The bug of land ownership has finally bitten the people of the Mwea Settlement Scheme
Although they have lived in harmony since colonial times as squatters, they are now at loggerheads over their desire to own a piece of the land.
Sila Mwaniki, 72, was born here and is a farmer.
He recalls that from 1926 till 1968, the scheme was under the Embu County Council.
“People were only allowed to graze and this went on until late 1983-84 when there was drought and massive loss of livestock,” the squatter from Karaba says.
Without livestock, residents turned to farming in 1985. That was the year many squatters settled in the scheme and all kinds of people came from Kirinyaga, Machakos and Embu counties.
“People had great incomes and the scheme started developing,” Mwaniki tells the Star. Today the 44,000-acre scheme Mbeere South, Embu county, has more than 31 primary schools, six secondary schools, four dispensaries, various churches, six dams and 28 polling centres.
Since 1985, the Kikuyu, Kamba, Mbeere and other communities from Embu coexisted easily, without friction. The situation changed in 2015-15 when the government decided to issue title deeds. Subdivision became contentious.
According to Mwaniki, trouble started when a local politician attended a meeting on water issues in Mashambani area and later claimed it had been a public participation forum on the settlement scheme land issue. After that, there were plans to subdivide.
“But I say without shying away that Embu county has never done any public participation. They just claim they did,” Mwaniki says.
“The politician ignored the Embu-Mwea Council of Elders and instead formed another group called Mwea ward. They colluded and decided to subdivide the land into various community proportions,” he says.
People from Embu would be allocated 30 per cent, Mbeere 40 per cent, Mwea 20 per cent and Kirinyaga 10 per cent. Mwaniki says no one was informed how these proportions were reached and who was consulted.
Thereafter, Mwea and Kirinyaga people started complaining and there were rumours that titles deeds for both Kirinyaga and Embu had been processed but not those of Mwea. It was later announced that 7, 232 beneficiaries had been issued title deeds. No beacons had been placed to delineate the land, there were no letters of allotment.
“Title deeds were illegally allocated to people and that’s what ignited the conflict,” Mwaniki says. Then the government said it would put beacons on public utilities, including markets, schools and churches about a month ago.
The residents obeyed, as it was a government directive. But the fight started when some persons also marked people’s homes,” Mwaniki says.
This caused conflict and attacks in which one person died. At least seven people were injured by squatters and police, including former district commissioner Ireri Ndong’ong’i and four elders.
ELDERS DON’T SEE EYE TO EYE
The dispute is unlikely to end soon, since even elders from communities claiming ownership are also sharply divided.
The Mbeere Council of Elders (Ngome) led by chairman Eston Nyagaare supports the current subdivision, while the Embu Council of Elders (Nyangi Ndiiriri) opposes it.
Both the councils are in court seeking orders supporting their stand. The Ngome group wants to force continued viewing of land by title deed holders, which was suspended by Interior CS Fred Matiang’i.
The Nyangi Ndiiriri are seeking an order supporting suspension.
Some councils who participated in identifying beneficiaries have also split; splinter group members accuse council leaders of allocating themselves large tracts of land and ignoring the poor deserving people.
Another resident who ought anonymity since he is one of the beneficiaries, said the subdivision was open and transparent and those with title deeds should be allowed to occupy their farms.
Subdivision is also complicated because new people settle there almost daily after squatters sell land to them. Others come to join their relatives — and everybody claims ownership.
Other people have filed cases claiming ownership, suits are pending.
The Mwea conflict dates back to 1970 when the settlement was put under the old Embu County Council. In the 1950s, it was a settlers ranch.
Since then, or later in the 1960s when the locals bought some shares, any effort to settle squatters on the land has been resisted, sometimes violently, by residents, who claim to be rightful owners.
Although it’s in Embu county, Kirinyaga claims a stake in the scheme, as it was a grazing area for Gichugu and Ndia residents long before the two counties were separated.
Kirinyaga was part of the larger Embu district before Independence but the two were separated into different administrative areas.
After separation, the settlement scheme was maintained in the old Embu district in 1933 by the Carter Commission that settled traditional boundaries between Embu and Kirinyaga.
Since then, people from Kirinyaga, Machakos, Makueni, Kitui, Murang’a and other parts of Embu have been living there. They claim they are legitimate beneficiaries who deserve land.
The Mbeere Council of Elders (Ngome) maintains the scheme is in Embu county, going by all the records.
