural resource is redistributed and put in the hands of those who need it to generate wealth for the economy.

In the meantime, however, Kenya needs to undertake serious spatial planning to avoid arbitrariness of official action. First, there must be a clear land use policy that dictates to what use land can be put in all the counties.

That way, applicants can determine whether the economic activity they have in mind is tenable in a particularly area. Second, there needs to be a uniform definition of what constitutes public interest, public safety, public order, and public morality which the ministry intends to use as basis for extending leases.