The headquarters of the Lands Ministry at Community Hill, the imposing Ardhi House, has 12 floors. However, it is common to hear insiders euphemistically refer to documents that have been prepared on “13th floor”.
Once you hear that phrase applied to your documents, trouble lies ahead. They mean that you hold fake documents most probably prepared outside Ardhi House.
The “13th floor” was introduced into Ardhi House and the land sector lingua franca in 2006 after a raid on an office on the fourth floor of Jethalal Chambers on Tubman Road, Nairobi.
The raid yielded all manner of documents used at the Lands Ministry, including counterfeited title deeds.
The operative involved had the entire range of transactional stationery used in Ardhi House, complete with rubber stamps.
He also had the skill to forge the signatures of senior officers in the ministry. Thousands of fake and forged documents were carted out of the office. And that is how the infamous “13th floor” reference came to be.
I have also had occasion to witness the threat to official land ownership documents when a suspect was taken into the investigation room at the Central Police Station in Nairobi.
As soon as he stepped in, the officers shouted in unison, “na huyu amerudi hapa juu ya nini tena? (And what brings him back here again?)”.
I later learnt that the suspect had been to the office intermittently for forging land ownership documents. Some quick question and search routine on him led to easy evidence that he was deep into forging documents, with a clear preference for land registry ones.
Many of those in real estate will have heard references to ownership documents from “River Road”. River Road is one of the most famous roads in Nairobi, known for entrepreneurial local businesses and service points.
In its gradual growth, establishments have come up with both equipment and operatives capable of replicating any formal documents. This faking industry has now regrettably spread beyond River Road.
It is also widely known that networks have developed that move around the city identifying properties whose owners are deceased, those who have relocated or have been away for long.
They then replicate ownership documents through forgery and “sell” off the properties. What happens afterwards never quite bothers them.
Needless to say, the hefty proceeds they earn from the irregular sales of such land are enough to run rings around pursuing victims for years.
Away from Nairobi, we have been treated to networks that move forged and fake land ownership documents in most of the big regional towns including Mombasa, Kisumu, Nakuru and Embu - which are home to some of the oldest land registries. Numerous media reports to that effect have been filed over the years.
In the routine course of my practice, I have faced enough complaints from victims, evidence that this fraud has spread and afflicted many more towns.
It is just that the media either does not get objective evidence, or otherwise gets overwhelmed with similar stories.
But land fraud is widespread and has inflicted suffering and loss to many families and investors who have either lost land or money to the fraudsters.
The above demonstrate that away from irregularities within government offices, there has gradually developed a suave parallel industry that prepares fake ownership documents with which they defraud legitimate land owners and well-meaning investors.
While some work in collusion with officials in lands and survey offices countrywide, it is also obvious that some stand alone. The forgers have made big money and live large wherever they have set up.
But the truth is that they are known to some officials in land registries, local administration and the police. While there is a case for government to vet and weed out officials who collude to defraud and defeat legitimate land rights, there is an equal need to mind the operatives outside government.
Without this, we shall continue to have complaints and court cases based on spurious ownership documents.
We shall continue to have legitimate beneficiaries defrauded out of their due inheritance with high odds stacked against them even when they move to court.
We shall continue to have far too many land cases that never ought to be.
The revitalised investigative and prosecution agencies can save this country great resources if they can stem land fraud by identifying and arresting the key perpetrators.
Mr Mwathane is a surveyor. [email protected]