Governor, MPs, ward reps face tea farm raids probe

Police patrol Brooke trading centre in Kericho County

Police patrol Brooke trading centre in Kericho County on May 24, 2023, following two days of protests and the burning of tea plucking machines at Ekaterra tea estates. 

Photo credit: Vitalis Kimutai | Nation Media Group

Like a revolution that eats its own children, reckless utterances made by politicians to rile public ire against the use of machines to pluck tea have morphed into a monster that is threatening to run to the ground businesses operated by foreign multinationals, the livelihoods of thousands of workers, and the careers of several leaders.

It has emerged that a governor, two members of parliament and at least three ward reps are among politicians under investigation over recent invasions of tea estates in Kericho and Bomet.

For the second time in a week, Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki has stated that politicians who have been fuelling the invasions, leading to the torching of mechanical plucking machines, will be arrested and prosecuted. 

Ekaterra and James Finlay are the most affected in the standoff that has seen a journalist and 23 police officers injured and more than five people shot.

Ekaterra has since suspended operations until the prevailing insecurity is addressed, putting the jobs of 16,000 workers at risk.

“We are reviewing footage of utterances made in public by the politicians. They will soon be arrested,” revealed a senior Directorate of Criminal Investigations detective who sought anonymity.

No politician summoned

None of the politicians has so far been summoned to record statements with the police, but hundreds of youths have over the past week been arrested in relation to the chaos at Brooke trading centre just outside Kericho town and the blocking of the Nakuru-Nairobi highway last week. 

A security operation involving officers from the General Service Unit is ongoing in the area with locals claiming to have been beaten, injured and locked up for more than two days at Kericho Police Station before being released without being charged.

Kericho Senator Aaron Cheruiyot, Bomet Senator Hillary Sigei, Kericho Governor Erick Mutai, his Bomet counterpart Hillary Barchok, Bomet Deputy Governor Shadrack Rotich, MPs Benjamin Langat (Ainamoi), Nelson Koech (Belgut), Justus Kemei (Soin Sigowet) last week held a security meeting at the ACK Hall in Kericho town and made a raft of resolutions aimed at ending the stand-off.

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

Mr Silas Njibwakale, the Kenya Tea Growers Association chairman, has called on President William Ruto to intervene and bring the farm invasions to an end.

“What began as daytime raids and theft of tea leaves and machinery last October has escalated to organised assaults on business premises and the deliberate destruction of crucial assets," Mr Njibwakale said.

The politicians have been vocal opponents of tea plucking machines, calling for a return to manual plucking to protect jobs.

“It is unfortunate that, in the end, it is the ordinary person who is paying the price for incitement by politicians,” said Ms Elizabeth Rono, a Kericho resident.

“The problem is with the politicians who are inciting the residents to violence. This has to stop as it has the potential of spilling over to sectors and negatively impacting the image of the country,” Prof Barchok said.

Mr Cheruiyot called for a balance between business interests and the needs of the locals. 

Dr Mutai recently set up a task force to look into the issues affecting the industry, which, after holding public hearings, recommended a 60:40 deployment of machines and human labour.

Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union Secretary-General Francis Atwoli said the introduction of tea plucking machines has led to the loss of more than 200,000 jobs directly and indirectly.