As reported in Wednesday’s Business Daily, the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) has taken over land claimed by struggling Uchumi Supermarkets #ticker:UCHM, ignoring the long history that ended with Uchumi being allowed to sell it by a court of law.
Indeed, the listed retailer had just found a buyer for the property, who was willing to pay Sh2.8 billion, before the KDF set up base there to claim ownership by use of force. The payment would have been crucial in the recovery of the company in which the Treasury owns shares by virtue of pumping in billions of shillings to prop up the retailer.
Now, KDF has taken over and started developing the property, ignoring the fact that another government agency is also an interested party.
First, it is important for the Lands Ministry and the National Land Commission to clarify who rightfully owns the prime land. However, it would have been best if the government had nipped the military invasion in the bud.
It is not right for the military to display its force in the face of what looks like a civil dispute as this implies that might makes right. Rather, any claim to the land should have been followed up through the right dispute resolution channels afforded to all.
First, KDF bosses should be aware that there is a major public stake in the revival of Uchumi beyond its shareholding. If investors in a listed company as well as a multitude of suppliers can lose billions of shillings just like that, what will happen to smaller investors or even foreigners?
The implications here are too dire especially where there is action that suggests the law is being circumvented.
Second, KDF is under the Ministry of Defence, which should resolve the matter with the Treasury, Ministry of Trade and the National Land Commission. Why then is KDF, which is a respected institution, engaging in a display of gunboat diplomacy? And if the affected public agencies cannot resolve the issue amicably, what will prevent the police for instance from invading land without resorting to legal mechanism?
Kenyans need to see government agencies moving fast to resolve the issue and restore public confidence in the rule of law. Ideally, that should happen before Uchumi meets its creditors on Monday.