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Monday, August 16, 1999 Published at 13:29 GMT 14:29 UK

World: Africa

An end to unjust land deals?

The Ogiek people are fighting a legal battle over their ancestral land

A recent announcement by the Kenyan Government promises an end to a long line of corrupt land allocations, reports East Africa Correspondent Cathy Jenkins.

A terse two-sentence announcement made recently by Kenya's president Daniel arap Moi has caused a flurry of excitement among Kenyans. The president announced that he was putting an immediate ban on the allocation of all public land. His statement coincided with a new drive to crack down on corruption in the administration.

Land grabbing, where public land is hived off to favoured individuals, is rife in Kenya, but despite public protests, little has been done until now.

Land grabbing is something of a national disease in Kenya. Hardly a day goes by without the newspapers reporting a public outcry somewhere in the country at the allocation of plots of public land to favoured individuals.

But because those doing the allocating are often local officials who wield absolute power in their area, and because those complaining are the people without any money or power, little is ever done.

Unprecedented move

[ image: Protests at the destruction of the Karura Forest]
Protests at the destruction of the Karura Forest
So the announcement by President Moi that he was slapping an immediate ban on the handing out of all public land caused a frisson of excitement. It is the first time that anything like this has happened.

Earlier this year, Nairobi reeled as riot police broke up demonstrations by environmentalists campaigning against the destruction of Karura Forest on the edge of the capital.

Karura Forest has become for Kenyans a symbol of the evils of rampant land grabbing. The environmentalists were protesting against the partial clearing of the forest to make way for an exclusive housing development.

Government officials argued that the land was needed to relieve the population pressures on the city. Karura Forest is only the most publicised case, but environmentalists complain of the destruction of the forest around Mount Kenya, the country's highest mountain, and of the development without public consultation of land along the coast.

Concern for past victims

Firimbi is an organisation which has long campaigned against land grabbing. Its director, Davinder Lamba, sceptical that President Moi is serious, still wants to know what will happen to the more than 300 cases of land grabbing he already has on file.

"If you say now 'halt or nullify all allocation of public land or halt it by itself, it's not adequate," he says.

He suggests that a commission of inquiry may be necessary to deal with the issue seriously.

Firimbi points out that according to the Kenyan constitution, all land in Kenya is either owned by individuals or held in trust for the Kenyan public: the Kenyan government holds public land in trust for all the people; local authorities in turn hold this land for the people resident in the area.

The organisation argues that the history of land allocation has been that of gross abuse of public trust and of the law and has resulted in widespread suffering, particularly of the poor and disempowered.

Test case

One group of people which will be hoping to put the governments sincerity to the test is the Ogiek tribe. They have been threatened with eviction from the Tinet forest, 190km (120 miles) north-west of Nairobi, where they have lived for hundreds of years.

The 5,000-member tribe makes a livelihood out of subsistence farming and bee-keeping. The government says that the forest contains trees protected under the 1947 Kenyan Forest Act, and is a water catchment area.

The tribe is fighting the eviction order in court, arguing that they are an indigenous people, and that the forest is their home and provides their livelihood.

The tribe's laywer, Joseph Sergon, asks how the tribe can be trespassing when the government itself allocated five acres of Tinet forest land to each Ogiek family in 1991. And he wonders why the government waited until this year to implement a law which was passed 52 years ago.

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