Sunday June 17 2012

From the Sideline: How to recover grabbed land from rulers - Kenya shows the way

By Joachim Buwembo

The most important piece of news for Africa this year, in my view, came from Kenya last week. This was the disclosure that the Kenya Forest Service had successfully recovered more than 2,000 acres of land from former president Daniel arap Moi. The land, which is now covered by a sprawling tea estate, will have to be replanted with trees, because the area had been part of the gazzetted Mau forest reserve, which is source of several rivers that have been drying up, before Narok County Council illegally allocated it to the strongman 34 years ago. Last year, I toured the great Mau Forest that is being reclaimed from encroachers and I still recall the incredible sight of a forest station, smack in the middle of, not trees, but shops!

The story of the reforestation of the Mau is one of great inspiration, which all Africans should read about, and there should be enough on it in the Internet. But what makes the recovery of these 2,333 acres important is that it signals the beginning of the end of the era of impunity by African leaders and their cronies over public resources.

Even as the land grab (a new form of colonialism) gathers momentum all over Africa, it is now clear that the people shall in the end recover public property from temporary usurpers, and that this can be done legally without shedding blood. It has taken Kenyans 34 years to recover their land from Mr Moi, and a lot of illegally acquired lands are still in other wrong hands, but the process has started.

One of the biggest lies being bandied around Africa today is that land cannot be developed without giving it to rich investors. Of what use is a government, indeed a state, that after five decades of independence cannot help its people farm the land scientifically and must beg foreign investors to do it? I personally spend most of my time working in other people’s countries and certainly have nothing against foreign participation in my country’s economy. But nothing is more nauseating to me than a government that gets into office on the votes of millions of peasants, handing their land over to foreign interests instead of showing them how to use it scientifically. Foreign capital should come in to boost processing of the peoples produce, not to take their land.

It was understandable when the colonial forces, in their belief that the African was an inferior being, who could not harness nature, came and took over the land. But after the African fought for independence, it is totally unacceptable that new disguised colonialists should take the land by the thousands of acres from him. Even if 2,000 acres has to be hived off a forest reserve for tea growing, it should be done for two thousand farming families each tending one acre, and the big investor processing the tea, instead of owning all the land colonial-style.

By Kenyan public agencies taking legal means to recover what political heavyweights grab when in power, a new beacon of hope appears on the African horizon. And this thing of land grabbing is not restricted to East Africa. I have in the past three years been to so many African countries, but everywhere I go, the land grab is in high gear. And I have spent the past one year teaching (and of course learning) about Climate Change, so I know a thing or two about that carbon credits concept; it can easily be quoted by collaborators of the land grab in the name of reforestation. African people can be encouraged to embrace agro-forestry and make money, food while maintaining/adding to the carbon sinks/tree cover.

Many pacifists fear to spearhead or even openly support demands that economic crimes perpetrated by those in power in Africa be stopped. We fear that bloodshed would ensue as the grabbers protect their loot using lethal weapons bought by the taxpayer. But the Kenyan example gives Africa hope, that national lands being parcelled out dubiously to individuals of doubtful credentials, shall one day be recovered through lawful means. From Mozambique to Ghana, Karamoja to Bunyoro, I have heard the same cries of land grabbing. Maybe some acquisitions are justified. But others are not. It will be the judicial processes in the future that will tell. And although lawyers say justice delayed is justice denied, still it is better delivered late than never.

And when the era of impunity of land acquisitions end, the main sticking point should be about payment of interest. Should the land grabbers meet the cost of restoring the land to its intended purpose? For example, who should meet the cost of replanting the trees over a large tract that an ‘investor’ cleared to plant his commercial crops? Tomorrow’s courts of law, I trust, will have the competence to determine that on a case-by-case basis.