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Tracking the History of Land Curse in Kenya


The following piece by John Kamu on the Sunday Nation of 21 February 2016 gives  good insights in tracing the trajectory of land grabbing in Kenya, one of the most perennial cancers that eats into Kenya very being with an existential threat. Here follows the write up. 

Many Kenyans have never heard about the Z-Plots — yet if anyone wants to investigate the origins of land grabbing in Kenya, this is where they should start. The Z-Plot scheme, as it was known in government records, was hatched about 50 years ago and it was to benefit the elite in the Jomo Kenyatta government with some 100 acres and a colonial farm house; all for a song, or for free.

Initially, the government was supposed to settle the landless on land purchased with loans from the World Bank, Britain and other donors. But those charged with implementing the scheme settled some landless — and settled themselves too! As we now know from records, the political elite and their families became the landless — the heist masters.

Z-Plot scheme was not for the hoi polloi and all what was required of the political elite was to identify a farmhouse and the land and apply to the minister of Lands and Settlement for allocation. This explains why all the Kenyatta Cabinet ministers and most senior civil servants own – or owned – 100 acres and a farmhouse in various localities.

Whether they paid for it or not is a different story, but land meant to settle the landless ended up in the hands of well-oiled politicos. Getting such choice land required ingenuity. President Kenyatta had in 1964 secretly ordered that all colonial farm houses should be spared from allocation together with 100 acres. He got one for free in Nyandarua. With Kenyatta leading, the dash to secure choice land became a full time job for government officials. The original idea, according to some government documents, was to settle some prominent people alongside poor farmers on the settlement schemes from whom they would “learn” good agricultural practices.

When former President Daniel arap Moi saw Gunson’s House in Perkera Scheme in Eldama Ravine he knew that it had been set aside as a State Lodge. But still he wrote to the Permanent Secretary for Lands and Settlement Peter Shiyukah saying he wanted that house. Reason: “Most MPs and other prominent people have bought 100 acre plots with houses.” Moi’s letter, as it was practice on Z-Plots, was handed over to Lands minister Jackson Angaine who instructed the Director of Settlements, Maina Wanjigi, to check whether he can “demarcate 100 acres to make the house more attractive”.

Choose the Plot 

Actually, Moi did not know how much land there was around Gunson’s House and said as much: “I do not know how many acres are there. All I know is that the value of the land surrounding this house is very poor and I would like to buy it so that I can keep a few cattle on it.” The onus to identify the land one wanted fell on the political elite and not the ministry. How do we know this? When assistant minister for Finance, Tom Okello-Odongo, wrote to the ministry asking for 100 acres in Muhoroni or Koru, Mr Angaine wrote a small note to Mr Wanjigi saying: “Ask Mr Okello-Odongo to indicate the plot he wants me to allocate him.” That is all that was required of him. The Director of Settlements (Wanjigi) actually suggested that Mr Okello-Odongo “would have to go and visit the area and choose the plot he requires. We dare not do it for him,” he told Mr Angaine. Also, seniority mattered. If you identified some land somewhere and a Cabinet minister got interested, you had to forego your claim. Again, how do we know this?

When Dr Gikonyo Kiano identified his claim in Dundori, it was realised that some other officials had identified the same plot and applied. Mr Angaine, as usual, intervened in a letter dated May 12, 1965: “The house and 100 acres must be given to Dr Kiano.” The Director of Settlements then wrote to the local agricultural officer, a Mr Winter, “to prepare the documents in favour of Dr Kiano for the particular house and 100 acres referred to and ignore the necessity of having to go through the selection committee for this house … In future when ministerial directions have been given on these 100 acre plots, accept such directives as over-riding…”

To get such choice plots and houses, one had to at times book an appointment with Mr Angaine to make sure that you got what you wanted.  Even individuals who were publicly critical of the settlement procedures lined up in Angaine’s office soliciting favours. One of these was Martin Shikuku who, on May 18, 1965, visited Mr Angaine seeking to get his 100 acres in Kiminini Scheme, Kitale, plus Mr Fraser’s house. Mr Angaine not only approved Mr Shikuku’s request but he also received a “thank you” letter from the Butere MP. “I wish to thank you for allocating Fraser’s house to me in the presence of the Director of Settlements, Mr Maina Wanjigi.”  That way, he knew that no one else would make a claim on the same.

On record, settlement officers in the field had been told that they would vet applicants. It was a big lie. Details on how applicants would be vetted were left vague giving officials in Nairobi a chance to vex power and authority on junior settlement officers who were in the field. The Cabinet had deliberately not approved a procedure to be used in disposing of the 100 acre Z-Plots and for a reason. This was a clandestine scheme and had not been approved under the World Bank-funded million-acre scheme, which was to purchase white-owned land and allocate it to the landless.

