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In Nairobi, Tax Tiff Takes Racial Turn

Kenya: Mayor of capital tells whites to pay fees or poor may take over their land. But residents say the city is corrupt and have put the funds in escrow.

January 12, 2002|DAVAN MAHARAJ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NAIROBI, Kenya — The Zimbabwe-style seizures of white-owned farms and homes haven't begun here--at least not yet.

But Nairobi Mayor Dick Waweru recently warned white residents of the city's richest neighborhoods that their homes could be invaded by slum dwellers unless they pay outstanding land taxes.

"It's either do or die," he told a news conference. Using the Swahili word for whites, he added, "We must get our money by all means [or] wazungus will have to pack up and go."

So far, there has been no denouncement of Waweru's remarks by the government of Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi, but the mayor's attack has rattled the nerves of white residents, who say Waweru is trying to stir up a race war so he can fatten city coffers.

Waweru's remarks last Saturday marked the latest volley in a running battle involving taxation and government accountability in this capital city.

Angered by the poor condition of roads, the lack of garbage collection and the absence of basic municipal services, residents of the Karen neighborhood--named after Baroness Karen Blixen, the Danish author of "Out of Africa"--began withholding their property taxes a few years ago to force politicians to account for the tens of millions of dollars that pass through City Hall each year.

The residents received court approval to pay their taxes into an escrow account, which they used to pave roads and provide services for their neighborhoods. The unspent money was set aside for City Hall--but would be handed over only if officials published audited records of how funds were being spent.

Residents of other rich--and poor--neighborhoods followed Karen's example. Waweru estimated recently that the city is owed more than $110 million from "recalcitrant" boroughs.

Activists have long argued that corruption by city officials has helped transform Nairobi from one of Africa's most promising metropolises to one of its most neglected. Power outages and water shortages are common. Telephones often go dead. Navigating some potholed city streets requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Less than two months ago, a U.N. report concluded that Nairobi is one of the most unsafe cities in the world. A third of 8,600 residents surveyed by U.N. researchers reported being robbed by bandits wielding machetes, axes, wooden clubs and guns.

Many robberies are committed by off-duty police officers or bandits who rent guns from their police comrades.

Waweru said the city cannot provide efficient services without the withheld funds.

But he was dealt another blow two weeks ago when a Nairobi judge ruled that the City Council had failed to follow the correct procedure when it recently increased land valuations--some by as much as 3,000%.

The motion against the valuations was filed by the We Can Do It neighborhood coalition, headed by Jacqueline Resley, who hails from Russell, Kan.

Resley, who runs a successful pottery business here, began urging neighborhood groups in 1998 to take matters into their own hands by using their taxes to improve their communities. Residents of some slum communities have since joined upscale neighborhoods to fight city hall.

The groups' recent court victory irked Waweru. At a news conference, he alluded to the ongoing crisis in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe has allowed political supporters to seize the farms of white citizens. "We can also incite our poor people in Mathare [a slum community] to invade those houses and subdivide those plots," Waweru said.

Sharad Rao, an attorney who represented the neighborhood groups in the fight against the increased land valuations, said Waweru's tactics "are aimed at getting the residents to back down and are very dangerous."

"I don't think he should be trying to incite the public," said Rao, Kenya's former top prosecutor, who is now in private practice.

Activists said that despite Waweru's remarks, land seizures are unlikely to occur here. In Zimbabwe, about a third of farmland is owned by white residents. In Kenya, land reform has placed most of the land in the hands of government supporters. Kenya's 30 million people include about 15,000 whites, and they own less than 5% of the land, by some estimates.

John Githongo, who heads the local chapter of Transparency International, an anti-corruption group, said the white-led neighborhood associations have set an important precedent for all Kenyans--rich and poor, black and white.

"Successfully using the legal system to force government to account for taxpayers' money is the greatest innovation in civil action we've seen in Kenya," he said.

This week, Waweru confronted another worrisome problem. The Kenyan government proposed a law that would require all mayors to hold a college degree. Waweru is a high school graduate.

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