Mau issue to renew rivalry as Raila Odinga, William Ruto seek votes in South Rift

Some of the houses were demolished by Kenya Forest (KFS) Officers at the Kapsinendet area in Marioshoni within the Mau Forest Complex on July 11, 2020, during an operation to flush out illegal settlers in the forest. Several houses were destroyed and hundreds displaced. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

As the clock ticks towards the General Election and the presidential race gains momentum, the unending Mau forest complex issue is expected to reignite debate among top contenders.

When the Government evicted people in the year 2019 many thought it will deter politicians from using it as a political tool, but the issue is now set to be political fodder yet again as leaders hunt for votes. The eviction saw the Government reclaim over 22,000 hectares of land in the area. In November 2019, the Government through the Ministry of Environment launched a 10 million tree planting exercise.

After the eviction, Deputy President William Ruto is said to have bought a section of the homeless evictees a total of three acres in Tendwet, Olmekenyu and Sagamian and built them temporary houses. The rivalry pitting Deputy President William Ruto and ODM leader Raila Odinga is set to be renewed.

Raila then the Prime Minister in the coalition government led the Mau Taskforce in 2009 that recommended the eviction of the settlers, a move that denied him the support of the Kalenjin community. Raila is on record taking credit over the Mau evictions saying that his handshake with President Uhuru Kenyatta made it possible.

In his recent tour of Narok, Raila affirmed that he had no regrets on the Mau restoration journey in 2009.

"I said then that I was ready to pay the price for protecting the Mau forest. I told Kenyans that I was ready to go and sell mandazi in Kibera and I'm glad evictions were done," said Raila.

The Mau forest while it made him unpopular among the Kalenjin made him the darling of the Narok Maasai community. Recently while at Olopito in Narok North Constituency which is the only ODM constituency in the county, Ruto absolved himself from the Mau issue saying that he okayed the eviction and that he will not return the evictee back to the forest if elected president.

“I was the Deputy President when the eviction occurred but I did not interfere with it because I believe in the environment conservation,” said DP Ruto while trying to woo the Maasai voters.

He, however, called for a cease in the use of the Mau forest issue for political gains saying that his rivals should instead sell policies.

“I want to tell my opponents who have been using Mau issue against me to now look for another agenda. They should tell the people the development policies they have instead,” he warned.

The Deputy President's sentiments received a backlash with the evictees blaming him for failing to cushion them against the evictions despite being the second in command.

"We had a lot of hope in him that once he ascends to the Presidency he will assist us in terms of compensation but it is now clear that he does not care about us," said Dalton Kirui.

Tosiah Koskei another victim of the eviction terms DP Ruto's action as the "last straw that broke camel's back" as he seems to be enjoying the suffering of the settlers.

"Right now DP Ruto had a lot to talk about when he was here in Narok such as the 'bottom-up' but since he wanted to please certain quarters, he had to sacrifice us," said Mr Koskei.

The Mau politics also dominated the recent endorsement of Narok North MP Moitalel ole Kenta to run for governor when the Environment CS Keriako Tobiko who graced the occasion warned of DP Ruto’s sincerity in protecting Mau forest.

“Let him not lie to you that he was part of those who recommended evictions. The rehabilitation of Mau forest was done through the office of President Uhuru Kenyatta who is my boss not DP Ruto’s office,” said Mr Tobiko.

He reiterated that it was the ‘handshake’ government that enabled saw the eviction to succeed after over 35 years of political antagonism. Mr Kenta thanked President Kenyatta for evicting illegal settlers from the forest saying that the forest was the world's treasure.

"Tourism in Masai Mara depend on Mau forest, Lakes Natron, Victoria, River Nile all the way to Egypt depend on this forest, if elected governor I will protect it jealously," affirmed Mr Kenta.

Maasai Council of Elders Chairman Mzee Kelena ole Nchoe affirmed that Mau forest was close to the heart of the Maasai people and that they do not trust Ruto’s presidency to protect it.

“He claimed that he will not return them back to the forest yet he bought them land near the forest to ensure that once he ascends to power they will easily get back. This is the reason the Maasai might not vote him,” said Nchoe.

Kanu Party Chairperson Gideon Moi in December called on leaders to join hands and unite to end the suffering of the evictees. The Baringo Senator said there is a need to have the issue addressed before the August polls.