Land commissions are fairly recent inventions in Africa. They are consequential to innovative attempts to improve land governance systems around the continent, whose majority states are yet to optimise on the exploitation of land and natural resources.
The commissions are established under contexts and with mandates that are jurisdiction-specific. The history, the state of land administration, the politics and priority development issues of the day inform their scope. As with ours, their performance in various countries has been rather chequered.
What were the fundamental issues that influenced the establishment of Kenya’s land commission? Irregular allocation of public land, and the need to repossess the land that had been so allocated, was primary. Historical land injustices formed the other cross-cutting issue.
The other major concern was that the Land ministry was mired in serious service delivery irregularities. Consequently, out of frustrations, most stakeholders wished that this new “magic organ” could somewhat assume office and upstage the ministry.
Obviously, this was a little far-fetched, given the very nature of government, its command and resource allocation structures. As fate would have it, the promulgated constitution and the subsequently enacted laws ended up giving us today’s land commission. On assumption of office, our first land commission started on an unfortunate note. Supremacy battles with the line ministry, and subsequent contests over mandate, became routine.
Subsequently, technical processes in the ministry got undermined and service seekers were caught up in process uncertainties and delays for a long time. Some of this still persists. The ministry stood its ground though.
Ultimately, the differences over mandate were raised for determination by the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, reports of irregularities by the new commission began to hit public space.
Indeed, towards the end of the tenure of the first group of commissioners, the chair and some of the officers were charged in court.
At the close of its tenure, public confidence in the first commission was at an unfortunate low. Citizens and stakeholders had got totally disillusioned about it.
The new team of commissioners and their chair enter office against this background. The history and issues relating to the appointment process notwithstanding, the team must strive to spruce the commission’s public image. This is quite possible.
First, it must quickly learn how to work around the existing state structure, and in particular, the Land ministry.
It must also refrain from getting fixated with processing titles, and instead focus on the wider and important matter of protecting public land by establishing a credible national inventory.
This remains a primary responsibility. Public land under the national and county governments, state agencies and schools remains vulnerable as attested by the numerous land grab stories around us. The identification, mapping and registration of this land should be given priority.
The writer is Chairman, Land Development and Governance Institute.