MPs demand land for evicted Mau squatters

Rift Valley MPs among them William Ruto (left), Franklin Bett (centre) and Isaac Ruto on Sunday accused the Kenyan Government of breaking a promise to resettle Mau squatters. Photo/HEZRON NJOROGE

A group of Rift Valley leaders has demanded that squatters evicted from the Mau Forest be given alternative land. The leaders, who included two Cabinet ministers, accused the Kenyan Government of breaking a promise to resettle the squatters.

The emotional meeting was attended by Agriculture minister William Ruto and his Roads counterpart Franklin Bett. Mr Ruto, Mr Bett and assistant minister Jebii Kilimo left the government retreat in Mombasa early to attend the meeting at Kipkongor in Kuresoi District.

No apologies

Mr Ruto said collective responsibility does not bind him from speaking out for the people. “We have no apologies to make for demanding that these people be treated as human beings. To suggest that we should remain silent rather than talk for people like these is to suggest we represent animals,” Mr Ruto said.

Mr Bett asked the squatters to “stay put”, though it was not clear whether he was asking them to stay in the camps or in the forest. “The government has failed to abide by the promise that those removed from the forest will be resettled. They have not. And before they assure us that they will be, we are asking you to stay put,” he said.

The leaders singled out Prime Minister Raila Odinga for criticism, saying he was responsible for the suffering of the evicted squatters, now living camps.

The settlers started moving out of the forest last week at the expiry of a government notice. Settlement in the Mau Forest has destroyed an important source of water, endangering the livelihoods of nearly half of Kenya’s population. The eviction of the settlers, many of whom live on the forest land illegally, was approved by Parliament which, however, bound the government to follow the law.

The charged meeting on Saturday, at one of the camps set up by the squatters in Kuresoi District, was addressed by the two ministers, MPs and councillors. Their criticism of Mr Odinga came on the same day it was agreed that ministers and assistant ministers will be bound by collective responsibility, oath of secrecy, speak with one voice and avoid publicly criticising each other.

Kipkongor is host to about 3,000 settlers who have set up camp there after moving from their homes at Kiptegelde, Langam and Tigolwe, about 10 kilometres away. A new order requiring settlers to move out of the forest by Sunday has hastened migration out of the Mau.

In September, when the report of the taskforce on Mau was adopted by the House, Rift Valley MPs lobbied their colleagues to push the government to follow the law in evicting the squatters.

On Saturday, the MPs said Mr Odinga had betrayed them by enforcing the evictions before alternative land was identified for the squatters. “There have been no meetings in Cabinet where it was agreed that people be removed and dumped on the roadside or made to live under leaves like you are. If there were any meetings to do that, they were illegal,” Mr Ruto said.

Held responsible

The Agriculture minister said the PM should be held responsible for the humanitarian crisis facing the settlers, who have already spent a week in the cold, allegedly without food, clothing and medication. Mr Ruto, an influential leader in the Rift Valley, accused Mr Odinga of pursuing international fame by championing the restoration of the forest “at the expense of the lives of innocent Kenyans”.

Mr Bett asked Mr Odinga not to brand them as inciters for speaking on behalf of their electorate. Kuresoi MP Zakayo Cheruiyot said at the next election, Mr Odinga will be asked to “stand up and be counted with his people and then we will see on whose side the people are”.

Mr Ruto said he had discussed the situation with the President, Finance minister Uhuru Kenyatta and Dr Naomi Shaban of Special Programmes and it was agreed the government would identify land for the resettlement of the squatters.

The squatters camped at Kapsongor have no land ownership or allocation documents. They claim to be Ogieks, a forest-dwelling community, who have lived in the forest all their lives.

The MPs used the occasion to drum up support for Mr Ruto’s presidential bid. Chepalungu MP Isaac Ruto, one of the PM’s fiercest critics, accused him of misleading the Kalenjin community at the last General Election, adding that President Kibaki had won the disputed vote.

Cooperatives Development assistant minister Jebii Kilimo echoed Mr Ruto’s statements on the President’s disputed re-election, saying the community had made a mistake by supporting Mr Odinga during the last election. Cherangany MP Joshua Kutuny said the battle against Mr Odinga would be taken to Parliament. “He should not tell us to shut up about the Mau. We can bring him down and we will,” he said.

Others who attended the meeting, where maize flour, cooking fat and blankets were donated, were MPs Joyce Laboso (Sotik), Luka Kigen (Rongai), Sammy Mwaita (Baringo Central), Moses Lessonet (Eldama Ravine), Benjamin Lang’at (Ainamoi) and Beatrice Kones (Bomet).

Aid agencies have been slow to provide assistance to the settlers, possibly because mushrooming of camps had not been anticipated and the government had promised that the evictions would be carried out in a humane and dignified manner.

On Sunday, Mr Odinga’s spokesman, Mr Dennis Onyango, said the PM was not seeking popularity by fighting for the conservation of the Mau. “Saving the Mau is not a popularity contest for Raila Odinga or a punishment he is meting out on anyone. I doubt there is any part of the world where the PM is not known for his principled position on issues before he began the Mau campaign,” he said.

He said saving the Mau was a patriotic duty meant to benefit all Kenyans, including the people of Rift Valley. “If saving the Mau has earned the PM fame, it is because there are people out there who believe it needed to be done,” he said.

Mr Onyango said the Mau secretariat ought to be given time to ensure the squatters are settled. He accused Rift Valley leaders of trying to get political mileage out of the evictions. “It appears to us that the politicians are using the Mau to gain fame and mileage at the grassroots at the expense of Kenya,” he said.