Monday, 4 June 2012
Land-grabbing appetite in Kenya has a genesis
Seven years after independence, President Kenyatta issued a quiet decree on
the acquisition of beach plots and what came to be known as second-row
Only Coast provincial commissioner Eliud Mahihu could identify and
recommend those who qualified for these plots.
The rationale was that Africans needed a leg-up to invest in the lucrative
tourist industry and had to be given priority.
The reality was that those who earned Mr Mahihu’s favour were highly placed
political and civil service elites and their business associates.
Having very few of their own in the right offices, the coastal communities
largely missed out on the ensuing scramble for the beach plots, now worth
Coast Province bears the dubious distinction of having the largest number
of squatters in Kenya — an anomaly that did not begin with the Kenyatta
government but was only deepened by it.
How the current mechanisms set up under the National Accord signed by
President Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga will navigate this
explosive subject remains to be seen.
What is clear from records is that land grabbing by the independence elite
disinherited millions of Coast residents, planting the seeds of discord in
Under Mr Mahihu’s watch, old friends, senior civil servants, shrewd
businessmen and farmers who had made millions out of good global coffee
prices pitched tent at the Coast to acquire beach plots.
From the mansions they would later build, the newly rich dreamt of a place
from where they could watch the clear horizon of the sea and, perhaps,
retire in their sunset days — rich as Croesus.
*His own nest*
The script was simple. All
one<http://nairobichron icle.files. wordpress. com/2008/ 04/_44326224_ afp416crowd. jpg>needed
to own a prime beach plot was Mr Mahihu’s signature. The PC used his
position to feather his own nest — building a multi-million shilling empire
that made him one of the richest people in independent Kenya.
The hundreds of letters he received at the height of the scramble for beach
plots make interesting reading. The hitherto unseen but declassified
government records show how powerful individuals, most from outside Coast
Province, acquired the beach plots.
It is a story that has never been told and puts the controversial sale of
beach plots — which at times evokes anger and animosity at the Coast — in
political and economic perspective.
During Mr Mahihu’s tenure, money alone could not buy a beach plot. The most
important thing was catching the eye of PC Mahihu, followed by President
At the peak of the scramble, Kenya’s economy was robust, firing at an
annual growth rate of 8.3 per cent per annum between 1969 and 1973 when
Kenyatta issued the beach plot decree.
The decree was also communicated to Lands Commissioner J.A. O’Loughlin and
to Mr Geoffrey Kareithi, permanent secretary, Office of the President;
Attorney General Charles Njonjo and Mr N.S. Kung’u, Lands and Settlement PS.
Although it was never made public, the directive was clearly communicated
to all senior people in the Lands ministry.
Mr O’Loughlin, who had been retained as an expatriate civil servant, had a
tough time handling the gang around the President, whose land hunger was
*Did not reveal*
In a letter dated December 31, 1971, Mr O’Loughlin told an applicant that
his case would be referred to a “higher authority”.
“All applications for beach plots and second row plots are now being
considered very closely where the purchaser is a non-African,” he wrote.
What O’Loughlin did not reveal was that from then, he was to merely act as
a rubber stamp for Mr Mahihu’s decisions.
Kenyatta’s reasons for issuing the decree are contained in a letter Mr
Mahihu wrote to one of the largest real estate agents in Malindi, T. E.
The PC wrote that the move aimed to “bring out the imbalance of beach
ownership in Kenya’s water front. I am aware that certain individuals have
been talking ill of everything in Malindi recently. I am also aware that
these intended buyers have also been telling people that they should not
care about the local administration and that they will get land any way,
whether the administration agrees or not.”
That letter was meant to send a clear message to real estate agents that no
transaction would happen at the beach without Mr Mahihu’s signature.
Mr Allfree had submitted 24 applications to Mr Mahihu in a letter dated
December 21, 1971. He had unsuccessfully tried to book an appointment with
Mahihu and instead sent a letter a day later.
Perhaps to show Mr Allfree the people he should target for the beach plot
sales, Mahihu wrote back on January 18, 1972 and recommended the sale of a
one-acre plot to Cabinet minister Paul Ngei, the sale of Mrs Tailby’s
estate in Malindi with buildings and shops to Mr Ronald Ngala; 80 acres of
undeveloped land to a Mr John Njenga Mwangi, and a Lamu seafront plot to Mr
A month later, Mr Mahihu wrote to the registrar of titles in Mombasa, Mr
G.G. Ndoria, asking him to “keep a record of beach plots that are being
sold so that Africans could be informed of these plots to enable them to
deal directly with the sellers.”
