Land grabbers in Kisii County are becoming ruthless, cunning and shrewd thanks to population explosion.
Land owners have become targets of assassins or are rendered landless by well-organised gangs enjoying the tacit support of powerful individuals.
The syndicate is well-connected with contacts in the Judiciary, National Police Service, lands offices and even politicians.
When she visited Kisii County early this year, Lands Cabinet Secretary Faridah Karoney instructed Governor James Ongwae and County Commissioner Godfrey Kigochi to form a taskforce to address the numerous cases of land grabbing.
An audit by the National Land Commission established that 600 parcels of public land were fraudulently acquired.
Although the governor formed a multiagency taskforce comprising stakeholders in the community, residents continue to bear the brunt of individuals who use unscrupulous means to displace landowners.
Former Universities Academic Staff Union Secretary-General Omari Onyango said he was shocked when he returned home from the US to find his land occupied by a stranger.
Dr Onyango, who showed us registration documents issued years back, was taken aback after he visited the Kisii lands office only to find that all his original documents had been plucked out and replaced by fake ones.
“I’ve owned this land since 1987. At one point, I charged the title deed for a loan at KCB,” said Dr Onyango.
The former lecturer at University Nairobi's School of Dentistry added: “I successfully serviced the loan without anyone coming up to claim ownership of the land. After I relocated to the US, someone discovered my absence and connived with land officials to pluck out my title deed and green card to facilitate double registration.”
Dr Onyango is not the only victim of the land grabbing syndicate. A number of Kenyans living abroad who were interviewed claimed that their pieces of land had been grabbed.
Dr Albanus Moguche, who lives in Pennsylvania, USA, bought land but the seller went underground.
After making frequent visits to Kenya with a view to having the land owner transfer the documents to his name, Dr Moguche became exhausted after the seller refused to officially transfer the land to him.
“Who can invest his money in an environment of lawlessness? I’d rather go to Mombasa, buy property and be protected by the authorities than in my own home where hooligans are on the loose to steal your land and get away with it,” lamented another member of the Abagusii community who lives in Minnesota.
A 14.5 acre land, Kisii/Block III/332, meant for a community training centre, was grabbed and the original title deed destroyed and replaced with another - Kisii/Block III/480.
The land was then used to secure a Sh4 million bank loan.
A section of the land has been hived off and irregularly converted into a private academy owned by a top public servant in the county government.
A retired surveyor confirmed that his efforts to save the public land were futile as the forces against him were too powerful.
He said he provided information to top county officials that the land was for public utility, but nothing was done.
Sections of land meant for Kisii Hospital were hived by grabbers, subdivided and sold.
Land meant for expansion of Kisii Law Courts was also allegedly grabbed by a business tycoon.
Land allocated to firefighters was also acquired by the Glorious Church of God. Officials at the Kisii lands office confirmed that most public land had been grabbed.
The land registrar, Mr Steve Mokaya, confirmed that when he was appointed to the office he found that most public land had been grabbed.
For instance, Kisii Rehabilitation Centre on plot Kisii/Block I/908 was grabbed by a former Shaban Football Club official.
Two men were recently apprehended for being part of a land fraud syndicate. Police recovered a vehicle used by the suspects, fake land title deeds and a stamp inscribed with the name of the Kisii Land Registrar, Mr Mokaya.
“They use the stamp to make land documents appear real after faking the registrar’s signature,” said a police source.
Mr Mokaya said that there has been an increase in fraud cases in the region, some leading to death.
There are over 700 land-related cases in Kisii courts. Mr Mokaya said that cases pertaining to transfer of land, succession and subdivision are the most common.
“The cartels have offices in town where they produce fake certificates. Police are pursuing them,” he said.
Automation of land records will make it hard for fraudsters to alter original records, he said.
“Initially, some land officials colluded with cartels, but we have cleaned our office. Digitisation, which is in progress, will make it difficult even for our officers who may be wayward to modify records,” he said.
With an average of 900 people per square kilometre, Kisii County is among the most populated in the country.
Widows, orphans and the elderly are crying for justice after losing their land to fraudsters.
Land issues are emotive and victims are scared of talking openly about them citing possible revenge attacks by those responsible.
The most vulnerable are those living who live abroad
America-based journalist Peter Makori, for instance, lost his prime land within Kisii Town — titled Wanjare/Bogiakumu/3266 – to a cartel.
Mr Makori said he became landless after someone he did not know invaded his land and displaced him despite owning a title deed for 20 years.
He told this writer that he bought the land in 1998 and obtained a titled deed two years later.
When he relocated to the US 12 years ago, he left the land in the hands of his brothers who tilled it for sustenance farming.
Sometimes in 2015, Mr Makori’s brothers informed him that someone had invaded the land, destroyed his gum trees, removed his barbed wire fence and sub-divided it into smaller parcels for sale.
He then filed a suit at Kisii Environment and Land Court and sought restraining orders under certificate of urgency, but the court declined to issue the injunction.
“Curiously, the court allowed the invader technical ownership of the land until three years later when the case was determined in my favour,” said Mr Makori.
Despite the ruling, which ordered the intruder out of the property, he has continued to occupy the land.
In March 2019, Justice John Mutungi ordered the invader to vacate the land or face eviction by armed policeman.
Justice Mutungi also ordered the invader to pay Mr Makori Sh200,000 for trespassing.
“When courts hand down lenient rulings, land grabbing criminals become emboldened after discovering that their activities do not attract deterrent judgments,” said Mr Makori, wondering whether vigilante justice is more effective than the courts.