Indigenous communities displaced by colonialists a century ago have stepped up the fight for compensation after it emerged that leases of tea firms that took over their land have been renewed for another 99 years.
The Talai, Kipsigis and Ogiek communities in Kericho, Bomet and Nandi counties were hopeful that the 999-year leases that were reduced to 99 years by the 2010 Constitution were about to expire.
However, it has emerged that the leases were automatically renewed by the promulgation of the Constitution, and this means they will expire in 92 years.
The land, about 800,000 acres, is currently occupied by multinational tea companies that employ 60,000 people and are key players in one of Kenya’s biggest export cash crops.
During the August 8 election campaigns, some politicians claimed that the leases would expire in 2020, raising hopes among those who had suffered injustice of getting their land back.
That optimism could die now because the Nation has learnt that tea firms such as James Finlay, Unilever, George Williamson and other foreign companies that run the plantations renewed the leases.
Mr Patroba Omollo, County Lands Registrar for Kericho and Bomet counties, said politicians had been making untrue pronouncements on the issue, leading to a big misunderstanding.
“Everybody is salivating and waiting for the leases to expire in the next one year or so. That is not to be,” Mr Omollo told the Nation.
“Most of those leases were granted in 1910 for 999 years.
"This was revised by the 2010 Constitution to 99 years, effective the date of promulgation on August 2010. It’s been seven years since then. Count 92 more years of these leases.
“To acquire the land, there are only two options that are provided by law.
"You can negotiate for an outright purchase, on the basis of value for money, or through compulsory acquisition, which is provided for under the Lands Act, only when the land is to be used for public purposes,” the registrar said.
This development means efforts spearheaded by Kericho Governor Paul Chepkwony to push for the compensation of the displaced becomes even more urgent.
Members of these communities claim they were not only violently evicted from their ancestral land but they were also forced to renounce their ancestry on the penalty of death.
They lamented that they had become squatters when they should be benefiting from their ancestral lands.
“Nothing would be more fulfilling than returning to the land of my forefathers,” Mrs Evaline Ruto, a representative of women in the Myoot Council of Elders, said.
Mrs Ruto spoke to the Nation at Moi Gardens in Kericho where she and other victims who suffered physical injuries had gone to volunteer to testify against the colonialists.
The county government of Kericho is building a case against the British Government at the London High Court for alleged historical injustices meted out on the communities.
Their names were recorded by Mr Joseph Sigilai, a Talai leader who says his family was exiled to Lambwe Valley, Homa Bay County, when the colonialists took over their land.
He later returned to Kericho but is unrelenting in demanding what he calls his rights.
“I was born in exile in 1934, two years after my people were sent to Gwasi in Lambwe Valley.
"Many people died but some were lucky to survive the harsh climatic conditions, diseases and snake bites,” said Mr Sigilai.
A majority of them returned to Kericho on the eve of independence in 1962 only to find their lands occupied and have been squatters ever since.
Mrs Anna Chepkwony, 86, said the pain of being homeless for decades in her motherland was becoming too much to bear.
“We need our land back and, above all, an apology from the British government,” she said.
Mr Sigilai said the people had harrowing tales ranging from rape, loss of lives, beatings and other forms of torture.
“I have been tasked to trace witnesses and collect evidence for the London case.
"The pathologists are set to come and study the scars to assess the degree of injuries that the colonialists inflicted on locals. This is the last step to solidifying the case,” Mr Sigilai said.
In the case, Governor Chepkwony accuses the governments of Queen Elizabeth II and her predecessors of overseeing forcible and systematic ejections of members of the two communities from their agriculturally rich farmlands in Kericho and neighbouring areas to pave way for the establishment of huge tea farms, which characterise the South Rift to date.
Prof Chepkwony is seeking Sh2 trillion in compensation in what he says will be a watertight legal suit that Queen’s Counsel Karim Khan and Nairobi lawyer Kimutai Bosek are leading.
Members of the Kipsigis community were encouraged by survivors of the Mau Mau freedom struggle, whose own case ended in millions of shillings in compensation from the British government and an apology.
“I am touched by the harrowing ordeals that the families of the 800 people underwent.
"The action taken by the colonial British government broke up families and caused untold agony,” Prof Chepkwony said.
He added: “We will include this issue in our suit because the evidence is overwhelming.
"Their homes were torched and they were chased away from the place they had called home.
"Today, they are landless and poor and some of the descendants cannot even speak their mother tongue as a result,” he said.
The governor said the land should be reverted to the county once the lease expires as it belongs to the community.
He warned some “known” land grabbers to keep off the estates and put them on notice, saying they would be jailed.
“Some people think we are stupid because Kericho is far away from Nairobi but they will get it from me: No land will be grabbed in Kericho while I am the governor and I have the full support of the people.
"I want to be remembered as the governor who stood firm against any form of land grabbing,” Prof Chepkwony said.
He said the same cartels had already succeeded in grabbing hundreds of acres of public land in the county, thanks to the failure by the previous administrations to survey and document the parcels.
“I will hunt down those responsible for the disappearance of public land, irrespective of their status, and whether they served in the national or county government, and recover our county’s wealth,” the governor said.
The estates issue was made political fodder during campaigns in the run-up to the August 8 General Election, with Opposition leaders Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka accusing the Jubilee Government of a scheme to grab the land.