That month, Mr Mahihu only recommended 17 transfers — the most notable
being to Mr J.K. Mutua, then in the Prisons Department and to Mr John
Gitonga, who wanted 23 acres “to build a hotel” and to Mr Peterson Munuhe
To acquire beach plots required several tricks and personal interventions.
By employing such tactics, former Central Bank governor Duncan Ndegwa and
Attorney General Charles Njonjo, became some of the richest Kenyans today.
*Help for friends*
Last year, Mr Ndegwa invited President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga to
his Mombasa Continental Resort which had had a facelift. The trio were
captured gazing at the ocean from the balcony.
Mr Njonjo would write on government letterhead in both English and Kikuyu
to Mr Mahihu as he sought help for friends.
In one of the letters, he wrote by hand asking Mr Mahihu to approve a
transaction. “Dear PC”, he wrote, “If you will recommend this. I will hand
them back to Njenga (Commissioner of Lands). Turenda guthondeka development
na twina Singh uria unjakagira (we want to develop this property and we are
with Singh, my contractor) and it is a good and viable project. All the
best and when you have signed it please return it to me — Yours, Charles
The letter, only dated Monday, reached Mr Mahihu’s office on May 6, 1978,
and he approved the application, whose director is listed as Gurdev Singh,
to acquire eight-and-half acres.
Two days later, he approved Mr Kenneth Matiba’s purchase of five acres in
Nyali to build a hotel and nine days later approved Mr Ndegwa’s application
for 2.6 acres in Nyali.
Another transaction approved that month was that of a two-acre plot owned
by the Central Bank and purchased by Cianda Estates Ltd of James Njenga
Karume and Wariara Njenga for Sh400,000. Mr Karume was by then a powerful
figure in central Kenya where he chaired the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru
Association, a political-cum- investment vehicle.
Ordinarily, the registrar of titles in Mombasa ought to have received
applications and forward them to the Commissioner of Lands. But, in some
instances, the applications were taken directly.
Among those who took their forms directly were former Kugumo MP J.F.C.
Munene, Rose Holiday Cottages, Dee-Dee Investment, Rahab Mumbi, Matiba’s
Alliance Development, Ndegwa, T.P Kiambi and Mr Andrew Ngumba, former
On May 10, 1974, Mr Ndegwa wrote a personal letter to Mr Mahihu after they
“spoke over the telephone”, enclosing two transfer forms for plots he was
exchanging with Waljee Hirjee Estates which was in liquidation.
“Their plot which adjoins my plot No 851 is ideal for new development and I
have found it fit to effect the exchange to facilitate this development,”
Three days later, Mr Mahihu approved the exchange and Ndegwa was to get 2.9
acres in LR 847 in exchange for his plot No 852 and another 2.8 acres in
exchange for his plot No 847.
Also officials at the office of the President took advantage of occasions
when they saw President Kenyatta to get approvals for beach plots.
Forwarding an application to Mr Mahihu, an Office of the President
under-secretary Chris Kahara wrote at the bottom of the letter: “While I
have an opportunity to see the President to grant consent for that farm, I
thought I might take the opportunity to also obtain consent for the Nyali
Mr Kahara and his wife Agatha were buying 5.83 acres for Sh1 million in
Nyali and 328 acres in Diani for Sh140,000 previously owned by Mrs Reaby
Wailes. Mr Mahihu approved both sales.
Other purchases he approved included that of a company called Sleep-Ezee
Ltd listed as owned by Mr John Michuki for a 25-acre beach plot in Tiwi
from Mr Vera Gray.
Another interesting purchase was that of five acres by Kenyatta’s
brother-in-law and State minister Mbiyu Koinange. This happened in December
1975 when Kenyatta was on holiday at the Coast.
Taking a trip to the Coast to see Mr Mahihu was the norm, for once he had
your trust, you could purchase any number of plots. The case of Dr Chris
Obura, a prominent Nairobi dentist, easily stands out.
In June 1974, he travelled to Mombasa to see Mr Mahihu as he wanted a beach
plot. Dr Obura was given an application form to acquire 25 acres in LR
3855/55 Tiwi in the municipality.
In a note to the Commissioner of Lands, Mr Mahihu said: “I would be
grateful if you could forward the application of Dr Obura (to President
Kenyatta). Dr Obura has been to see me enquiring when his application would
be completed. I have forwarded new forms once again for your attention as
we did some time back.”