In earlier days, the land sector was quite orderly and one to behold. Serving officers had honour and integrity. And they were highly trusted. Processes were clear and appointments given were usually honoured. External enquiries and correspondence were promptly answered. The records were revered and safely kept. But this nostalgic past is gone. Today’s sector runs on two lanes, a formal and informal one. It runs around two kinds of officers, the honest and the grossly dishonest. But as a country we must think about how best to restore this very critical sector.
You may have heard there exists a small group of people whose business is to identify properties belonging to the dead. Where heirs to such properties aren’t in the know or have little financial muscle or influence, the team takes the property details and transfers them to those willing to buy. There are also those who specialise in identifying properties with leases about to expire or those that have expired. Again, they move in to ensure such properties are re-allocated to those willing to pay up. And I am sure many read about a recent court case where allegedly a Nairobi proprietor left his property to his servants only to later learn that the ownership details were changed to another’s and the property sold out while he was away. His servants were forcefully evicted.
This happens in Nairobi so beware. You leave your house for long and folks move in and change all documents to themselves and sell it off. There’s also the group that preys on undeveloped land. They identify such land then prepare parallel ownership documents in their names and proceed to quickly sell it or subdivide it and sell it to unsuspecting persons. Regrettably, the buyers later take the brunt of the fraud when the legitimate owners come calling. Those who keep abreast with developments in the sector will have read numerous accounts of court cases stemming from each of these scenarios. Very well meaning and entrepreneurial Kenyans have lost money in the hands of actors in this informal industry. Others have lost their properties and are in court to date. And in many lands offices today, a layer of brokers stand between genuine service seekers and officers. They have created a profession by intrusion and exploiting the bane of poor service delivery. These brokers and the suave fraud movers cannot act without covert and perhaps even overt insider support.
Inside the land registries themselves, it is not uncommon to find that the official and legitimate ownership record has been replaced with a fraudulent one. So you have a situation where the legitimate owner finds any search against their property number returns a different owner’s name. It is not uncommon to find the relevant original correspondence and deed files totally missing. This introduces ownership doubts and pits the legitimate owner’s claim against the fraudulent one. It is not uncommon either to find an application for a lease extension grossly delayed, quite deliberately, till the lease expires, paving way for reallocation to a different person. In the survey offices, plans to properties get lost.
Some through deliberate removal! Deed plans, the critical instruments that support registration of leasehold interests, have been removed from their strong rooms and destroyed or altered, making it possible to introduce new interests or defeat court processes. Yet all these things are done by internal officers entrusted to their custody. It’s a perfect case of the shepherd turning against his flock or the sentry turning his guns on the trusting but sleeping soldiers. The above scenario, where we have our property industry held ransom by an ‘invisible’ team of fraud movers and brokers who call shots at national and county level, should not be entertained longer. It undermines tenure security and escalates costs of doing land sector business. It makes it a nightmare for our banks and mortgage institutions to use ownership documents as collateral.
Their business hangs around reliability of the record in the registry, the official maps and the corresponding space on the ground.
And when these institutions cannot lend against property, great business opportunities are lost. The fraud also escalates litigation and unnecessarily clogs our courts. The country continues to spend much time and money as state counsels ran between courts to defend the Lands ministry. It has also introduced insecurity as hired gangs defend irregularly acquired properties from their legitimate owners. It may even have motivated murders.
The state can call a bluff on all this. Most of the fraud movers are known around town. Most officers who collude are also known to their peers. A concerted effort to identify, caution and where necessary, prosecute them should be possible. And unless this is done, efforts to cleanse other sectors of irregularities and corruption will stand undermined by a rogue land sector.
Mwathane is a land surveyor. [email protected]