The genesis of centuries-old Coast region land woes

Monday, December 9th, 2019 00:00 | By
Squatters from Mwendo wa Panya village in Kilifi vacate a 16-acre piece of land they were living on after recent evictions. Photo/PD/BONFACE MSANGI 

Coast region is arguably the bedrock of historical injustices related to the country’s land ownership.

According to the 2013 Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) report, land-related injustices in Coast took the forms of illegal alienation of public and trust land and preferential treatment of specific ethnic groups in settlement schemes at the expense of the landless.

The report found that Mijikenda, Taita and Pokomo communities in the Coast have suffered the worst land-related injustices since independence.

Land problems in the region have been linked to post-independence leaders who exacerbated landlessness and disenfranchised the local community by implementing programmes that encouraged land grabbing by influential people, who took away large swathes of prime beach and farming land.

Prof Abdalla Bujra, a respected scholar from the Coast region, once described the endemic landlessness as “internal colonialism”. 

Bujra, who is the executive director of Development Policy Management Forum (DPMF) said in one of his articles on marginalisation of Coast people that most people are either landless or are on their ancestral land, but have no documents.

It is estimated that more than 60 per cent of indigenous coastal people do not possess title deeds to their land. The region is considered amongst Kenya’s poorest.

Resolve issues

Muslims for Human Rights (Muhuri) chair Khelef Khalifa says politicians have been using land issues as a dangling carrot for votes during election campaigns with each regime claiming to have the matrix to resolve the thorny issues. 

According to a World Bank report, Coast region is the least developed region of the country with more than 62 per cent residents living below the poverty line. 

TJRC’s report found that “there is a very close linkage between land injustices and ethnic violence in Kenya” and that “although land-related injustices have affected every part of Kenya, communities at the Coast, especially the Mijikenda, the Taita and the Pokomo, have suffered the most and the longest”.

The Commission further found that “failure of both colonial and post-independence governments to address the problem of landlessness is the reason individuals and communities often resort to self-help measures, including violence”.

However, President Uhuru Kenyatta will go down in history as one of the leaders who made efforts to address the land problem in the Coast region.

Apart from issuing over 100,000 tittle deeds to squatters, his administration has resolved some of the outstanding land ownership tussles such as the Waitiki land invasion and the reversal of the awarding of some 500,000 hectares of public land to 22 individuals in Lamu in 2014.

Establish origin

However, stakeholders say to address the land ownership problem in Coast region, the government must establish origin of the problem.

“Giving out title deeds is not the solution to the land problem in Coast. The problem is bigger than this. We must go back to the genesis of the problem and begin there,” said Khelef.

So what is the genesis of land ownership and squatters problem at the Coast?

Ujamaa Centre executive director Eunice Adhiambo says the land problem in Kenya could be traced to disposition by Portuguese, Arabs, Europeans and neo-colonialists.

“The land problem in Coast dates back to the Portuguese who became the first Europeans to explore the region. 

They introduced their own land tenure system that ignored the natives who practised the communal ownership system.

In this system no individual owned land, it was owned by the community and there were no tittle deeds,” she said.

One of the earliest documents that are usually referred to in order to tell who were the original inhabitants and legitimate owners of land at the coast could have been is “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.”

The texts, written around 100 AD by an anonymous Greek writer, describes the original inhabitants of the East African coast as “Black men of great stature…ruled by chiefs…”

The text suggests that prior to arrival of Arabs and Europeans, the land in Coast was owned by indigenous African communities that practised a unique form of land tenure where land was communally held and used. No single person could claim to own a certain piece of land.

Khalifa says the current land tenure system where an individual person is given a tittle deed as “the owner of the land” was a foreign concept.  This system was introduced in 1500 with the arrival and settlement of the Portuguese.

Sign treaties

The Portuguese ruled the coast with an iron fist and this forced the coastal communities to seek the help of the Oman Arabs in Muscat in 1729, who in turn, brutally ended their reign at Fort Jesus.

After the victory, the Arab sultan Said Seyyid transferred his headquarters from Muscat to Zanzibar in 1856. 

It was after this that the Coast inhabitants lost their claim on the land. The Sultan was able to convince the European powers that he was the master of all the inhabitants of the East African coast and, therefore, he bargained and signed treaties with them.

In one of he treaties, British and Germans set aside a 10-mile coastal strip to be under rule of the Sultan of Zanzibar as they took over the hinterland as colonies.

This gave the Sultan power to grant freehold titles on large tracts of land to the Arabs in total disregard of the African land tenure system and the interests of the original coastal inhabitants.

At Independence the Arab land owners sought to have the 10-mile coastal strip secede because they thought their land interests would not be protected.

This was, however, rejected and an agreement to respect the freehold tittles that had been registered before independence was signed on October 5, 1963 between Jomo Kenyatta (the then Prime Minister of Kenya) and the Sultan of Zanzibar. 

However, many of the Arabs returned to Oman a few years after Kenya’s independence without renouncing the lease titles. This is how the tittle “absentee landlords” came about in Coast.

The woes for the Coastal communities worsened when the Kenyatta government declared all land without titles be trust land. This means that the local communities had lost all their land to the government.

The trust land was later to be dished out to politically correct and influential individuals in total disregard of the original owners. So many of “the after-independence-generation” have found themselves landless or living as squatters.

Implement report

Adhiambo says to address land problems in Coast, the country must first address the legality versus legitimacy question, which has remained unanswered.

“When Kenya got its independence, it started on a wrong footing. What the Kenyatta government should have done was to restore the land rights to the local communities.

They had been dispossessed and, therefore, continuing with the foreign land ownership system further dispossessed the natives,” she said.

Prof Hassan Mwakimako of Pwani University, Khalifa and Adhiambo believe that to resolve the historical land problem in Coast region, the government must implement the TJRC report in full.

More on News