Evictees from Kenya’s Water Catchment Face Insurmountable Challenges

“I am not moving out of here. Let them come and kill me with their guns. Enough is enough,” says, Kiprono Kiprotich, a 64-year-old granddad who has until the end of this October to vacate from the Mau complex, also known as East Africa’s biggest water catchment area after the Kenya government began forcibly evicting 60,000 families early this September.

The ecosystem measures 400,000 hectares and is located 175 kilometres west of Nairobi, the capital.

“I bought this land 14 –years ago with the proceeds that I was compensated with after serving in a peace mission in Sierra Leone in the late 1990’s while employed by the Kenyan government as a soldier. My earthly possessions are all based here. Where does the government want me to take my family to? I’ve nowhere else to go to. I will die here. When did I become an illegal squatter?” asks Kiprotich.

Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Keriako Tobiko has termed the land encroachment a crime and has ruled out compensating the recalcitrant evictees.

“You cannot pay people for crime. The government is being lenient. In normal circumstances, it jails people for crime.”

Reports of highhandedness by government forces, disproportionately military personnel, while enforcing the government order have been documented by Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international non-governmental organisation, that investigates and documents alleged human rights violations.

Otsieno Namwaya, senior Africa researcher at HRW said the government is conducting the exercise “in an abusive, unlawful manner” by failing to follow its own guidelines.

“While forest conservation goals are laudable, the way the government is carrying out the evictions raises serious human rights concerns,” says Namwaya. “He should know since he has chronicled the evictions since the first phase began on July 7, 2018, with the latest being the second phase.”

According to an HRW report released this September 20 titled: Kenya: Abusive Evictions in Mau Forest: Stop Excessive Use of Force; Uphold Guidelines, the Administration of President Uhuru Kenyatta is responsible for nine deaths so far since the initial exercise began.

Sharon Chepkoech a five-year-old, is an exemplar. She fell off the back of her 26-year-old mother as they fled the evictions team, which had demolished their house and destroyed their food store. She fell ill as a result of the fall and died a week later, according to a relative.

“The evictions team came with power-saws, which they used to destroy everything, including food stores, crops in the farms and all our houses,” said Richard Ng’eno, her son. “My mother collapsed in shock on July 7 when the evictions started and we admitted her to a local hospital, where she died,” as stated in the report.

One can trace the genesis of the Mau forest encroachment by humans to have occurred immediately after independence in 1963 with a significant surge happening during the 24-year-reign of Daniel arap Moi (1978-2012), a leader who leveraged on his autocratic streak to water down the rule of law. Notably, it was his use of command leading him, for example, to gift state land to influential members of his political wing for a song.

Unabashed, he excised for himself 900 hectares, going ahead to controversially establish a tea estate in 1978, within the ecosystem. Turns out, some of his political lackeys held the resource for speculative purposes flipping it with time to unsuspecting locals like Kiprono.

“The invasions of Mau forest epitomise the misuse of power and outright breaking of the law by the ruling elites in all the government regimes that Kenya has had. Powerful politicians and senior government officials in the former and current regimes top the list of individuals who acquired swathes of land in the forest illegally and they are the same reason why the government has taken too long to conserve the forest,” says the Executive Director of Transparency International Kenya, Samuel Kimeu.

In watershed polls held in 2002 which brought down the curtains for Moi’s Kenya African National Union (KANU) party after 39 uninterrupted years the in-coming President, Mwai Kibaki, set off to unravel Kenya’s land problem.

Setting up a Presidential Commission of Inquiry popularly known as the ‘Ndung’u’ Report in 2018 pointed out that  “Land [after independence] was no longer allocated for development purposes but as political reward and … ‘land grabbing’ became part and parcel of official grand corruption through which land meant for public purposes … has been acquired by individuals and corporations.”

Adding starkly that, “In 2001, 61,587 hectares of forest in the Mau Complex were excised. Also, an estimated 29,000 hectares have been encroached in the remaining protected forests of the Mau Complex, while over 17,000 hectares were illegally allocated in Maasai Mau alone. Such an extensive and on-going destruction of a key natural asset for the country is a matter of national emergency. It presents significant environmental, economic and security threats.”

Since 2004, authorities here have attempted  to conserve Mau forest with initially 100,000 people evicted between 2004 and 2006, an exercise that Amnesty International and the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights, alleges was carried out before the evictions were halted by a ruling of a local High Court that upheld the deeds held at the time.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) which is headquartered there had seen ominous signs ahead stating in 2008 that “Kenya stands to lose an economic asset worth over $300m if the forest in the Mau Complex continues to be degraded and destroyed.”

The current Government under Kenyatta is readying itself to persecute the perpetrators thought to have had a role in adulterating the Mau ecosystem.

“All government officials who were involved have recorded statements. For those who have died, we have gone to their graves to confirm that they have indeed died. We also have their death certificates,” George Natembeya is reported to have told the Daily Nation, a local newspaper.

Ironically successive governments originating in 1963 when Kenya got independence from British rule are culpable of the rot besetting the Mau ecosystem.

“If the government is honest it should admit that it perpetuated the illegality by going ahead to put infrastructure within the ecosystem including schools, hospitals, police stations, roads, power grids and so on. If they are going ahead to evict people from the forest they should be compensated,” says Isaac Ruto, formerly a Governor of a county bordering the Mau forest.