Environment Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko is seeking to reclaim part of Ngong Forest from private hands. The controversy rekindles debates about past allocations of public land by government officials.
Mr Tobiko confirmed that Francis Lotodo, a former Cabinet minister, irregularly degazetted part of the forest, leading to its being corruptly allocated to individuals who then sold it to others. These facts are contested by those whose houses are the subject of the controversy on the basis that they are genuine buyers who have genuine title deeds.
Several issues arise from the events around the Forest. First is the role of government in environmental conservation. Public forests are vested in the national government as trustees on behalf of citizens.
As a trustee, the government should ensure that it deals with the property in such a manner that it serves the interests of beneficiaries. Forests serve important functions, including being water towers.
It is incumbent on the government to ensure that there is no encroachment.
The action by the government to reclaim these forests and all other public resources is thus laudable as it seeks to guarantee their integrity. It is also a demonstration of the respect for the international commitment to sustainability in addition to discharge of constitutional obligations.
However, as one lauds it, it is also important to ask questions about consistency of government action and responsibility for past misdeeds.
While there is focus on restoring Ngong Forest, the same government is supporting excision of parts of Nairobi National Park and Arberdare Forests ostensibly for development.
The need for conservation is necessary for all forests resources and not just Ngong Forest. To pick and choose where to act decisively does not demonstrate true fidelity to the Constitution and commitment to environmental integrity and sustainability.
The government must have an objective and consistent strategy on forest conservation, one that gives priority to the preservation of forests and protecting them from encroachment. This consistency would ensure that when there are threats from other development activities like the construction of the expressway or Standard Gauge Railway, the voice of government agencies responsible for environment and forest conservation are not muted.
Second, the use of the words “irregular allocation” during the debate before the Senate leads one to the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Illegal/Irregular Allocation of Public Land of 2005. Lawyer Paul + chaired the commission.
The report documented the wanton grabbing of public land and land-based resources across the country and the role of public agencies in that process.
The Ngong Forest controversies is reminiscent of the actions captured in that report.
No decisive and consistent action has been taken to reclaim the grabbed public lands documented in the Ndungu report.
It is commendable that Mr Tobiko is speaking about recovering such land. However, this action requires to be comprehensive and structured so that it is sustainable. A starting point would be to dust up the Ndung’u Land Commission report and develop an implementation framework for it.
Time has come for government officials who use their positions to make decisions that harm public interest to take responsibility.
When private individuals get clearance from the government that their purchases are legal, there should be mechanisms to hold the government and its agents responsible when it later turns out that their initial assertion of legality was inaccurate.
In Parliament, while lawmakers conduct inquiries into matters, in some instances rules about conflict of interest are disregarded. It is important that this be addressed to avoid oversight losing its relevance in the governance framework.