Evictions in Kenya’s Mau Forest inflame tensions old and new
As Kenya tries to restore a critical forest complex, old political divisions reemerge over evictions and resettlement.
Kenyatta’s government is currently evicting about 60,000 people from the Mau Forest, a 400,000ha forest complex in the country’s Rift Valley. It is also the biggest of Kenya’s five water catchment areas – locally called ‘water towers’.
In a country where land is already an emotive issue, the Mau Forest question is one of the most divisive. It interlinks a major environmental concern with historical displacement and high-profile corruption.
- The forest was originally the home of the Ogiek community, but settlers moved in progressively between the mid-1980s and the late 2000s, hiving off about a quarter of the forest land.
- In addition to the ecological importance of the forest’s seven blocks, it is also the source of several major rivers. They support the ecosystems of the Mara and Serengeti wildlife sanctuaries, and also flow into Lake Victoria.
- There were several major extensions into the forest. In 2001, for example, the government resettled the indigenous Ogiek community and internally displaced people from the 1992 elections into forest land. Politicians and politically connected individuals took advantage of the project, hiving of thousands of acres for themselves.
In early September 2019, environment cabinet secretary Keriako Tobiko issued a report that listed the 1,029 original landowners who got a total of 14,000ha of forest land. The report said that they then sold the land to nearly 7,000 new owners, in one instance for the price of just one goat.
Among the most interesting parts of the report was that the allocations and land divisions were ongoing as late as 2009, when President Mwai Kibaki’s government began evicting people from the forest.
- The government plans to plant 1.8bn trees across the country within the year and increase forest cover to 10% within the next two years.
- In 2008, the government established a 24km cutline between the forest and human settlements to avert future degradation.
While all sides of the current political divide agree on the need to reclaim the forest to avert an ecological disaster, old political divisions have re-emerged on the issue of resettlement.
- Although small-scale evictions have been ongoing, the government recently issued a 60-day ultimatum for the people in the forest to move. They now live in villages, ranches and other settlements on the forest land.
- A similar exercise a decade ago nearly split the government, with one side seemingly pushing for evictions without prompt and adequate compensation, and the other demanding it.
Oppositionist Raila Odinga was prime minister when the evictions started in 2009. President Uhuru Kenyatta was then one of his two deputies and also the finance minister. Although the decision to conserve the forest complex was a cabinet decision, Odinga’s role as premier made him the main target for opposing forces, who included his cabinet colleagues.
- At the time, current deputy president William Ruto was agriculture minister and was one of the most vocal voices against the evictions. At the time, Ruto blamed Odinga for delaying resettlement funds so he could “use it as bait for votes in the next general elections”.
- In 2016, Odinga said that the 2009 evictions were used to fight him politically and were one of the reasons why he lost the 2013 elections. Some analysts agree that it was a strategic blunder on Odinga’s part.
The current evictions have placed Ruto in a seemingly impossible position, as to go against them would be seen as going against the government he serves as deputy president.
- Although he has mostly avoided stating his current position on the issue, his close allies have spoken out against the evictions, saying that they are meant to scuttle Ruto’s presidential ambitions.
- The forest’s settlers, mainly drawn from the Maasai and Kalenjin people, form part of Ruto’s core voting bloc, which he has been actively cultivating since 2005. While defending the ongoing evictions, government spokesperson Cyrus Oguna pointed out that similar exercises had been done in other water towers such as the Aberdares and Mt. Kenya. He said: “I do not understand what is special about Mau.”
- For Ruto’s allies, the timing of the evictions is as important as the evictions themselves, as they come at a time when almost all other political leaders are gearing up for a referendum in 2020. Both previous major eviction exercises, in 2005 and 2009-2010, also preceded referendums.
- Ruto has been vocal in his opposition to a referendum, mainly due to the fact that a constitutional change to the structure of the executive could either deny him the presidency in 2022 or force him into an uncomfortable power-sharing structure.
The bottom line: The race to save the Mau Forest promises to be drawn out, as the government has rescinded its 60-day ultimatum to allow students in 15 schools within the target areas to sit their national exams. While Kenyatta’s government, with tacit and vocal support from Odinga’s side, are on a noble mission, resettlement should be a top priority. For Ruto, the entire exercise could present an opportunity to use his position to ensure the compensation and resettlement are done properly this time, as well as helping to address Kenya’s environmental issues.
That’s if they can all place their old and new political divisions aside.