SECTIONS

Farm owners fear invasion after squatters court victory

Sirikwa squatters on Mark Too's disputed farm on November 21, 2022. [Christopher Kipsang, Standard]

Isaac Sawe stares blankly at his 40-acre parcel of land as he ponders his next move. Just recently, a court decision elicited panic at the expansive farm in Kapseret, Uasin Gishu County.

From his vantage point at the edge of his land, Sawe tells The Standard he is yet to come to terms with the groundbreaking judgment, which could see him lose the family land he acquired two decades ago.

His farm is part of the 25,000-acre land at the centre of a court battle between Sirikwa squatters and landowners, who include prominent personalities.

The rich agricultural land borders the Eldoret International Airport, Moi University among other top government and private institutions. It is located along the Eldoret-Kapsabet and the Nairobi-Eldoret highways.

However, Sawe is not alone, hundreds of landowners now claim to have bought their parcels from the defunct East African Tanning and Extract Company (EATEC) when it surrendered titles for conversion, from leasehold to freehold.

Following a recent judgment by the Court of Appeal, the families fear they may lose their properties to squatters, who have already marked some premises as their rightful properties.

The Standard met some landowners during a meeting to deliberate on their next course of action following the judgement.

Sawe said EATEC allowed land buyers to move to the land and choose preferred locations after a gazette notice was issued after the company surrendered back the land to the government.

“These people are so cruel,” said Sawe, shaking his head.

“I left Kosirai in Nandi in 1968 having sold my 15 acres at Sh100,000 an acre, and settled in Kosirai Uasin Gishu, and later acquired a parcel of land in EATEC farm,” said the father of 13.

The landowners said allowing squatters to invade individual property was disastrous.

The landowners equated the invasion of their farmlands to the happenings in Zimbabwe in the early 2000s. In the invasion, close to 23 million acres of land was seized from white farmers.

The landowners fear that the squatters will not be in a position to manage the investments on the land and the takeover, could lead to economic sabotage.

Several houses at the farm were defaced last week by unknown people with markings “Sirikwa Group” sprayed on gates.

“The land had been subdivided and beacons installed in parcels measuring five acres each. I chose eight parcels and was allowed to move in after making payments to a bank and presenting receipts,” said Sawe.

Prices ranged from between Sh175,000 and Sh250,000 per five-acre parcel depending on the location.

He explained that at the time of acquiring the land, he never heard of the squatters who are now laying claim on the farm.

“We are not moving out, where will I go with my children, I have invested here. The government should send people to the ground to come ascertain if indeed Mark Too owned 25,000-acre parcel of land and there were no other people,” Sawe said.

He noted that most of the landowners in the farm have invested millions and they are ready to defend their property at all costs.

Benjamin Rono (left), the chairperson of Sirikwa Squatters Group, addressing members in Eldoret on Friday, November 20, 2022. [Peter Ochieng, Standard]

Sawe said anxiety gripped the landowners after the Court of Appeal ordered cancellation of land titles and granted the Sirikwa squatters right to ownership instead.

Sirikwa Squatters Group and Fanikiwa Limited have been battling over ownership of the land for more than a decade. Former Kanu-nominated MP Mark Too has been placed at the centre of the dispute.

On February 9, 2017 Environment and Lands Court in Eldoret cancelled all title deeds in the hands of the occupants of the land. The court, however, allocated 27 hectares of the suit land to Too.

The Estate of the late Mark Too, dissatisfied with the decision of the court, lodged an appeal that was dismissed. Court of Appeal Judges Patrick Kiage, Kathurima M’Inoti and Mumbi Ngugi in a 136-page judgment upheld the judgment of the Environment and Lands Court.

They, however, varied the judgment to the extent that the nullification of the titles of individual and financial institution named as respondents and enjoined to the appeal was set aside.

Most residents, however, claim they were not enjoined in the suit at the Lands and Court of Appeal.

Following the declaration by the Court of Appeal, Fanikiwa Limited moved to the Supreme Court. Judge Njoki Ndungu on November 22 issued a temporary stay order stopping the execution of the Court of Appeal orders.

A temporary stay order was also issued barring the squatters, various financial institutions and individuals from taking possession and or in any way interfering with Too’s quiet possession of the land.

With the nullification of their title deeds by the Court of Appeal, the land owners are apprehensive that they will lose their lifetime investments. They are now strategising how they will defend themselves from the looming evictions.

Mathew Arusei, a former chief in the area, claimed that prior to subdivision and beaconing of the EATEC farm, a team of directors was constituted to identify genuine squatters to be settled before the entire parcel was sold.

“There were conditions set for one to be identified as a squatters. They included those who lived in the farm and had built their own structures. Those who occupied company houses in the camps did not qualify to be squatters,” said Arusei.

He said less than 200 squatters were settled in the farm, before buyers were allowed to choose their preferred locations.

The squatters were identified at St Josephs, Sumbae Group and Kambi Nandi, where they were each allocated two acres, given land for church and a school and other public utilities.

“This is a farm where people bought their land through government procedures witnessed by then administrators led by then Uain Gishu District Commissioner Francis Sigei.

“As you can see, we are fully settled here after purchasing our farms. Even Mark Too bought 2,000 acres and we also have our genuinely bought parcels and people have developed them,” said Arusei.

When Lonrho Agribusiness Ltd sold EATEC land in 2003, the 25,000=acre land was subdivided and as a result created 14,800 title deeds. Due to further subdivision, there are in excess of 20,000 title deeds, all of which are affected by the court of appeal judgement.

A section of Mark Too's disputed farm. [Christopher Kipsang, Standard]

He said the expanded land on public occupation has several locations including Megun, Ngeria, Airport, Cheploskei, Kapseret, part of Pioneer Location.

Families who owned genuine titles have since held several meetings in an attempt to bring members together.

In a charged meeting on Sunday at Lamaywet Dispensary, the dejected land owners said there is need for the courts to visit the site and make decisions based on their observations.

Pius Serem, a resident of Ngara Falls, said when the announcement was made that the land was being sold, some leaders from the region warned them not to purchase at the advertised price.

Between 1998 and 2000, an acre, he said, was going for between Sh40,000 and Sh50,000.

Serem said the then President Daniel Moi warned them that if they don’t buy the land, other interested parties from outside the area, would take advantage and occupy the land.

“The land was then going for Sh50,000 an acre, but since mine was in a swampy area, I paid Sh37,800 an acre,” he said.

Serem added that a good number of the landowners were not aware their farms were contested .

Yusuf Melly, 56, said he stands to lose over Sh1 billion property should the squatters take over the farm.

Mr Melly is worried his investment will go down the drain after his property was defaced by unknown people and marked “Sirikwa Group”.

“I was shocked and if this continues, I will lose my lifetime investment,” he said.

He added that his workers had been ordered to leave and some assaulted by a group who moved in briefly following court’s decision.

The father of six owns 100 acres. He said the harassment has continued despite a stay order by the Supreme Court.

Melly keeps 80 dairy cattle, 150 dorper goats, and farms maize.

Henly Yego said he is living in fear after squatters went to his farm, riding on motorbikes, and threatened his workers.