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Karoney: Ardhi House has been captured by cartels

If Lands Cabinet Secretary Farida Karoney decided to sack all corrupt workers at her ministry, then she would have almost no one left to serve Kenyans.

The Lands CS is bang in the middle of converting millions of dusty, worn out papers that Kenyans treasure as title deeds into credible digital documents that can be used as evidence of property ownership and underwrite billions of shillings worth of transactions across the country.

Ms Karoney, therefore, needs the honest input of each and every worker at Ardhi House, the Lands ministry headquarters in Nairobi, but the corruption cartels are out to sabotage her efforts.

“We have looked at this reform, looked at the mess we have created at the ministry over the years, the gaps in data, the gaps in management… all these things, and we came to the conclusion that if we take the punitive approach, this reform will not go through.

New system

“If you were to look for people to punish for the mistakes that have happened in the ministry, then I’m afraid you might be left with no one to do the reforms. Because in one way or another we have all committed errors of omission or commission,” she said in an interview with the Nation on Monday.

After about three years of painstaking design and development of the new National Land Management Information System (NLMIS), a system meant to capture, update and relay live land-related data, land transactions in Nairobi went digital, and the CS’s problems with the cartels started.

Conveyancing lawyers who for years made a living from charging fees on manual land transactions were the first to complain that the digital system could not handle transactions. Bankers then complained that the new system had delayed billions of shillings worth of transactions.

For over four months, CS Karoney has been overseeing implementation of NLMIS, also called Ardhisasa, and she is not about to give up. She says digitisation of land records has exposed the dirt that lay inside the walls of Ardhi House for decades.

Cartels that have made a killing from frustrating efforts of Kenyans seeking services at the Lands offices for decades, working in cahoots with rogue ministry officials are putting up a vicious fight.

The CS has no doubt that NLMIS is the silver bullet for the land problems in Kenya, despite initial hitches that even she admits will need to be addressed. Ms Karoney disclosed that the old land information system, whose application was stopped on June 4, was being hacked and people corrupting records.

“This (NLMIS) is one of the most secure systems in the government. Remember we are coming from a space where people were altering and destroying records, people were actually stealing files and documents out of government premises. So based on that history we built a system to address these challenges,” CS Karoney said.

Explaining the rot at the Lands headquarters in Nairobi, the CS also said servers for the management of all land records in the country have been relocated to the National Geospatial Data Centre at the Survey of Kenya to ensure data security.

Land management in the country had gotten so bad that it had become possible for hackers to illegally access the ministry’s systems, alter records – such as transferring ownership of land – and go to the ministry to print a title deed, without detection.

Cartels working in cahoots with rogue ministry officials have also been taking vulnerable Kenyans through unnecessary bureaucracies, creating a corruption hub that would see Kenyans conned millions on a daily basis. A ministry official estimated that some Ardhi House workers make up to Sh100,000 daily just from corruption deals, such as illegally charging people for “search” service which ought to be free.

“We are building strong systems so that we free ourselves of the burden to look for people to punish. Let us just build the systems. Because if we look for people to punish, I guarantee you, three quarters will be punished,” she said, revealing that records of corrupt officials would be handed over to investigating agencies.

The CS says among the people opposing implementation of the new system are professionals who fear losing money since the new system allows users to perform self-service.

“One of the things this system was built to do is to guarantee certainty of land ownership. That if in the morning you searched and the land records read Farida, unless Farida has transferred that land, in the afternoon it should still read Farida,” Ms Karoney said.

Since April 27 when the NLMIS was officially launched by President Uhuru Kenyatta, the Nairobi Lands Registry has been operating fully on the digital platform.

But the CS noted that due to the corruption that has messed up records over the years. “Many data sets in our platform lack integrity – parcels of land that encroach on public assets,” she said.

Of the 87,000 parcels within the Nairobi registry, Ms Karoney said, only a third meet the criteria to uploaded to the digital land records. This means that about two-thirds of parcels of land in Nairobi cannot be sold, used to secure loans or any other formal transaction.

Ms Karoney admitted that with the integrity of majority of the ministry officials being questionable, the solution was to establish a system whose checks and balances leave nothing to chance, and which will expose anyone who commits an irregularity.

Ms Karoney said since the launch of the new system, the ministry has processed close to 4,000 title deeds and leases. Within Nairobi, 538 title deeds and 1,500 leases have been processed while 1,000 were pending as at Thursday last week, while 300 leases had been processed across the country, she said.

“To claim that there is no title that has been printed in the last four months is to mislead the country,” she said, stating that processing of the documents was only halted between April 27 and June 4, after which a temporary system for processing was procured. She also added that since August, the ministry has processed over 4,700 documents relating to various transactions, with an average of 150 requests per day.

“This is an extremely difficult change programme for everybody. For government officers, professionals and land owners, but for me this is the one reform that is needed badly by our country. So however painful or slow it may be, we have to bite the bullet and be patient for the reform to stabilise because the benefits we will reap will far outweigh the pain we are feeling right now,” the CS said. – nation.africa.