MAU FOREST POLITICS

Acid test for DP Ruto as Mau Forest evictions begin

The DP’s dilemma is whether to support the government’s environment conservation measures or sacrifice it at the altar of political expedience.

In Summary

• The Maasai leaders want the Kipsigis whom they accuse of encroaching into the ranches out of the complex.

• But Kipsigis leaders have vowed to oppose any operation to evict their people from the forest.

Emurua Dikirr MP Johana Ngeno looks on as houses allegedly torched by Kenya Forest Service officers go up in flames on Monday.
Emurua Dikirr MP Johana Ngeno looks on as houses allegedly torched by Kenya Forest Service officers go up in flames on Monday.
Image: KIPLANG’AT KIRUI.

A showdown looms between the government and Deputy President William Ruto's brigade as a massive eviction of settlers from the Mau Forest kicks off.

The Star has established that the government has already activated security personnel to kick out encroachers on the 46,000-hectare forest complex from next week.

Last year, the DP’s allies vehemently opposed the government’s push to flush out illegal settlers in the Mau complex, a move that split the government right in the middle.

The latest round of evictions could set the ruling party on the brink of an implosion, coming at a time when infighting in Jubilee has hit a crescendo.

Kipkelion West MP Hillary Kosgei likened the evictions to crimes against humanity.

“The eviction is now not about the Ministry of Environment. The President as the father of the nation should step in. We want to ask that evictions not take tribal angles,” Kericho Governor Paul Chepkwony told the Star.

Chepkwony said should the government forcefully evict their people, then they had other options including taking legal action.

“But for now, we believe that a lasting solution will be found,”  he said. 

Chepkwony publicly raised the matter with Uhuru last week during the memorial service for Bomet Governor Joyce Laboso and asked the President to intervene. 

It is important to conserve Mau forest but it is also important to trace the root cause of the encroachment. There are several people who were conned into buying those pieces of land and it is not fair to call the title deeds they have just paper,” the governor said.

The eviction is now not about the Ministry of Environment. The President as the father of the nation should step in. We want to ask that evictions not take tribal angles
Kericho Governor Paul Chepkwony

Environment Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko has announced that 60,000 people are targeted in the second phase of the eviction, that has become a political hot potato for over a decade.

“Evictions will happen from next week. Preparations are at an advanced stage," a senior ministry of Environment official told the Star.

On Wednesday, the Kenya Water Towers Agency acting director-general Julius Tanui said his agency had received instructions to prepare to secure the complex.

“We have received instructions to wait. Our main work will be to secure and rehabilitate after evictions. That is where conservation begins,” he said.

On July 25, Tobiko vowed to ensure the evictions go on as planned, saying that no amount of intimidation would stop it.

“Water towers are our lungs and the rivers flowing are our bloodstream. Why would the environment become a political question? It does not know about tribes; the environment does not care,” he said.

Similar evictions in 2009 coupled with ICC charges against Ruto cost former Prime Minister Raila Odinga the fanatical support he enjoyed among the Kalenjin community from the 2007 election.

Ruto, the region’s political kingpin, is already walking a tightrope as he moves to firm up his 2022 presidential bid following fast-changing dynamics in Jubilee and Raila's handshake with President Uhuru.

The DP’s dilemma is whether to support the government’s environment conservation measures or sacrifice it at the altar of political expediency.

If he will not intervene to stop the evictions, he will be seen by his people to be a powerless DP and confirm fears of his whittling influence in the Jubilee government.

Already battle lines have been drawn between the Maasai and Kipsigis communities over the evictions at the country’s largest water tower.

While Maasai leaders have vowed to push for the evictions to conserve the Mau complex, their Kipsigs counterparts have warned against such a move without broader consultations.

Preempting the planned evictions, a section of Kipsigis leaders on Tuesday met Raila and reportedly asked him to reach out to President Uhuru Kenyatta to stop the operation.

Former Buret MP Franklin Bett told the Star that the planned evictions must be put on hold until the government strikes a long-term solution with the two communities.

“The first person to occupy the ranches was the Maasai and at that time it was not seen as the destruction of the environment. But it became the destruction of the environment when it was sold to the Kipsigs people,” protested the former cabinet minister.

He went on, “The ranches were sold on a willing buyer–willing seller basis. The seller is the Maasai while the buyer is Kipsigs. Why is it painful to be in those ranches but it was not painful for the people who sold it and who were there before?”

The ex-minister said that the government must dialogue with the two communities and ask hard questions on who approved the sale of land inside the ranches.

“We need to engage the seller, the surveyor, the registrar of lands and the buyer. Why are we directing our anger at the buyer alone? Why?” Bett protested.

Former Kuresoi MP Zakayo Cheruiyot, who also attended the Tuesday meeting with Raila alongside ex-Bomet Governor Isaac Rutto also warned against the planned evictions.

“As leaders of the region we want to be clear that evictions should be halted until there is a way forward, which must be arrived at after consultation with all the stakeholders,” he told the Star.

Former Bomet Governor Isaac Rutto vowed to block any move by the government to evict people living in the forest.

The Chama Cha Mashinani party leader said the 2005 Hassan Noor task force report re-designating the forest cut-line was not binding.

Rutto said it was unfortunate that the government had resorted to mistreating people living in some parts of the forest yet there was no law guiding the process.

“What we are witnessing is an illegality because there is no law guiding us. That is why we are going to use all means possible to stop this ill-intended move,” he said.

He went on, “There is nowhere written that people living in a certain area of the forest must be evicted. Because there are now two cut-lines in the forest, that is why we are opposed to all this process,” he said.

But Raila’s meeting with Kipsigis leaders has put him in trouble with his Maasai backers.

ODM’s Narok North MP Moitalel Ole Kenta warned that if indeed Raila had accepted to broker a stoppage of the evictions, “then he has betrayed the Maasai community”.

He said the Maasai community in Narok county has always stood with Raila for his stance to protect the Mau forest and asked the ex-PM to come clean on the alleged deal.

“Raila will have to choose between the conservation of the forest, the survival of the Maasai community and politics. But if they will manage to stop it, no one should bar anyone from invading and sub-dividing Uhuru Park,” Kenta told the Star.

Narok Senator Ledama Ole Kina was set to meet Raila last evening over the evictions.

He said both the Kipsigis and the Maasais have encroached on the forest but all efforts should be used to remove the invaders “in a humane manner”.

“The Mau Forest is an important natural resource that we must all protect and that is why I’m mobilising resources so that we fence it,” he said.

Since 2005, the Mau forest eviction has been a sensitive matter.  It was part of the reason Ruto, then Agriculture Minister fell out with Raila who was PM in the 2008-2013 Grand Coalition government.

The conservation of the Mau complex was a Cabinet decision but President Mwai Kibaki took a low profile as his Mt Kenya MPs ganged up with Ruto’s men from the Rift Valley to wage political war against Raila.

When Jubilee came to power in 2013, people in the South Rift region took the advantage and started invading the forest beyond the cut-line that had been put.

(edited by O. Owino)