How rogue land dealers duped Athi River homeowners

Tuesday, October 17th, 2023 06:05 | By
An NYS low-loader brings down a house at the ongoing Athi-river demolitions which entered Day 5, yesterday.
An NYS low-loader brings down a house at the ongoing Athi-river demolitions which entered Day 5, yesterday. PHOTO/Christine Musa

As Athi River demolitions on land owned by East Africa Portland Cement Company (EAPCC) entered its fifth day yesterday amid anguish by the affected home owners who have suffered losses running into billions of shillings, it has emerged that some developers were conned by rogue land-selling companies.

Even as home owners narrated painful tales of how they acquired the disputed land, which the court last week ruled belongs to the cement manufacturer, documents dating as far back as 2014 indicate that buyers had been warned against sinking their money into the ill-fated investments.

Some of the buyers who fell prey to the well-orchestrated land fraud paid relatively lower prices for the land compared to the current market price for the prime piece of land situated on the Nairobi-Mombasa highway in what is Athi-River South.

 The market price of the land currently stands at about Sh2 million for a 50 by 100 plot but most buyers bought the same parcels for as low as Sh400,000 ten years ago. And whereas on paper the land has appreciated five-fold over the last nine years, many of the buyers do not have ownership documents.

A letter from the Ministry of Lands, dated October 23, 2014, indicates that a search at the Lands department had found that the land legally belonged to EAPCC.

Initially, the land was sold under a community umbrella group known as Aimi Ma Lukenya Society, which was registred by squatters before its leadership and ownership changed hands several times over the years.

Some victims told People Daily that they had secured bank loans using documents given to them by the society but which a court last week termed as fake. The homeowners said they used the loans to develop the plots they acquired and do not understand how they could have been given loans if the documents were not genuine. They cried foul arguing that whereas the court ruled on the ownership of the land, it did not give any order on demolitions. According to them, the destruction of their homes was carried out even before they could be given notice to vacate.

Three years ago, in a paid-up newspaper advert published in July of that year, EAPCC listed several parcels of land in Mavoko sub-county, which it warned the public against buying, stating that it had absolute ownership of the property. Despite the warning, many unsuspecting buyers went ahead to acquire the plots.

Zachariah Marua was one of the purchasers. While trying to salvage a few materials from his demolished rental houses, the 53-year-old narrated how he acquired the land from a property selling company after which he went on to invest Sh6 million.  “My retirement investment has gone down the drain,” said a distraught Marua. “I bought the land from a company I consider reputable and that is why I took an investment loan to develop the piece of land. I just wish the government gave us a notice to vacate.”  Other homeowners said they had paid the relevant County Government agencies and the National Construction Authority (NCA) fees for building approvals, which they got.

“Saying I am devastated and confused is an understatement,” lamented Esther Macharia who lost investments in rental houses that she estimated at Sh4 million.

“I had no reason to doubt the land ownership because I used the documents to secure a loan from my sacco,” she said. Saccos can give loans on the basis of guarantors and not necessarily against title deeds.

Power connection

Macharia is just one of over 5,000 homeowners, all of whose properties were connected to three-phase electricity, courtesy of Kenya Power, a government agency.

“We followed due process to apply for electricity and Kenya Power connected us to the grid,” another affected homeowner, Ali Ibrahim, lamented after his house, estimated at Sh4 million, was brought down. “How would one doubt the ownership of the land when a government institution is facilitating its upgrading?”

Not only homes have been flattened. The once vibrant shopping centre nearby, simply known as “County” and which routinely reported booming business from the large population, has also been reduced to rubble. In its heyday, it boasted of a high number of entertainment spots, mushrooming private health centres and clinics, a clear indication of booming business, thanks to the high population density of the area. All that is now no more.

School children suffering

Also gone are the churches and private schools that thrived in the area. Helpless parents with candidates set to sit Grade Six national examinations are among those hardest hit as they do not know where their children will sit their exams now that their examination centres have been demolished.

What was once an upmarket neighbourhood has now become a crime scene. Each day, for the last five days, police officers overseeing the demolitions have been engaged in running battles with criminals stealing scrap metals and salvaged items from the rubble. Like scavengers seeking carrion, the criminals are hell-bent on dismembering the little that is left of the dying neighbourhood.

The history of the ill-fated settlement dates back to 2010 when squatters began settling on the piece of land just after Portland stopped mining activities there. Over the last two decades, what began as an informal settlement was transformed into a lucrative land selling spree that attracted land speculators and potential homeowners who parted with millions of shillings for a piece of the land they hoped to call home.

Despite a plea by local residents and Ukambani leaders, including Machakos Governor Wavinya Ndeti and former Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka for the government to stop the demolitions, the destruction of homes, some of them palatial, has been ongoing unabated with homes on 4,268 acres of land earmarked for demolition.

Locals leaders insist that the land belongs to the local community and accuse the government of perpetuating the oppression of the Kamba community. They argue that the land ought to have reverted to the community after the cement maker finished its mining activities.

Only former Governor Alfred Mutua, now the Cabinet Secretary for Tourism, appears to have read from a different script. In a letter dated November 13, 2015 and copied to then Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i, Mutuar called for urgent investigations into the sale of the land.

“The land leased to the East African Portland Cement Company Limited, has started being grabbed, sub-divided and sold, without the knowledge of the East African Portland Cement Company Limited Board and my Government of Machakos,” his letter the anti-corruption czar, Halakhe Waqo, said in part.

He recommended, among others, that an MP (name withheld) from the area be investigated alongside rogue Ministry of Lands officers in Nairobi, who are believed to have abetted the fraud, several elected leaders from the county and the brokers involved in the suspect transactions.

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