6 suspects arrested over vandalism at Ekaterra tea farm

Kericho tea farm chaos

Protesters buried in smoke after police fired teargas to disperse them at the Brooke trading centre in Kericho. This week, Dutch multinational Ekaterra Tea Company suspended its operations in Kericho, Kenya’s South Rift region, after militant residents invaded two of its estates and burnt mechanical tea pickers, harvesters and a tractor.

Photo credit: Vitalis Kimutai | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Ekaterra and James Finlay have been the main targets of invasion by groups pushing for less mechanisation and more manual plucking of tea leaves, to create job opportunities.

Six suspects have been arrested in connection to the invasion and burning of machines at the Ekaterra tea farm in Kericho County.

Rift Valley Regional Commissioner Abdi Hassan made the announcement on Thursday, adding that a crackdown was on to find more suspects.

This follows the arrest of 46 suspects last week over the torching of a police vehicle at James Finlay Kenya's tea estates in the neighbouring Bomet County, as security officers attempted to disperse them as they illegally harvested green tea leaves.

Dr Hassan told journalists, after chairing a security meeting at the Kericho County Commissioner’s office, that more suspects were being sought by security agencies in Bomet and Kericho, which have been the epicenters of criminal activities this year.

“Security will be beefed up in the region and all those involved in the criminal activities will be dealt with, irrespective of their status in society. I can assure you that we will smoke them out, round them up and deal with them in a manner they have never seen or imagined” he said.

Stern warning

Dr Hassan’s tour of the region followed demonstrations that rocked the Brooke trading centre on Monday and Tuesday, when tea-plucking machines were burnt and 11 people injured, among them policemen and a journalist.

“When you invite the government to come after you, we will use all the force at our disposal to ensure that law and order are restored,” he said. “We cannot allow insecurity to rise to this level as we watch. This must come to an end. It is not debatable. We must all respect and uphold the law.”

But even as Dr Hassan stated that more security officers will be deployed to the region, a section of residents of Ainamoi, Belgut and Bureti constituencies in Kericho, and Konoin constituency in Bomet, invaded the multinational tea farms and illegally harvested green leaves.

The regional commissioner, who addressed the press flanked by Kericho County Commissioner Michael Lesimam and County Police Commander Geoffrey Maiyek, said the operation will continue for as long as it takes.

His tour was preceded by a relative calm that returned to the region after the deployment of more security teams, among them the General Service Unit (GSU), who had water cannon trucks.

The tour also followed a joint security meeting by leaders from Kericho and Bomet led by Senate majority leader Aaron Cheruiyot, Kericho Governor Erick Mutai, his Bomet counterpart Hillary Barchok, Bomet Deputy Governor Shadrack Rotich and Bomet Senator Hillary Sigei.

Also present were MPs Nelson Koech (Belgut), Benjamin Langat (Ainamoi) and Justus Kemei (Soin-Sigowet).

At the meeting, the leaders called for an end to the invasion and destruction of property.

County Commissioners Ahmed Omar (Bomet) and Michael Lesimam (Kericho) attended the meeting at the Kericho ACK centre where it was resolved that any politician found inciting residents to violence would be arrested and prosecuted.

It was also resolved that a roundtable meeting of local leaders, administrators, youth representatives and the management of the multinationals would be convened to address the issues.

Mr Cheruiyot noted the need for dialogue so that the issues raised by the residents are addressed, while the interests of the multinationals are also catered to, for the sake of peace and the resumption of business operations.

Youths were warned that they will be held responsible, moving forward, for invading the tea estates, disrupting business, illegally harvesting green leaves and burning tea plucking machines.

Dr Mutai said, “We have apologised for our previous utterances that may have fuelled the standoff and invasion of the tea estates. We are calling on our people to stop the invasions and burning of machines, and allow the investors to go about their businesses."

Professor Barchok earlier accused politicians of fuelling the standoff between the tea companies and residents, leading to the destruction of property and injuries.

“The problem is with politicians inciting residents to violence. This has to stop as it has the potential to spill over to other sectors and negatively impact the image of the country,” he said.

What happened

Ekaterra and James Finlay have been the main targets of invasion by groups pushing for less mechanisation and more manual plucking of tea leaves, to create job opportunities.

At the Brooke trading centre, demonstrators engaged the police in running battles for two days, blocking traffic flow along the Nakuru-Kericho highway, and targeting local business premises which were hurriedly shut.

Some of the shops have not been re-opened while others are partially open due to fear of attacks.

A leading supermarket chain in the region – Kipchimat – had its glass wall shattered by stone-throwing demonstrators, with the business community counting losses from the incident.

Police conducted an all-night patrol in Kericho town and the Brooke trading centre on Wednesday in a bid to contain demonstrations and prevent further invasions of the tea plantations.

Traffic flowed without disruption on Thursday, following the deployment of anti-riot policemen along the Nakuru-Kericho highway, which had seen ugly scenes between the residents and security officers.

It was the complete opposite of what was witnessed on Monday and Tuesday, when demonstrators armed with crude weapons burnt car tyres on the highway, erected stones and boulders to block traffic and pelted officers with stones.