By Katy Migiro
NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kenya's lands ministry is reshuffling its staff and digitizing its services to combat corrupt cartels, a senior official said on Wednesday, as the government steps up the acquisition of land for ambitious infrastructure projects.
Corruption is seen as a major obstacle to development in Kenya, where some 70 percent of land is owned by communities who generally do not possess formal title deeds.
"We will start with reshuffling and we will go on to purge," Mariamu el Maawy, principal secretary in the Lands and Physical Planning Ministry, said at the launch of a report on community participation in large-scale land acquisitions.
"If we have shuffled the problem elsewhere then we know the problem is not environmental. We will able to start zeroing in on where the challenges are."
The ministry has reshuffled about half of its staff in nine of its 57 land registries in recent months, she said, with officers who have served at one station for more than three years being transferred to root out cartels.
Anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International has long ranked the lands ministry as one of the most corrupt institutions in Kenya, where citizens have to pay a bribe to get served.
Kenya's former lands minister, Charity Ngilu, was charged in 2015 with obstructing an investigation into fraudulent land transactions. She pleaded not guilty.
The Directorate of Criminal Investigation in August started probing the source of wealth of ministry staff, some of whom own valuable properties despite earning modest salaries, according to local media reports.
The Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission is also auditing ministry procedures to seal corruption loopholes.
El Maawy said the ministry will block access to those who want to misuse land documents.
Services are being moved online, she said, to reduce opportunities for corruption, with land searches going online in 13 registries by the end of the year.
Lands ministry staff will no longer be able to tell Kenyans their file is lost, she said, a common ploy to extract a bribe.
Instead, the information must be conveyed in a letter detailing the steps being taken to recover the information.
This has proven effective in reducing the disappearance of passport records in the immigration department, she said.
For decades, Kenyan politicians have illegally granted vast tracts of land to themselves and their allies, ignoring government inquiries calling for their titles to be revoked, campaigners said.
State officials have also been accused of working with fraudsters to make illegal property transfers by altering documents, hiding files and issuing multiple title deeds to the same piece of land.
(Reporting by Katy Migiro; Editing by Astrid Zweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)