One of the most significant court battles since the new Constitution was adopted begins in Nairobi this week when a coalition of campaigners moves to cancel dozens of dubious title deeds in the slums held by powerful and wealthy individuals.
The campaigners will seek to assert the rights of hundreds of thousands of residents to the land on which they live in a move that could transform the city’s land tenure system and represent the biggest step yet towards upgrading the city’s informal settlements.
The case is expected to shine a light on the shadowy – and highly profitable – world of slum landlords and expose the political opportunism that saw successive governments hand titles to well-connected individuals at the expense of Nairobi’s estimated 2.65 million slum dwellers.
The matter is expected to come before the courts on Wednesday, exactly one year after the Sinai fire tragedy that claimed 119 lives and illuminated to Kenyans and the world the shocking conditions under which a majority of urban residents live. (Read: Sinai fire victims sue for damages)
“Take it from me, this will be explosive,” says Senior Counsel Paul Muite.
The case has been brought by Muungano wa Wanavijiji, a coalition of NGOs that has been campaigning for the rights of the invisible majority of Nairobi’s residents who live in crowded shacks on the fringes of the city, daily facing the threat of eviction without notice.
Former Kituo Cha Sheria executive director Jane Weru, who is now a director at Muungano wa Wanavijiji and has been advocating the rights of slum dwellers since the early 1990s when a wave of land-grabbing saw the eviction of thousands, is confident about the group’s prospects.
“This is a good case. We will be raising the question of the right to housing and sanitation which is enshrined in the Constitution. We will also be querying the process followed in making these land allocations,” she said.
“The law under the old constitution was clear that if land was to be allotted to an individual, it should have been sold by public auction. In many of these cases, the parcels were simply dished out to cronies of the powers-that-be. The land was issued for the establishment of light industries. None of these were built on the parcels in question and the Commissioner of Lands was supposed to have recalled the titles. That should happen now.”
Besides these remedies, the coalition, which is represented by Prof Yash Pal Ghai’s Katiba Institute through lawyer Korir Sing’oei, will ask the National Land Commission to investigate the process through which the questionable titles were handed out with a view to their cancellation and the possible prosecution of the culprits.
Nairobi has one of the most acute urban housing crises in the world. Sixty-five per cent of the city’s population live in slums, which occupy only five per cent of the capital’s land mass, according to UN-Habitat.
The crowding and poor sanitation levels are unlike anything witnessed around the world. In Nairobi, about 318 households or about 1,177 people on average, occupy one acre in the slums, compared to two households per acre in the upmarket Runda estate or one per acre in Muthaiga.
By contrast, only 78 households live on one acre in the Kisenyi slum of the Ugandan capital Kampala.
The Kenyan capital’s slums are even more congested than some of the world’s most notorious slums such as Dhaka in Bangladesh, whose informal settlements house about 891 people per acre.
Experts warn that the failure of planning, which has resulted in Nairobi’s massive urban housing crisis, is a ticking time bomb that could sow instability.
“The difference between Kenya and other governments in the region is that neighbouring countries allocate land to cater for housing of the poor,” says Peter Ngau, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Nairobi.
“From the 1980s to the 1990s, there was no housing project aimed at the poor in the country. The recent National Housing Corporation scandal, where houses meant for the middle class were allocated to top government officials, illustrates the problem. Agencies such as the NHC should be spearheading construction programmes for the poor,” Prof Ngau said.
“Expansion plans of facilities such as the airport should take into account how to relocate the poor. There should be no development of industries without that going hand-in-hand with housing development near those industrial parks. It is vital that we take a systematic approach.”