Kenya 2022: Odinga and Ruto fight over the future of Mau Forest

By Jeff Otieno
Posted on Monday, 4 July 2022 21:37, updated on Thursday, 7 July 2022 16:42

An administration policeman stands near grazing cattle at the edge of the forest near Kapkembu, the outskirts of the Mau Forest complex in the Kenyan Rift Valley, November 18, 2009. Kenya's coalition government says it is vital to relocate some 20,000 families from the Mau forest, the country's biggest closed-canopy forest and a vital water catchment area. REUTERS/Noor Khamis

Though environmental issues have rarely featured in the campaign, questions about the management of the Mau Forest have cropped up on the campaign trail for Kenya's 9 August presidential race. Leading presidential contenders William Ruto and Raila Odinga differing sharply on the issue. Who will the voters trust to protect East Africa’s largest indigenous forest?

In early May at a campaign rally in Narok County, Azimio coalition party presidential candidate Raila Odinga revisited the unresolved Mau Forest conservation issue, which his rivals in the  Kenya Kwanza alliance  camp would have wished remained under the carpet.

Raila reminisced how he lost the support of the Kalenjin community in the run-up to 2013 general election due to his firm stand against the destruction of the 455,000ha forest. The Mau Forest is in the Rift Valley, home to a large pool of voters and site of much of the violence following the contested 2007 presidential election.

“William Ruto, who I gave a ministerial job, incited his community against me simply because I stood firm in protecting the Mau Forest. I told him I would rather go back to Kibera slum and sell pastries than see Mau Forest destroyed,” he said.

Raila, who was then the prime minister in the grand coalition government crafted after the disputed 2007 general election, supervised the eviction of  hundreds of settlers, the majority of whom were from the Kipsigis Kalenjin sub-group.

The decision came after the United Nations Environmental Programme warned that continued destruction of the country’s biggest closed-canopy forest could cost the tourism, tea and energy sectors alone, causing damage of at least $300m.

There was also concern that the destruction could lead to the death of the Mara River, the lifeline of the famous Maasai Mara game reserve. It hosts the annual wildebeest migration, which is recognised as one of the seven wonders of the natural world.

At the time of the evictions, according to conservationists, the Mau complex had lost some 107,000ha of its trees due to illegal settlements, logging and charcoal burning. 

Teaching Raila a lesson

The evictions angered Kalenjin leaders, including Ruto, who vowed to teach Raila a lesson in the 2013 and 2017 general elections. The community that had voted for Raila in 2007 turned against him and instead supported Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidential bid.

When Kenyatta and Ruto came to power in 2013, residents in the South Rift regions took over areas of the forest, celebrating Raila’s defeat.

The move angered the Maa community (Maasais) who consider Mau Forest the backbone of their livelihoods, a key source of water for their livestock and pasture.

So politicised is the Mau Forest issue that any decision taken by the next government will definitely please one side and anger the other

Maasai leaders accused Ruto of reneging on his promise to protect the forest, instead allowing members of his community to invade it.

“We felt betrayed when we saw illegal settlers invading the forest again despite the promises Ruto made on the campaign trail,” said David ole Kenta, who voted for the Kenyatta/Ruto ticket in 2013.

Raila says he is an ally

At the Narok rally, Raila warned that history would repeat itself if Ruto wins the presidency. He argued that he is the only trusted ally of the Maa community in the conservation of the Mau Forest.

“Though I have supported Ruto in the past, I fear that some people from his community might take advantage if he wins and invade the forest, since it has happened in the past,” says Kenta, a resident of Narok County who, like many other Maasais, depends on pastoralism for his livelihood.

The issue has left the deputy president walking on eggshells in his efforts to win the confidence of the Maa community on the controversial issue and at the  same time assure his fellow Kalenjin tribesmen – who argue that evictions have unfairly targeted genuine title deed holders – of his protection.

“I worked hard to save money to buy my two-acre land but lost everything after being evicted,” says Jackson Kones, one of the many settlers evicted in 2018 after investigations by the media and conservationists exposed more destruction of the forest.

Boxed into a corner

The evictions happened at a time when the relationship between Kenyatta and Ruto was getting worse and problems emerged in the ruling Jubilee Party. The government’s decision boxed the deputy president into a corner, as he had to abide by the principle of collective responsibility as a member of the cabinet.

Kones, who returned to his home county of Bomet, blames Ruto for not doing enough to protect genuine land buyers.

“He promised to protect those who legally bought land during the 2017 campaigns, but that did not happen. To make it worse, the big fish who own large tracts of forest land were left untouched,” says the 50 year old. Despite his disappointment, he argues Ruto is still the best bet on conservation matters.

Ruto’s response

Sensing the danger that Raila’s remarks might pose on, Ruto organised a rally a few days later “to set the record straight”.

Accompanied by his Kenya Kwanza alliance allies Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetangula, Ruto accused Raila of trying to stoke ethnic tensions.

“Mau evictions are no longer political fodder. The issue was sorted out and what is left is fencing the forest and resolving the land issues in Kedong and Rose Farm, which my government will ensure the land in question is handed back to the original owners,” Ruto said.

Ruto risks losing votes from the Maa community who want tough action taken on illegal settlers

Kenta, however, disagrees with the deputy president, saying a lot still needs to be done to save the forest.

“We need to evict more people and plant more trees if the forest is to be saved from imminent destruction. The destruction that goes on in the complex is scary,” says the 65 year old.

He says the deputy president’s remark has forced him to reconsider his political stand, saying he will vote for Raila, “who seems convincing when it comes to protecting Mau Forest.”

It is not only Ruto and Raila who are walking a tight-rope on the conservation question.

Tough political battle

Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) Senator Ledama Olekina, one of the fierce supporters of Mau forest evictions, is facing a tough political battle to retain his seat due to remarks he made in the past that angered the Kipsigis who are the second largest inhabitants of Narok county after the Maasais.

In 2018, Rift Valley leaders called for the senator’s arrest, accusing him of incitement after he threatened to take unspecified action if non-indigenous people do not leave the forest.

The deputy president has vowed to do all it takes to unseat the youthful legislator and has fronted Narok governor Samuel Tunai (who enjoys support from various communities living in the county) as the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) candidate for the senatorial seat.

In a bid to mend fences with the Kipsigis, Olekina posted an apology on Twitter in April, over remarks he made at the height of  the 2018 evictions.

“During the struggle to conserve Mau forest, I made comments relating to the Kipsigis community, which [were] interpreted as hateful, disrespectful and unprofessional. I regret making such comments and apologise to the community and seek their forgiveness,” he said.

According to political analyst John Charo both Ruto and Raila are walking on thin ice when it comes to the Mau question.

“[Raila] Odinga’s hardline stand puts the Azimio coalition under the risk of losing support from the Kipsigis community who feel they are being unfairly targeted while Ruto risks losing votes from the Maa community who want tough action taken on illegal settlers,” says Charo.

He predicts that the natural resource will  remain a political hot potato for any coalition that forms the next government; be it Azimio or Kenya Kwanza. “So politicised is the Mau Forest issue that any decision taken by the next government will definitely please one side and anger the other. The complex is an important national heritage and must be protected at all cost[s].”

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