The government appears to enjoy significant public support for its eviction of settlers on Mau forestland outside the ethnic community most affected by the programme.
Most of Kenyans discussing the second phase of the eviction plan set for end of October on social media use terms like ‘invaders’ and ‘encroachers’ to refer to the 60,000 households targeted, much the same way the authorities regard them.
As is you would expect, public debates on serious issues like this in Kenya typically follow ethnic or political loyalties as well.
So although the section of Mau targeted for evictions is administratively in Narok County, the strongest political protest has come from Kericho, Bomet, Nandi, Uasin Gishu, Baringo and Elgeyo Marakwet, where the majority of the evictees have ethnic roots.
The Environment minister, who happens to hail from a community that resents the settlement the most, has predictably been ethnically profiled along the way.
It will be interesting to observe any swings in sentiment if and when the government makes good its threat to extend the evictions to other forests like the Aberdares.
Lost in the din of ethnic and political protests is the real cause of illegal settlements or the squatter problem in Kenya.
It boils down to widespread landlessness among the poor especially in Rift Valley and central Kenya – a bitter legacy of colonial-era dispossession and post-independence elite public land grab.
The colonialists drove the so-called natives out of the fertile white highlands. When they left, the land fell in the hands of the independence elite, and the poor remained landless.
These historical land injustices are well-documented in the reports of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, the Ndungu Commission on illegal and irregular allocation of public land and others.
In the Mau case, the Moi-era elite cleverly schemed to grab huge chunks of forestland under the guise of official excision to settle the landless poor.
Of course, some poor folk were thrown a token piece here and there – a rare charitableness that appears to have been inspired more by political reasons than a genuine desire to redress land injustices.
A majority of the 60,000 households that the government plans to kick out from Mau are most likely victims of multiple historical land injustices, having been dispossessed elsewhere before.
Without providing for alternative settlement in its forest restoration programme or helping them to repossess their original land, the government is simply aggravating an injustice and courting real trouble for the landed elite.
Did the authorities learn a thing from the recent invasion of private ranches by herders in Laikipia, or the occupation of the Waitiki land in Mombasa?
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