Deputy President William Ruto has found himself between a rock and a hard place over the highly emotive phase two of the Mau forest evictions.
While his key allies have come out with guns blazing, accusing the government of “seeking to commit human rights abuses, ignoring court injunctions, failing to respect the rule of law and the Constitution, and forcibly ejecting families from their private farmlands”, Mr Ruto has lately ignored the matter.
On Friday, Mr Ruto’s own trusted personal assistant Farouk Kibet, Soy MP Caleb Kositany and his Kapseret counterpart Oscar Sudi spoke tough on the planned evictions, warning the government to tread carefully on the matter during a fundraising at St Mary’s Secondary School Osorongai in Uasin Gishu County.
“You cannot just wake up one day and decide to close schools because of environmental conservation,” said Mr Kibet.
“Where has the government been all this while? As leaders, we shall do whatever it takes to ensure that the rights of our brothers and sisters in Mau are respected.”
“While we agree that we have to protect the environment by planting trees and taking care of water towers such as Mau, at the end of the day it is the lives of those people on the ground that matter. The government must carry out the planned eviction in a humane manner,” said Mr Kositany.
Mr Sudi said the settlers around Mau forest had been subjected to untold suffering with previous evictions having allegedly been perpetrated by former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
“President Kenyatta and Mr Ruto once raised funds for people in Mau when they were facing eviction, but today we are shocked that the same people of Mau who voted overwhelmingly for Jubilee are being threatened,” said Mr Sudi.
Mr Ruto had in 2005 and 2009, alongside President Uhuru Kenyatta, broken ranks with top government officials led by then-Prime Minister Raila Odinga and rooted for the resettlement and compensation of the Mau evictees.
In the 2012 and 2017 general election, Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto repeatedly pledged to the settlers that they would be compensated, resettled and the government would respect the sanctity of title deeds.
But now the shoe is literally on the other foot for the two leaders with Mr Ruto particularly faced with high-stakes politics in his backyard, which has forced him to avoid addressing the issue in public.
Emurua Dikirr MP Johana Ngeno revealed what could be the underlying factor that has led Mr Ruto to keep off the matter.
“However emotive this issue is, you (Mr Ruto) leave it to us as leaders to hammer it in all forums. As a matter of fact, this is what will decide our future in Jubilee government. We will not sit back and watch as the same government we are part of is persecuting our people,” said Mr Ngeno.
“The same people the government wants to kick out of their farms along the Mau forest are the same families we went to for support ahead of the 2012 and 2017 electionM and they voted for us almost to a man. The appreciation we are giving is to kick them out of their private farmlands? It is going to be a battle like no other in this country.”
Narok Governor Samwel Tunai and his Bomet colleague Hillary Barchok, who accompanied Mr Ruto, did not address the matter.
President Kenyatta and Mr Ruto are on record saying that the government had pumped Sh100 million to construct 15 schools in Narok South — where children were kicked out in last year’s eviction of 9,000 families. More schools are set to be closed in the impending phase two.
Kanu Secretary-General Nick Salat however said Mr Ruto had very little regard for the plight of the families settled along the Mau forest, and that it is a waste of time to go to him for a solution.
“It is a matter of common sense and public knowledge that after using the Mau issue as a springboard to power, Mr Ruto has moved on and does not care about the plight of the people who rallied behind him,” said Mr Salat.
“It is about time we stopped looking up to the Deputy President to resolve the crisis, but go directly to President Kenyatta,” added Mr Salat, a former Bomet MP.
Whereas the Deputy President has been quiet on the matter, former Bomet Governor Isaac Ruto, the Chama Cha Mashinani (CCM) party leader, has literally taken charge of efforts to forestall the eviction.
Mr Ruto has been leading a group of Rift Valley politicians, including former ministers Franklin Bett, Magerer Langat, Paul Sang, Musa Sirma and former Kuresoi South MP Zakayo Cheruiyot, in a series of engagements with top government officials and political leaders to find a middle ground on the issue.
Former President Daniel Moi, Mr Odinga, Kanu chairman and Baringo Senator Gideon Moi are some of the prominent leaders that Mr Ruto’s team have met in the past three weeks.
It comes against the backdrop of a move by 35 lawyers from Rift Valley led by Moses Kurgat, Hillary Sigei and South Rift Law Society of Kenya chairman Kipngetich Korir to move to court to challenge the eviction in the latest assault on the government.
The case is set for hearing at the Kitale Lands and Environment Court on September 4. “It is important as a country that we balance conservation issues with eviction, and respect the sanctity of land title deeds as the targeted families bought land from group ranches, which do not form part of the government forest,” said Mr Ruto, a former Council of Governors chairman.
He added: “It does not matter the position people hold in or out of government, we must all stand for the rights of the oppressed.”
“It is very clear that the Deputy President does not want to set himself up against his boss – the President – because the stakes are very high,” said Mr Cheruiyot Baliach, a political commentator and activist.
“Much as he empathises with the affected families, and would want to stand up for them, he risks working at cross-purposes with the President – if indeed the Cabinet Secretary for Environment Keriako Tobiko and Rift Valley Regional Commissioner George Natembeya have blessings from the top (Presidency),” he added.
Senate Majority Leader Kipchumba Murkomen has warned Mr Tobiko and Mr Natembeya against proceeding with the planned eviction, saying “they will pay for their misdeeds in the future as they are walking on very slippery paths”.
Kericho Governor Paul Chepkwony has also threatened to take the two government officials to The Hague to face the International Criminal Court (ICC).
“I wish to warn Mr Tobiko and Mr Natembeya that should they proceed with the eviction, in the backdrop of the rapes and the defilement that girls and women were subjected to in phase one of the eviction, the uprooting and displacement of families from their land and residential places, rendering the innocent as Internally Displaced Persons, … that we shall take them to the ICC to face charges,” he said.
A section of Maasai leaders led by Senator Ledama ole Kina and Narok North MP Moitalel Ole Kenta have backed the eviction plans.
Additional reporting by Dennis Lubanga