When Deputy President William Ruto received a damning report on the extent of illegal logging in the forests in March, he described as “cheap publicity stunts” previous campaigns to protect the environment by some people he said were only out to get their photos published “planting two trees in the Mau.”
He made the deriding comments following concerns about what many commentators said was an about-turn on the conservation of the environment and forests.
Mr Ruto, who rose through the ranks from Eldoret North MP to become one of the country’s leading political leaders and whose word was as good as law in the Rift Valley, had opposed the eviction of squatters from the Mau in 2009. He accused his then Prime Minister Raila Odinga of orchestrating what he said were evictions geared “at some conference in Copenhagen.”
Many people, including Mr Odinga himself, have since argued that the anti-Raila campaign, inspired by the Mau Forest evictions and led by Mr Ruto, was so powerful that it cost him (Mr Odinga) the Rift Valley votes in the 2013 elections. The region had voted almost to a man for Mr Odinga in the disputed 2007 elections.
“Raila paid a very high political price for his resolve to protect our water towers. He received a lot of flak from people who wanted to play politics with the conservation of our forests,” ODM secretary-general Edwin Sifuna told the Nation on Tuesday.
MAU FOREST COMPLEX
Now, the shoe is on the other foot for Mr Ruto in the battle to protect the Mau Forest Complex, which at 400,000 hectares, dwarfs the four other water towers and is as large as Mt Kenya and the Aberdares combined.
The other water towers are Mt Elgon and the Cherang’any Hills. While he had castigated Mr Odinga for using the forest and the eviction as an election bait in 2010, Mr Ruto now faces the very same accusation from some quarters in the Rift Valley.
Kanu Secretary-General Nick Salat said: “This Mau thing has become a cycle. After an election, people are asked to leave, and when it nears another election, rules are relaxed, and they are allowed to come back. It must stop. We must say no to using our people as political pawns.”
On June 24, at Sogoo trading centre in Narok South and in what rekindled memories of his back-and-forth with Mr Odinga, Mr Ruto ordered the eviction of some 2,400 families from Kosia, Septonok and Nkoben villages.
“I want all those who have gone beyond the registered cutlines to move out immediately,” Mr Ruto said.
Already, Narok County commissioner Natempeya said, some 1,050 families had been removed from the forest, freeing 4,500 hectares over the past four days.
A 2005 report dubbed, “Maasai Mau Forest Status Report”, authored by the Ewaso Ng’iro South Development Authority, showed that a total of 8,214 hectares of forest cover was lost inside the Maasai Mau Forest and about 31,755 hectares outside the forest boundaries between 1973, and 2005.
The destruction was so bad that between 2003 and 2005, Kenya’s biggest water tower was being wiped out at a devastating rate of 1,963 hectares per year. In 2005, the government conducted an eviction, with another one in 2009, but people have not only come back to their lands, but have encroached even deeper into the forests.
Narok North MP Moitalel ole Kenta, who has been one of the most vocal leaders in calling for the protection of the forest, on Tuesday described the new eviction order as a “critical step in reversing the dangerous destruction that has happened over the years”.
“When Raila called for the evictions, Ruto went round telling people to relax because they would get the land complete with title deeds. Now, he is in a catch-22 situation and the earlier (the government) gets these people out of the forest, the better,” Mr Kenta said.
He has argued several times against attempts to lift the caveat over the Maasai Mau Forest, arguing that it was against the law and could not be done under the new Constitution.
“Those that have illegally acquired titles cannot claim the protection of right to property. Constitutionally, such a right does not extend to any property that has been unlawfully acquired,” the MP argues in a letter dated March 13, 2017 addressed to the Interior ministry.
Bomet Central MP Ronald Tanui, like Mr Sifuna, Mr Salat and Mr Kenta, has called for humane treatment of those being evicted from the forest. But questions still abound about individuals who sold the land to unsuspecting Kenyans and why they have been let off the hook.
On Tuesday in Narok, the Maasai Council of Elders national organising secretary, Mr Joseph ole Karia, threatened to reveal the names of the people who facilitated the encroachment.