Land row rocks Isiolo and Meru as residents blame rift on Lapsset, army

Residents of Ntulili on the Isiolo-Meru border protest alleged land grabbing following what they termed as harassment by 78 tank battalion soldiers of the Kenya Army, on Tuesday last week. [Bruno Mutunga, Standard]
Thousands of residents of Isiolo and Meru may be rendered homeless following a border row between the two counties and the rolling out of projects under the Lamu Port, South Sudan, and Ethiopia Transport (Lapsset) corridor.

The Kenya Army, with a barracks and three training schools in both counties, has also been accused of aiming to take over settlement areas.

In a petition to the Senate Committee on Security, the villagers at Ngaremara, Maili Saba (Isiolo) and Gambela (claimed by both Isiolo and Meru) want the committee to prevail on the Department of Defense (DoD) to halt the three-front encroachments.

On Wednesday last week, Gambela residents protested against 78 Tank Battalion after the army asked an Isiolo businessman who owns a 500-acre farm to stop developing it.

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But Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) spokesman David Obonyo says the army is within its demarcated land, adding the survey on the boundary was done within the law.

Survey and adjudication

Col Obonyo says any grievances the communities have with the army over the land can be discussed by both sides to reach an amicable solution.

The Isiolo-Meru border row has heightened tension in areas claimed by both counties, following the ongoing surveying and adjudication of land by Meru, despite a court order that status quo remains.

Parts of the disputed areas like Gambela and Ngaremara are being surveyed now while some residents of Tigania East already received title deeds when President Uhuru Kenyatta toured Meru County in June.

Both counties claim jurisdiction over Gambela and Ngaremara. However, all national Government officials, including chiefs, report to Meru while public schools are served from Isiolo.

In a civil case filed at the High Court in Nairobi by Isiolo County Government in 2015, 11 petitioners complained that the national Government was favouring Meru, pointing to surveyors from both counties to check boundary beacons. The surveyors ruled that the disputed areas all fall in Meru.

The respondents in the case were then Lands CS Jacob Kaimenyi, who the petitioners accused of favouring Meru because he comes from the county, the Attorney General and Meru County Government.

In the case, the petitioners pleaded that the adjudication be stopped, the survey be declared illegal, the dispute be resolved through a constitutional commission by Parliament and both sides be barred from any development and appointment of State officials in the disputed areas until the matter is heard and determined.

Independent commission

On June 5, 2017, Justice Isaac Lenaola ruled that the dispute should be resolved by an independent commission to be set up by Parliament under Article 188 of the Constitution.

He asked both parties to take the judgment to the National Land Commission (NLC) and for status quo to remain, among other rulings.

Recently, leaders, elders and NGO officials from Isiolo stormed Gambela, where the Meru county government had embarked on land demarcation, and demanded that the process stop, saying the court injunction is still in force.

They were led by Waso Trustland Project (WTLP) CEO Liban Golicha, Isiolo County Assembly majority leader Isack Fayo and Lands Committee Chairman Yarrow Hassan.

The MCAs and the NGO said the national Government is yet to implement the court order, adding that its action has led to tension in the disputed areas.

“There is a status quo (in place) that does not permit either Isiolo or Meru counties to roll out any activity on the contested areas. But we are perturbed that our counterparts are surveying and placing beacons on the contested areas before the matter has been addressed,” Mr Fayo said.

The leaders said the dispute had led to deaths, displacements and destruction of property between 2013 and 2015.

Isiolo Lands executive Mohammed Sime says the county has taken up the matter with the NLC for Parliament to appoint an independent constitutional commission to resolve the matter.

Historical injustices

“We have held a forum with the NLC and petitioned Parliament to resolve this crucial matter on the border dispute. We also want the land problem between the army and residents addressed,” Mr Sime says.

Jeremiah Lenya, Sime’s counterpart in Meru, says the disputed areas are under discussion by both counties, adding they are working with the national Government.

Mr Lenya says a meeting is scheduled for next week between them in bid to resolve the dispute. Sime says Isiolo County will not cede an inch of land within its livestock holding ground to Laikipia Maasai as announced by the NLC.

The WTLP along with MCAs and elders from councils of various communities on June 11 met NLC Chairman Muhammad Swazuri and gave him a memorandum detailing historical land injustices in Isiolo.

Apart from the border row that has left thousands wondering where they fall administratively, many stand to be displaced under the Vision 2030 projects.

Nearly 75 per cent of the projects are either located in the disputed areas or near the borders of the two counties, with thousands of residents from both sides already displaced by land grabbers and speculators out to make a killing through compensation.

The projects include Sh3.5 billion Isiolo international airport that falls in both counties and the Sh1 billion Isiolo abattoir that had stalled.

Others are proposed Sh6.9 billion KenGen power plant in Gambela and Ngaremara that are officially in Tigania East but are claimed by Isiolo.

The proposed Isiolo resort, a super highway from Lamu cutting through the area, a railway line, oil pipeline and an inland dry port are among the projects.

The construction of the power plant, which will occupy 18,700 acres, was delayed after land wrangles ensued in the area, with a section of residents going to court to stop it until the issues around compensation are resolved.

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