Nairobi’s Political Playground: Government Fails to Even The Playing Field

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Last Sunday, I was watching the news with my mother. After several clips of the stories from around the world, my attention was focused on what seemed to be a one minute snippet of a scene that was familiar: Kenyan streets and school children in the green sweaters and tunics.

This wasn’t the scene that I hoped would make me remotely nostalgic, but rather left me deeply saddened. These children who were evidently in distress from the effect of tear gas from police officers, were caught in the midst of what escalated from a demonstration to one of the many politically motivated and violent sagas known as land grabbing.

The recent attack on Nairobi’s Langata Road Primary School was an unprecedented form of police brutality in the country. Students returned to school after a two week teachers strike and found metal wall blocking access to their playground.

The playground which was officially declared as public land belonging to the school, was fenced off by an unknown private developer with an alleged plan to revamp it into a parking lot. The students were demonstrating to gain access to the playground holding signs that read “ Shame, Shame, Shame” “Land Grabbing is Terror Against Children” and “Occupy Playground”- which also became a hashtag movement on twitter warranting widespread local and international condemnation of the assault. Five children were hospitalized after the incident.

Since the attack, MPs under President Uhuru’s Kenyatta’s constituency have denounced the actions of police officers. Officer Elijah Mwangi, the police commander on ground during the attack was suspended and an investigation on conduct is currently underway.

On January 20th, a day after the attack, Interior Cabinet Security Joseph Nkaissery, visited the school apologized and appeased the traumatized students. In his statement he affirmed that the playground was government property and gave what seemed to be an informal 24 hour ultimatum for the perpetrator to come forward.

I must say, I was a tad impressed by the prompt response by the Interior Cabinet Minister. However, this was short lived after listening to what President Kenyatta had to say when addressing the city. In Uhuru Kenyatta’s statements he averted the big question mark in the minds of many: anonymous private developer.

At the time, many speculated that the developer was linked to a hotel owned by deputy president, Willian Ruto. In later updates, it was released that Airport View Housing Ltd is the company which claimed ownership of the land.

The President took to the podium and tossed around rhetorical questions on the lack of action such as “ Where was the Ministry of Lands?” “Where was the National Land Commission?” “Why did they not resolve this problem? What were they doing?”.

In addition, he also seemed to oppose the involvement of activists in the demonstration. “Even when we want to protest, we must do it in a civilized manner and not involve children,” he said.

Kenyatta’s tongue lashing prompted the Cabinet Secretary of Lands, Charity Ngilu to take to social media and comment on the incident. “It’s highly regrettable that children were teargased yesterday.this should never have happened. I accept we should have taken action earlier,” she said.

On January 21st, two days after the incident, Ngilu also tweeted an image of the scene at the school and mentioned Uhuru Kenyatta in the caption: “Supervising the demolition of the illegal perimeter wall at Langata rd primary school @UKenyatta”

So let’s talk a bit about Charity Ngilu. In an exclusive interview with K24, a local media outlet in Nairobi, Ngilu made statements on the persistent issues of land grabbing. Amongst the many things she said, she concluded by stating that land grabbing is a a very complicated issue.

Throughout the interview when questioned on being proactive in addressing the issue, she proceeded to mention all the steps taken by the ministry, including letter writing to companies who claim they own public land. Ngilu corrected the journalist who claimed that there has been an increase in land grabbing cases, and states that cases have always existed but are now only being brought to light.

“Those who grab public land are not the usual, normal, you and I, small people. They are people who are well placed in the society and well monied”, she says.

Furthermore, when asked about public speculation and distrust in the ministry refusing to name the private developers involved in the case, she sarcastically stated that if the journalist was to wait five minutes, he would conclude the program with a copy of a response from a letter she sent to perpetrators.

Here, it seemed like she doing some damage control by painting the ministry as responsive by communicate with the company. She glossed over answering the question based on public demand and concern for justice by assuming a defensive response which in my opinion, was executed in a manner which silences and appeases.

Perhaps what was the most striking aspect of the exclusive was in Ngilu’s position towards laws she claims conflict and affect coordination between the Ministry of Lands and the National Lands Commission. “The laws and the constitution are conflicting, we will see how we can continue using them until they are amended”. She then frames her point in a saying. “As the saying goes, where to bulls are fighting, the grass suffers”.

When asked by the journalist, who the grass is in the given situation, her response is the Kenyans.”The Kenyans have suffered because they do not know whether they are going for service from the National Land Commission or the Ministry of Land,” she says.

Maybe, I’m just being picky or cynical but I find it very problematic to blame this issue on a set of laws whilst the government is aware of the dependency and value Kenyans have on laws that give access to social and economic opportunities such as education and market space. It is apparent to me, that by blaming the issue on the government marginalizes Kenyans as mere subjects of the issue.

Politicians and leaders who rank below private developers cannot place themselves in this same category as subjects, claim to advocate for Kenyans, and gain control and popularity by deeming laws as barriers. In addition, I feel this validates and justifies private developers above the law and makes the narratives of Kenyans subject to politically motivated actions.

I believe that Kenyans should be aware of politicians appropriating the narrative and pushing out citizens from the dialogue on land grabbing that directly affects social and economic development. This saga began with activism and the revelation of truth behind the political concealed issue of land ownership.

The truth began when police fired tear gas at children instead of protecting them and the truth should not be saturated with trivializing land issues as “complicated” and solely confined to whether politicians choose to be proactive or not towards laws.

In fact, the children who suffered from this issue were responding to a social and political discourse of land ownership which was probably beyond their realm of understanding, but nevertheless fought against injustice that many have failed to do. They were the main stakeholders of educating Kenyans and probing the government for horrendous actions taken towards and issue believed to be in their hands.

Moving forward, the Kenyan government cannot market suitable solutions for political issues they would like to take political ownership of, but rather include truth and community voice towards the constant issues that exist and directly affect the needs and resources of the people of the country.

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