Tuesday, February 9, 2010

What should we think of Kenyan government part I: Land and corruption

The other day I wrote about how Nairobi’s bad rep. Now on to the Kenyan government’s bad rep.

There is definitely corruption in the Kenyan government. Aside from the very dramatic election scandals in 2007, the corruption here is in many ways out of control. The Anglo Leasing case in the 1990s, in which the government poured millions if not billions of shillings into a company that did not exist, is a particularly key example. John Githongo, the government minister in charge of investigating corruption, was rewarded with exile for his integrity.

However, I would like to submit that all that, true as it may be, does not equate to a government that is not invested in making things better for its people. On paper it may certainly look that way, but through this project I’ve had the opportunity to work with government and quasi-governmental organizations at local and national levels. It’s a hard thing to get one’s head around— that being corrupt and working for the betterment of your people are not mutually exclusive. But the truth is, in my experience, government officials care about improving the lot of their constituencies and of Kenya as a whole and, further, they are interested in doing a good job in their positions.

I could wax on about my experiences with Kenyan government, but I will illustrate with two installments of examples, one now and one in tomorrrow’s blog post.

First, land. Oh, land. Land is contentious in many African countries, and title deeds to the same piece of property are on occasion held by more than one party. When Ariel and I were here in July, almost 7 months ago, we met with the town planner, city council, mayor and all relevant city government officials. We were promised land, a big plot out by the hospital, and we were over the moon. This meant that we had two parcels of land to choose from, the KNLS-owned plot in town, and a bigger plot a bit outside of town. When I arrived in January, I accidentally ran into many of these same politicians when I was visiting the Member of Parliament for one of the Busia Districts. We decided to have lunch together, and when we sat down, I asked them about the land. In the nearly 7 months since we had been gone, nothing had happened to further the process. The town planner, the mayor and their ilk had an almost identical discussion about land that they had had when we were here in July. They were excited about the library, they were excited about it being built while they were in office and sending their children there to read and all of that. But ultimately I didn't know what to think. Were they stringing us along or were they going to commit a piece of land? If they committed a piece of land, how would we know if it had previously been committed to someone else?

Also at lunch, the plot of land that was held by Kenya National Library Services was discussed. Er, the local politicians said, there may be problems with that land as well. The title deed in the Busia files had “disappeared” and another government agency, the Agro-forestry Unit, had paid all fees on the land up to now.

I was furious, I almost got up and left the lunch. They were telling us that they had re-sold KNLS’s land without letting KNLS know. I held it in through lunch, though, and devised a scheme with Maria whereby Maria’s Libraries would play “bad cop” and threaten to build the library in another community if they didn’t get their act together.

I stand by that scheme. However, I began to think about Mushtaq Khan, a British scholar who makes a distinction between good corruption and bad corruption. He attempts to show the function of some type of corruption, so I start to wonder if this form of corruption served any purpose.

Well, in way it does. Kenya National Library Services had owned that land since 1994 and they have never made any indication that they were going to use it. Fifteen years after they acquired it, a foreign donor (us) randomly showed up wanting to build. Unused land in such a prime location is a public bad. In many countries, there are ways of dealing with unused land. In London, squatting is legal, and if the owner of the property doesn’t do anything with it for 7 years, the squatters legally own it. In many countries, there is an unused land tax. Imagine what would happen to an abandoned lot in, for example, Manhattan! It would not last long, but there would be mechanisms in place to legally extract it from the owner. In Kenya those mechanisms don’t exist so the local politicians did the same thing, illegally.

Ok, so I can be sympathetic to what the local politicians have done. But that doesn’t mean we should give up that land. Legally, KNLS owns it. The local town council could make it up to us by giving us another plot of land, but what if that was legally owned by someone else that hadn’t figured out what to do with it? Much as I might think Kenyan laws might want to have a mechanism to deal with unused land, the only way for us to operate that will not ultimately get us into trouble later on is to operate to the letter of the law, inconvenient as it might be. Richard Atuti, the new director of KNLS, told me he would fight for the land. He seemed to have read the skepticism on my face when he unequivocally told me that in Kenya, if you can trace your right to the land, the deed will only go to you.

And he was right. I told him we would of course need copies of all the documentation that KNLS owned the land before we could start to plan building the library. A week later, Richard called me and said he was sending a package for me via Akamba bus to be picked up in Kisumu that included all of the necessary documents. That was yesterday, and I will be bringing it to Busia tomorrow.

Score one for the rule of law.

No comments:

Post a Comment