Politicians grilled over Kericho, Bomet tea firms chaos

Benjamin Langat

Ainamoi MP Benjamin Langát addresess media outside Nakuru DCI headquarters on June 05, 2023. He is among other elected leaders from Kericho County who had been summoned to record statement in probe into tea firm attacks.

Photo credit: Boniface Mwangi I Nation Media Group

A Member of Parliament and four county representatives - all allied to President William Ruto's United Democratic Alliance - were on Monday grilled for more than five hours by detectives over the invasion of multinational tea companies and burning of tea plucking machines in Kericho and Bomet counties.

The leaders who were questioned over their links to the recent chaos in Kericho and Bomet include Ainamoi MP Benjamin Langat, MCAs Mathew Korir (Chaik ward), Paul Chirchir (KApsoit ward) and political activist Gilbert Kipkoech.

The politicians complied with summonses to appear before investigators at the Rift Valley Regional Directorate of Criminal Investigations headquarters in Nakuru City for questioning and recording of statements. 

The politicians were questioned at intervals between 9am and 5.30pm on Monday.

Mr Langat arrived at the DCI offices for questioning at around 12pm and was grilled for more than five hours before being released at around 5pm.

"I received the summons last week as per the statement made by the Cabinet Secretary for Home Affairs, Prof Kithure Kindiki, to shed light on what happened in my constituency.The Brooke Trading Centre where the mayhem took place is in my constituency," he said.

"The detectives wanted to know what I did to curb the violence," he added.

According to the lawmaker, since the violence occurred, he has convened security meetings involving the community and multinational tea companies to contain the situation,

The Kapsoit ward representative, Mr Paul Chirchir Tarimbo, also made his way to the regional offices around 2pm and was grilled for hours.

Mr Tarimbo, who spoke briefly to the media after the questioning, said he had recorded statements and would make a proper statement on Friday this week.

"I have complied with the summons and I have recorded a statement, that is all for now, I will make a full statement on the matter on Friday," Mr Tarimbo told the Nation.

A senior detective, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Nation that more politicians would be summoned over the chaos.

"The leaders have been questioned and their statements recorded, which will help in the ongoing investigations into the mayhem. More leaders will be summoned for interrogation. This will lead to the arrest of those found culpable," the detective revealed.

This comes as Kericho Governor Dr Erick Mutai called on residents of the region to remain calm and put an end to the invasion of the plantations.

Dr Mutai, who was speaking during a World Environment Day event at Silibwet trading centre in Bomet County, which brings together 14 counties under the Lake Basin Economic Bloc (LREB), said there was need to end the chaos and give dialogue a chance.

"We as leaders are in favour of dialogue to resolve the standoff over mechanisation in the multinational tea estates...let us allow the issues to be addressed in a peaceful environment," Dr Mutai said.

"I appeal to our people in the two counties - Bomet and Kericho - not to break the law but allow us (leaders) to find a lasting solution to the problems," Dr Mutai said.

At least five MPs, three MCAs and political activists were expected to appear before investigators for questioning and recording of statements.

The politicians - all from President William Ruto's United Democratic Alliance (UDA) party - from Bomet and Kericho counties were summoned by the DCI last week over the invasions by multinational tea companies, the burning of tea plucking machines and the chaos that erupted in Kericho and Bomet counties in recent weeks.

James Finlays Kenya and Ekaterra Plc are the companies most affected by the invasion of plantations, illegal harvesting of tea and burning of plucking machines, which left one journalist and 23 police officers injured and more than five residents with gunshot wounds.

Ekaterra Plc has since suspended operations on its estates due to the growing insecurity, putting the jobs of 16,000 workers at risk.

Cabinet Secretary for Home Affairs, Prof Kithure Kindiki, last week vowed that politicians and businessmen involved in fuelling the standoff would be dealt with according to the law.

"Politicians involved in inciting locals to invade and vandalise properties of multinational tea companies in Kericho and Bomet will be arrested and prosecuted once ongoing investigations are completed," Prof Kindiki said during a press briefing in Nairobi last Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Aaron Cheruiyot, Bomet Senator Hillary Sigei, Governors - Dr Rick Mutai (Kericho), Professor Hillary Barchok (Bomet), Bomet Deputy Governor Shadrack Rotich, MP - Mr Benjamin Langat (Ainamoi), Mr Nelson Koech (Belgut), Mr Justus Kemei (Soin Sigowet) and a cross-section of county assembly members recently held a security meeting at the ACK Hall in Kericho town and adopted a series of resolutions aimed at ending the growing insecurity in the region.

Rift Valley Regional Commissioner Dr Abdi Hassan also said last week that the government would not spare politicians and businessmen involved in incitement, which has endangered lives and businesses.

Despite the warning and ongoing security operations, insecurity has persisted in the area with some residents invading farms to illegally harvest green tea leaves.

The cases are in Konoin, Bureti, Belgut, Ainamoi and Kipkelion West constituencies in Bomet and Kericho counties.

A protest by foreign investors over the security of their operations in Kenya and the risk of the country rolling back gains made in marketing locally produced goods on the global market triggered the latest crackdown on rising insecurity at multinational tea plantations.

The affected multinationals - Ekaterra Plc and James Finlays Kenya - and other foreign investors are said to have put pressure on the government through their various embassies to respond to the invasions and restore order.

Subsequently, a directive to crack the whip on the perpetrators and restore order in the South Rift region, where invasions of tea plantations and the burning of mechanical pluckers had continued, was said to have come from the highest political office in the land.

President William Ruto, angered by the turn of events when Ekaterra Plc announced that it had suspended operations, threatening the jobs of 16,000 workers as the matter took on an international dimension, is said to have ordered a security operation in the South Rift region.

"The fear among investors is that if those behind the invasion and destruction of properties in Kericho and Bomet counties succeed in their illegal act, their investments would also be at risk," a top source privy to the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, told the Nation in an interview.

"The ongoing security operation was given the green light by the highest administrative and political offices in the country after the ongoing stalemate over the use of mechanisation by the multinational tea companies took an unexpected criminal turn," the source added.

Another source said the invasion of tea estates had mutated from an isolated local issue to a national and international one, with global market players closely watching the development.

"The invasion of tea estates, torching of tea plucking machines and illegal harvesting of green leaves not only threatened foreign investment but was increasingly seen as having a huge potential to set back Dr Ruto's efforts to create export markets for Kenyan produce," the source said in an interview.