Over the years, there have been numerous futile attempts by the government, local leaders and elders from Kirinyaga, Embu, Mbeere and Kamba to resolve the dispute and distribute land fairly.
All attempts ended in discord, sometimes conflict.
Former MP Mutava Musyimi, who chaired Parliament’s Lands Committee, failed to end the conflict. He fell out with the Embu leadership.
Since devolution in 2013, Embu and the National Land Commission started subdividing the scheme into 7,232 parcels of about five acres each.
Several ownership court cases were withdrawn. This followed an agreement before a notice was placed in newspapers stating that the land was to be subdivided, and anyone opposed to come forward.
After 90 days, nobody had opposes the exercise, according to Embu land executive Josphat Kithumbu
The task of identifying beneficiaries was given to elders from all communities claiming ownership. They included Ngome for the Mbeere community and Nyangi Ndiiriri for Embu, plus Kamba, Kirinyaga and Kikuyu elders.
By 2016, all 7,232 beneficiaries were identified but there were fierce complaints that thousands of deserving people were passed over before 2,000 more were added, bringing the total to 9,232.
Placing beacons was completed in early April by surveyors protected by armed police.
Despite the addition of 2,000 more beneficiaries, squatters were still dissatisfied and staged numerous demonstrations demanding fresh subdivision.
The national and county government started escorting beneficiaries to see their parcels.
That’s when squatters started blocking the exercise. That’s when Ndong’ong’i and four other people were slashed with pangas and left for dead before they were rescued by journalists covering the uproar.
Residents of the scheme claimed those issued with title deeds were outsiders from other subcounties in Embu, including Runyenjes, Manyatta and Mbeere North, and from Machakos and Meru counties.
Mbeere South MP Geoffrey Kingangi supports the Embu county and NLC distribution of 7,232 parcels for squatters. He says opponents are not practical.
“If the 7,232 beneficiaries are asked to return the land, they will go to court to challenge the decision,” Kingangi said.
Kirinyaga Governor Anne Waiguru wants a review of the process of issuing title deeds. She says the boundary between the two counties was not clear and elders from Kikuyu clans must be involved.
She said, “The purported surveying and allocation of land toe 7,232 beneficiaries was not inclusive and there was no public participation as required by the Constitution. Mwea settlement scheme residents and the nine Kikuyu clans were not consulted or involved.”
However, Embu Lands executive Josphat Kithumbu dismissed Waiguru’s assertions, saying there was public participation through education forums called mashamba villages.
“The process was final, surveys and issuing title deeds was done according to law. Stakeholders including the NLC, Attorney General’s office and the Lands ministry were involved,” Kithumbu said.
Waiguru wants a task force created by the Interior and Land ministries and county officials to resolve the disputes.
Former Cooperative Development minister Joe Nyaga is a resident who had tried to subdivide the land to settle squatters and other beneficiaries.
He said historically the land belonged to the Mbeere community in Embu county and the Ndia community in Kirinyaga.
Nyaga said over the years, Kambas, Kikuyus, Embus and others were welcomed.
He supports subdivision into 9,232 parcels but says that’s not enough for every deserving squatter, since senior politicians, wealthy people and civil servants have been allocated large tracts.
Nyaga said there will be no end of violence until the land is taken over and given to deserving squatters.
“I plead with those many people with large tracts to forego part of them so it’s allocated to those who deserve it in order to stabilise the situation and bring peace to the region. There’s enough land for those complaining — if some people don’t take too much,” Nyaga said.
However Embu Lands executive Kithumbu said the land was demarcated according to the Constitution and the law, notices were published in the media and all stakeholders and relevant government officers involved.
He denied anyone owns large tracts of land. The largest parcel owned by an individual is 6.6 acres and anything bigger is owned by public utilities like markets, hospitals and schools, Kithumbu said.
He said everyone who deserved land has been considered and called complainers selfish non-residents.
During the three weeks’ beaconing, there was no trouble because roads were blocked to intruders and settlers didn’t interfere, Kithumbu said.
The Embu Lands boss said some violence was fuelled by politicians using land for political gain and by individuals who’ve been farming large tracts of free land and want the status quo unchanged.
Calm has returned after Interior CS Matiang’i and his Lands counterpart Farida Karoney suspended the process, pending further investigations.
Embu county is consulting with the ministries of Land and Interior and local leaders to find a way forward.