Saturday, November 28, 2009

Big names and soldiers next in Mau crackdown

Kiptagich Tea Estates on which the tea factory (above) sits is part of the property earmarked for expropriation. The property is widely believed to be owned by the family of former president Moi. Photo/FILE

Kiptagich Tea Estates on which the tea factory (above) sits is part of the property earmarked for expropriation. The property is widely believed to be owned by the family of former president Moi. Photo/FILE 

By SUNDAY NATION TEAM

An inter-ministerial committee has given its approval for the dispossession of powerful individuals who own land in the Mau complex. The decision sets the stage for a politically loaded round of dispossession expected to begin as soon as the Cabinet meets to discuss the plan, which could happen as early as Thursday.

List of landowners

The big shots are targeted in the next phase of dispossession and evictions from the complex that will focus on a number of areas, including the Maasai Mau. The list of landowners set to lose their holdings when the exercise begins is a compilation of the most powerful political figures in the country over the last two decades.

Among the properties slotted for expropriation are the Kiptagich Tea Estates, widely believed to be owned by the family of former President Moi. Also in line for dispossession is the former president’s last-born son, Gideon. According to the names compiled by the government’s task force on the conservation of the Mau Forest complex seen by the Sunday Nation, Mr Gideon Moi owns parcel 46 of the Nakuru/Olenguruone/Kiptagich extension of the forest. His holding in this section is 44.7 hectares, according to the report.

Former powerful internal security permanent secretary and serving MP for Kuresoi Zakayo Cheruiyot is listed as one of the biggest landowners in the forest complex which environmentalists say is one of the most critical environmental assets in the country. The report says he was allocated 1,955 hectares.

Another prominent figure in the Moi regime, former State House comptroller John Lokorio, is named in the report as owning 23.5 hectares in the forest, the same holding as that listed for former lands commissioner Sammy Mwaita.

Prominent figures

Other prominent figures on the list are a one-time Kanu official Hosea Kiplagat and Cabinet minister Franklin Bett, who has been a vocal opponent of the proposed evictions. Mr Hassan Noor, the coordinator of the secretariat that is handling the process, declined to be drawn on how soon the evictions will start, saying he did not want to issue a statement after Prime Minister Raila Odinga had already made government policy on the matter clear.

“The big statement has already been issued, so I do not want to chip in with smaller statements,” he said. Mr Odinga on Friday said the government would not relent in its efforts to conserve the vital water catchment. The expropriation of property in the hands of powerful and well-known members of the political elite would be a historic development.

It would be the first time senior politicians are dispossessed of their land in a government-driven exercise, a departure from established political tradition where poor people are often the victims of forced removals. The decision to go ahead with Phase 3 of the removal process was taken at an inter-ministerial meeting chaired by Prime Minister Raila Odinga on Thursday, according to sources who spoke to the Sunday Nation.

Among those in attendance were cabinet ministers George Saitoti (Internal Security), James Orengo (Lands), Naomi Shaaban (Special Programmes). Water minister Charity Ngilu and her Environment counterpart John Michuki were represented by the Permanent Secretaries in their ministries.

During the meeting, a representative of the Mau secretariat presented a briefing on the progress that has been made in the last few weeks. He said they had begun with squatters who do not hold titles in hopes that the big shots, who own large tracts of land, would voluntarily surrender their holdings once it became clear the evictions were going ahead. This has not happened, and the secretariat suggested that it should be given the green light to proceed with the dispossession, according to a source familiar with the proceedings who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the press.

Mr Odinga is said to have spoken out strongly in support of continuing the process. “The PM said turning back now would be disastrous because it would indicate the government is not serious about conservation. He also argued that it would be difficult for donors to take the country seriously when it keeps issuing emergency food appeals while the country is continuing to destroy its main sources of water,” said the official.

In an effort to avoid embarrassing confrontations with political heavyweights, officials from the secretariat and the Forestry ministry have begun an initiative to reach out to former President Moi and other senior officials so they can engage in negotiations with the government on ways of handing over the land, the Sunday Nation learnt.

“The hope is that they can send politicians and civil servants who were close to Mr Moi with one message from the government: can we talk on the Mau? The names that have been mentioned are (ministers) William Ntimama and Henry Kosgey, while another name that has come up is that of Hussein Dado, a former long-serving DC of Baringo (Mr Moi’s home district),” the source said.

The negotiations are lent greater urgency because the dispossession of the prominent political figures will be more complex than the removal of squatters from the southwestern Mau. Many of those targeted in the next phase have papers proving ownership, although the Ndungu commission of inquiry into land allocations found that the allocation of land to politically well connected figures was illegal.

The inter-ministerial committee is expected to present a memo to the Cabinet outlining how Phases 3, 4 and 5 of the reclamation of the forest will be conducted.

Compensation package

The memo will outline proposals for the compensation package to be offered as well as offer recommendations on what to do with those who refuse to surrender or sell back land they own, according to a source who attended the committee’s most recent meeting. Valuers have also been dispatched to the places targeted in Phase 3 and have reported that the value of the land has fallen sharply because there are few buyers, indicating the cost of buying back the land will not be as steep as initially feared.

One of the thorny issues will be arriving at decisions on what to do with the land registered in the names of a number of companies believed to be connected to former senior government officials. These include four companies whose files the Sunday Nation could not trace at the Registrar of Companies — Kelewa Enterprises, Kapkembu Tea Factory, Kaptagich Tea Estates and Ololarusi Investment Farm. Records indicate they hold a combined 18,102 hectares.

Writing in the Saturday Nation, Mr Odinga accused “well-to-do leaders masquerading as the peoples’ champions” and said their selfish interests were driving the efforts to oppose evictions. “Many of these well-connected leaders illegally acquired large tracts of land in the forest even though they now profess a commitment to the environment and have now discovered the importance of squatter interests.”

The Mau Forest complex is the largest of Kenya’s water towers. The 400,000- square hectare area is the size of the Mt Kenya and Aberdares water catchment areas combined. Water flowing from the Mau Forest feeds numerous lakes including several that are key tourist attractions such as Lake Victoria, Turkana, Baringo, Nakuru, Natron and Naivasha. Victoria, Turkana and Natron straddle several countries.

Large-scale occupation in the complex began in earnest when former President Moi de-gazetted sections of the forest in 2001. The destruction intensified in 2005 when President Kibaki gave title deeds to thousands of people who claimed land in the forest.

The decision to evict people from the Mau was taken in July 2008. But the saga has turned into a political battle between Mr Odinga, who backs the evictions, and Agriculture minister William Ruto, who is critical of the way the evictions are being conducted. The seizure of land claimed by key figures in the Moi regime may further widen the divisions over the exercise.

Reported by Murithi Mutiga and Lucas Barasa 

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