Purchase Own Land 

In the million-acre scheme, Cabinet ministers and senior government officials would hardly pass for landless Kenyans since they had means to purchase their own land. Because of the rush, and lack of proper records on who got what, some senior government figures, cunning like foxes, applied for several of the Z plots. S.O Josiah, who later became an envoy, was one of them. He not only applied and got approval for one 100-acre plot and Mr R. G. MacAdam’s house in Kiminini in June, 1965 but also got an 800-acre farm in Trans Nzoia at the same time.

This allocation, and many such others, baffled settlement officers in the field who naively thought it was a mistake. “I do not think that the minister was aware of this fact (that Mr Josiah owned an 800 acre farm) when he approved (his) application. Perhaps it would be wise to bring this matter to his attention,” wrote P.D Abrams, a senior agricultural officer in a note to the Director of Settlements.

The official excuse to award the elite 100 acres was that they were enticing them to purchase the colonial farm houses. Actually, Mr Angaine wrote to the Director of Settlements saying: “We must get rid of all these houses as quickly as possible before they get rotten and become valueless. I don’t mind if anyone comes forward with his money and buys all these houses. I am only interested in seeing [that] all these houses are disposed off.”

Since those who had been settled under the million-acre scheme were to pay for the land in instalments, the Z-Plot scandal only emerged when it turned out that the main defaulters were the elite. It is only after a team of World Bank and Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) officials had visited the schemes and raised questions that officials at the ministry started panicking. July 29, 1965: The director of settlements asked his seniors to stop further allocation of Z Plots because they appeared “to be inconsistent” with the financial agreements reached between Kenya and the lenders.

Cleared with Lenders

“Until this matter is cleared with the lenders, I am afraid we have got to discontinue any more approvals for 100-acre plots,” he wrote. So scandalous was the Z-Plot scheme that the British government appointed a commission in July 1966 to investigate what was happening. The commission was led by B. Van Arkadie, a Yale University professor who was also an adviser to the British ministry of overseas development. He reported: “What we saw was discouraging. A striking feature of these Z Plots was the fact that many of their owners were not living on them or developing them in any way.”

Arkadie was also given a list of 118 owners of Z plots and he reported that “a cursory glance over the names shows that many of the new plots are owned by ministers, members of parliament, ambassadors, permanent secretaries, provincial commissioners, civil servants and prominent national personalities.”

The commission also said that failure to develop these plots was setting a bad example to the scheme and also the owners were the single largest group of loan defaulters. “Loan repayment on this group of farms is worse than on any other type of settlement plot, the complete opposite of what was reasonable to expect,” said the report. And if these senior government officials were to be good examples to the farmers who had been settled around them, they became bad ones, refused to join the local co-operative societies and instead set limited companies to manage their farms making it “difficult” for the settlement officers to deal with them or to get their loan arrears.

Today, a quick glance at the Z-Plot files shows that by 1966 some 66 personalities had not been billed at all in the Z Plots meaning they had received the land for free. It also showed that 28 personalities had only been billed once for Sh82,452 but only Sh 1,232 had been paid. A Settlement Fund Trustees meeting that was held in September 1965 had actually suggested that an attachment should be sought on the salaries of the MPs who had defaulted but this was not followed.

Foreign Government

Actually, the Arkadie Mission, as it was known, said they saw no “intrinsic reason why the houses should be sold together with 100 acres of land” and complained that land that could have accommodated more than 1,000 families had ended up with the “privileged”. This did not go down well in the government.

President Kenyatta was angry that the British government was interfering with the Z-Plots. When the Cabinet finally deliberated on the issue, official minutes say that Kenyatta “strongly objected to the fact that the British Government, through its High Commission, had interfered” in the sale of 100-acre farms. During the Cabinet meeting of April 25, 1967, the minutes indicate, Kenyatta said that the Kenya Government “could not entertain any directives from the British Government or any other foreign government”.

He ordered that the sale of 100-acre farms should be resumed and that the Treasury “should guarantee the funds involved”. He also directed that the agreement with the British government on the settlement fund repayments should be reviewed. By then a total of 296 plots had been excised and it was also not clear if the World Bank would accept the 100-acre plots in their low-density schemes to be funded through their loan.

As the British High Commissioner, Bruce Greatbach, continued to press for answers, nobody was willing to give any. He then lost his cool. “We are being pressed by the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Overseas Development for this information,” he wrote in one of the letters. By that time only a few allocations had not been done and quietly the government continued to give 100-acre plots to those close to power.

Finally, a list containing only 51 names of Z-Plot owners was sent to the High Commission, although the ministry had more than 200 names. It is not clear why the ministry was reluctant to send the full list. London did not tire and demanded the entire list. Cornered, the Lands minister prepared a Cabinet paper asking Treasury to bear the cost of the Z-Plots. This meant taxpayer money would be used to fund the take-over of land by a select few. When that was done, nobody questioned the Z-Plots again.

Tracking the History of Land Curse in Kenya Tracking the History of Land Curse in Kenya Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on February 22, 2016 Rating: 5

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