The political leadership in Elgeyo-Marakwet dramatically changed tune about the eviction of thousands of Embobut forest dwellers as smoke continued to billow from the water tower.
Senator Kipchumba Murkomen, Governor Alex Tolgos, MPs Kangogo Bowen (Marakwet East), William Kisang (Marakwet West), Jackson Kiptanui (Keiyo South), James Murgor (Keiyo North], Women Rep Susan Chebet and all 30 County Assembly members held a crisis meeting in Iten town, on Saturday, and criticised the government for burning houses.
“It is very primitive for the government to burn houses in the 21st century. I wonder if there wasn’t any other way of enforcing eviction orders without destruction of property,” said Mr Murkomen.
In the meeting also attended by Kenya Forest Service officials and County Commissioner Arthur Osiya, who is the overseer of the eviction, Mr Murkomen said the manner in which it was done was irrational as he questioned the timing of the operation and government’s lack of consideration for those who missed out on State compensation.
The government had formed a task force mandated to provide solutions on the best way to address the wanton destruction of water towers and the resettlement of the squatters.
The government accused the squatters of plundering huge sections of the catchment through farming, logging, charcoal burning and overgrazing.
The task force carried out vetting of genuine squatters and recommended resettlement outside the forest.
President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy William Ruto launched a Sh1.149 billion resettlement programme and handed over the money to the evictees at Tangul primary school in the catchment in November 2013.
But observers, including local scholars, said having paid the evictees, the government was in order to evict them.
“It is worthwhile to strike while the iron is hot. If some evictees received Sh400,000 each last November and some are reported to have blown the cash in merry-making during the Christmas and New Year festivities, why should they continue living illegally in the forest?” asked Dr Benjamin Kipkorir, a local scholar and former Kenyan envoy to the United States.
Dr Kipkorir said the government was capable of restoring all five key water towers in the country to their former status.
CHANGE OF COMMITTMENT
But Mr Murkomen called on the authorities to halt burning and devise acceptable ways of moving the people out as he warned that the exercise was bound to disrupt learning in schools.
Mr Bowen, in whose Marakwet East constituency the forest is located, demanded that the authorities give a list of beneficiaries of the Sh1.149 billion re-settlement money.
But Endo Ward representative Festus Kirop cautioned the politicians against change of commitment on the restoration of the forest which suffers the threat of extinction as a result of wanton destruction.
“I am one of the Kerio Valley residents, the people living downstream and who are directly affected by the destruction of the catchment. We will not have adequate water in our rivers flowing downstream yet the same water is what we depend on for our survival,” said the MCA, adding that the evictees ought to have moved out since the State had already compensated them “including those who deserved to have been in jail for destroying the environment”.
The leaders spoke as KFS guards continued burning houses in the forest with a KFS chopper hovering above to assess the situation.
“We are very humane and just executing orders. In fact, we have spared a family at Kessom whose mother gave birth to twins during the exercise,” said Alfred Nyaswabu, the KFS zonal manager.
Responding to the politicians, the county commissioner confirmed that houses were being burnt and the government will continue to flush every illegal settler out of the ecosystem.
“It may seem wrong and primitive to burn houses, but gentlemen, look, we have to face the reality in this one and tell our people that the forest is out of bounds henceforth,” he said.
The administrator said the notice came fast because of revelations of the rate at which money was being squandered in various entertainment spots in the local town; money meant for resettlement.
About claims by some evictees that not all of them received their rightful share of the State’s Sh1.149 billion compensation, the county commissioner said: “If you missed out on compensation, it means whoever was paid was supposed to take care of those left out or that you did not deserve it. There were criteria and not every squatter was to receive the money.”