New war front for Raila
Published on May 28, 2008, 12:00 am
By David Ohito And Kipchumba Kemei
Prime Minister Raila Odinga trod a delicate balance when he came face-to-face with the thorny Mau Forest issue, which could complicate his political future more.
Raila, who toured the forest in a large entourage of stakeholders in three helicopters spelt out decisions that clearly implied he was aware of the dilemma the ecosystem posed for him.
Even as the PM moved to save the forest that is Kenya’s largest water catchment area and to cushion settlers who have been brutally evicted from farms for which they have title deeds, it was clear that the issue was much more than an environmental concern.
It also has a political and ethnic twist to it. Mau Forest, approximately 420,000 acres, is predominantly in Maasailand, but a large number of the Kipsigis acquired land and settled there.
Now, the Kipsigis face eviction and their MPs, who drummed up support for Raila in the last General Election, are up in arms and out to defend their ‘land’. Up to 47,000 acres of forestland has been hived off for settlement.
|Prime Minister Raila Odinga shares a word with Chepalungu MP, Mr Isaac Ruto (right), when they met at Tenduet playground in Mau Forest, on Tuesday. With the PM are Water minister, Mrs Charity Ngilu and Rift Valley PC, Mr Hasan Noor Hasan. Picture by PMPS|
In his position as Prime Minister, Raila was returning to an area that voted for him nearly to a man as the ODM presidential candidate last year. Then, he gave hope to the 30,000 residents who were evicted from the forest by the Narc Government.
But on Tuesday, he came face-to-face with pent up anger from the local community and was told that Government officials and some MPs who were part of his entourage were the culprits in hiving off the indigenous forest and adjacent prime lands.
A nominated Narok councillor, Mr Jackson Kamuye, who is the chairman of Friends of Mau Conservation Trust, named some MPs in Raila’s entourage and top civil servants as “land grabbers”.
Said Kamuye: “Those implicated in excising Mau Forest and acquiring land in the catchments are some of the MPs present here. One was defeated in the last General Election and one is a senior provincial administrator in Nakuru.”
The delicate nature of Raila’s assignment also hung on the fact that if he ruled that the eviction of the remaining 15,000 settlers goes on, he would be seen to add another wound to a region whose MPs have been grumbling.
They say they were short-changed in the Grand Coalition Government and some have even gone ahead and joined calls for a Grand Opposition.
And if he allowed evictees to return, the PM would be seen to go against Government policy to conserve the precious indigenous forest gem.
Raila had announced the Mau trip on Friday during an ODM meeting in Nairobi where his party ministers unsuccessfully tried to convince youthful MPs to back off the proposed Grand Opposition.
It was clear he was not courting further estrangement from the region and told residents who had waited for him at Tendwet and Nkaret that the eviction process would go on, but it would be done with a human face.
Unlike in the past, he said, those who had title deeds, but live in the forest boundaries would be compensated.
However, those who had no titles would be dealt with separately.
Local politicians barred
Apparently aware of the emotive issue that is Mau, Raila did not give a chance to any of the regional politicians who accompanied him to speak. Only three ministers from outside the region made short speeches.
Accompanying him were Cabinet ministers Dr Noah Wekesa (Forestry and Wildlife), Mrs Charity Ngilu (Water), Mr William ole Ntimama (National Heritage) and Mr James Orengo (Lands).
Others were MPs, Mr Isaac Ruto (Chepalungu), Dr Julius Kones (Konoin), Mr Luka Kigen (Rongai), Mr Nkaidili ole Lankas (Narok South), Mr Zakayo Cheruiyot (Kuresoi) and Assistant Lands minister, Mr Gonzi Rai, Permanent Secretaries Mr Kombo Mwero (Forestry and Wildlife), Ms Dorothy Angote (Lands) and Dr Mohammed Isahakia (PM’s office).
Conspicously absent was Environment minister, Mr John Michuki.
Raila, who spoke at two stops, Tendwet and Nkare, and later at a Press briefing in Nakuru, ordered an audit of land ownership in the forest.
The audit could open a can of worms and help the Government get back at original owners who were allocated land in dubious circumstances in 1998, most of them believed to be senior politicians and civil servants.
Raila also ordered a stop to land transactions in the area until issues were resolved.
He called for a meeting in two weeks’ time to be attended by Mau stakeholders to discuss the outstanding issues.
“I agree mistakes were made by past regimes. The forest is destroyed, but we can’t go on mourning. We must take the bull by its horn,” Raila said after a closed-door meeting with local leaders and top civil servants in Nakuru.
He added: “It is true excision was done by Government officials and some politicians and it is a mess we are dealing with, but let’s stop the blame game and resolve issues once and for all.”
Raila assured those living in the forest and hold title deeds that they would be compensated and moved to allow for conservation.
“Some people are innocent victims who were sold land. We will listen to their cases and help accordingly,” Raila said.
“We want county councils to stop the demarcation process until we resolve the issue,” Raila said.
He assured them that the police or forest guards would not burn houses as they evicted people.
“This is a beastly approach which has failed before,” Raila said in reference to eviction methods used in 2003 and 2005.
Unep Policy and Programmes Officer, Mr Christian Lambretchs, said tea, tourism and energy were under threat from forest destruction.
He warned that if the forest was not saved, the Sondu Miriu power project could become stillborn and rivers feeding Lake Victoria extinct.
While assuring residents that the Government would respect the sanctity of title deeds, Orengo said comprehensive reforms were the only solution to land problems.
“You have co-existed with animals well. Why should you fell trees that your great grandfathers found, but never destroyed?” Orengo asked.
Ngilu said: “We must conserve our forests to guard our rivers from drying up. This we must succeed in doing by putting our differences aside.”
Wekesa said: “Communities living around the forest must take lead in protecting and caring for our precious forests.”
And as the heavy-powered delegation headed back to Nairobi, most of them were pretty aware of how much the Mau Forest issue needed to be handled with care.