Our Open Extractives team was last week in Lamu County, where communities have been actively engaged in a fight against the establishment of a Coal Plant near the UNESCO Heritage island town. Lamu County is also the site designated by the government of Kenya for an expansive infrastructure programme called the Lamu Port, South Sudan, Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPPSET Corridor)

The team wanted to speak to citizens in the county to establish how much they know about the project and how involved they felt. What we found were stories of disenfranchised citizens who feel invisible in the design of the policy of the development projects. Many, had been taken advantage of by more powerful and exposed individuals.

Here is one of the stories that we heard as we talked to citizens. Mzee Mohamed Ali Mohamed told us how he was swindled out of his land by a prominent coast politician. We changed the names of all concerned because we have no way of verifying the story in a way that protects us from slander.

MZEE MOHAMED ALI MOHAMED

“Years ago, a prominent politician came to my farm in Hindi, Lamu county. You know for us villagers to see a ‘big person’ drive up to your compound and respectfully want to sit with you is not a small occurrence. The whole village knew that I have been visited because he came with a convoy of big SUVs and bodyguards. 

“We sat outside my semi-permanent house and talked for a long time. He told me on that day that he wanted to understand the needs of our people and the kind of help that they can give to us. We talked about the local school, the state of roads and the local market. He was so respectful and nice, something that is uncommon with these young politicians. On that day he even bought two chicken from me – and then had my son slaughter them so that we could eat together.

“The next day, he called me and asked me to join him at a five-star hotel called the Majlis for lunch. I had never been to such a high-class place in my life. The politician (let’s call him Waziri) told me that he was amazed at my wisdom in matters of development and he needed to spend more time with me. ‘By the way,’ he said, ‘could you come with your title deed? I just want to see it and see some things relating to the way the land is registered.” I had no reason to reject this request from a national leader.

I had no reason to refuse the request of a national leader – especially a humble, respectful one like this one.

“Flattered, I went with my eldest son and we really enjoyed ourselves talking about the development of our area and I felt like a village kingpin. The other villagers would be amazed to see how I fought for the development of our area – they might even make me chairman! At some point during lunch, Waziri asked me to show him the title deed. He looked at it quizzically and asked my permission to take a photocopy of it. Again, I had no reason to refuse the request of a national leader – especially a humble, respectful one like this one. I took him as I would my own son. That day ended so happily. Waziri organised for me to get Kshs. 30,000 from his staff for my troubles.

“A few months later, I was busy on my farm when I saw a truck drive up to my compound and some young men started to unload poles and other fencing materials. When I asked them if they were lost they said Waziri had sent them to fence the whole land. ‘How kind of him,’ my family and I thought. We knew that the government was taking people’s land for this LAPSSET programme and we thought fencing the land would safeguard us. How nice to have such a benevolent patron as our friend, Waziri.

“When the young men were done fencing, a lawyer came and introduced himself as Waziri’s lawyer and that he needed us to leave the property as it was now Waziri’s. Bewildered, I assured the lawyer that he was mistaken and that the land was mine since the 1990s. I went in to get my title, still in the envelope from when Waziri returned it to me at the Majlis hotel. Alas! It was a photocopy!

“Naturally we went to court. In court, the advocate showed me a document and asked if the signature he pointed at was mine. I affirmed it was. Do I remember where I signed it? Yes, at the Majlis to show that I have received Kshs. 30,000 from Waziri. So I sold the land for Kshs 30,000, isn’t that right? I protested but it emerged that what I signed was actually a sales agreement.

“That is how I lost my land and my legacy for my family. He took advantage of me and you know I cannot fight any more. The courts are in Nairobi and Mombasa. I am too financially weak to fight that war. Waziri is a powerful man with money for lawyers and more. I would die fighting him.”

We have several more stories from Lamu and we are going to be going to Taita Taveta, Kwale, Migori and Kakamega to see the experiences of citizens there.

The Open Institute cares about Responsive Governments and Active Citizenship and we do not think we can achieve these aspirations unless citizens become more visible in the policy and decision-making spaces. See also this blog.