Kenyan president orders government to repossess contested land on volatile coast

NAIROBI Fri Aug 1, 2014 7:18am EDT

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta addresses the nation during celebrations for Madaraka Day, marking the 51st anniversary of the country gaining independence in 1963, at Nyayo national stadium in Nairobi, June 1, 2014. REUTERS/Noor Khamis

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta addresses the nation during celebrations for Madaraka Day, marking the 51st anniversary of the country gaining independence in 1963, at Nyayo national stadium in Nairobi, June 1, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Noor Khamis

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta has ordered the government to repossess large areas of land in Lamu County, which has been hit by recent attacks, saying land grabbing was helping fuel instability on the north coast.

Kenyatta, speaking late on Thursday, said a government audit showed the land, covering an area the size of the island of Mauritius, had been acquired unlawfully by companies in 2011-2012.

Lamu County borders war-torn Somalia and about 100 people have been killed in raids in the area since mid-June as attacks became more frequent.

Somali al Shabaab militants have claimed responsibility for many attacks, saying they want Kenyan troops out of Somalia, but the government has blamed local political networks instead.

Diplomats and security analysts say Islamists may have tapped into grievances among the traditional coastal people who complain that they are still viewed as squatters on ancestral land while Kenyans from other regions have obtained deeds to own the land.

The president's announcement appeared aimed at addressing some of those complaints, which analysts say could lead to far broader insurgency if not tackled swiftly.

Kenyatta said the repossessed land, covering 500,000 acres and about 70 percent of all arable land in Lamu County, had been acquired by the companies "under dubious and corrupt circumstances" between 2011 and 2012. The companies bought the land just after a $5.5 billion project to develop a port at Lamu was announced and property values in the area have since surged due to the planned project.

"The level of impunity revealed by the audit is unprecedented, untenable and unacceptable," Kenyatta said after meeting local Lamu leaders at State House.

"This criminal conspiracy has ... also helped fuel the current insecurity being experienced in the region, and frustrated our efforts in building cohesion in the country," Kenyatta said.

Much of the land surrounds the proposed Lamu port, which is part of a bigger $25.5 billion regional infrastructure project aiming to link landlocked east African nations to the sea.

Attacks in the area have hit tourism, hurting Kenya's economy, and analysts say the attacks near Lamu port will make it harder for regional governments to raise financing for the infrastructure project. [ID:nL6N0P02QZ]

The attacks have fanned ethnic tensions in Kenya. Many from Kenyatta's Kikuyu community, who have traditionally lived upcountry, say their kinsmen have been singled out in some of the attacks in the Lamu area.

Political allegiances in Kenya tend to follow ethnic lines and signs of inter-ethnic tensions are closely scrutinized. A disputed poll in 2007 sparked weeks of ethnic bloodletting that left more than 1,200 people dead and crippled the economy.

(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Edmund Blair and Susan Fenton)

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