Oduol opens new battlefront with Orengo over contentious Yala swamp lease

Members of the Kanyaboli Site Support Group participating in monitoring of the Yala swamp that spreads across Siaya and Busia counties on December 5, 2021. [File, Standard]

A fresh row is brewing between Siaya governor James Orengo and his deputy William Oduol, this time around, over the 66-year lease of Yala Swamp awarded to Lake Agro Limited by the National Land Commission (NLC) in November 2022.

Lake Agro is linked to billionaire businessman Jaswant Rai is reportedly planning to develop the land for the cultivation of sugarcane.

Oduol has challenged the land commission's award of the lease to the firm and has called for a judicial review of the decision.

"There is an urgent need by the county government to apply for a judicial review to challenge the decision by the NLC to award the lease to Lake Agro," Oduol said and accused Orengo of failing to ask for a judicial review more than six months after the lease was awarded.

"I expected the governor to use his legal prowess to oppose the decision and seek judicial review on the award of the lease. It is even absurd that lawyers from county government were conflicted on this matter," said Oduol.

The deputy governor claimed the length of the lease was extreme and would deny residents the chance to enjoy the natural resource.

In November, last year, the NLC granted the lease to Lake Agro Limited to grow sugarcane in the Yala swamp.

This was after the NLC's Land Administrative and Management Committee conducted public hearings with the intent to allocate the swamp.

Siaya governor James Orengo and his deputy William Oduol during campaigns on June 6 ahead of last year’s elections. [File, Standard]

The committee recommended to the NLC plenary to allocate up to 6763.74 ha to Jaswant Rai, the Lake Agro Limited investor, who has since begun operations on the swamp.

The parcel given to Rai includes 3,700 ha that was at some point occupied by Calvin Burgess Dominion farms.

Oduol says his boss is to blame after he allegedly failed to challenge the allocation and the lease period. According to him, Orengo opposed the matter but did not take any further action.

"Governor Orengo opposed it, but did he or our county government lawyers ask for judicial review? They acted against our interests," said Oduol.

The deputy governor claimed he is set for a major battle with the county leadership over the matter.

"The transfer happened during our time in office and we could have stopped it if there was political goodwill," he said.

In his response, Orengo dismissed the claims and maintained that he was against the NLC's decision to lease the land to the firm.

The governor said plans to seek a judicial review are underway, accusing NLC of making the decision without public participation. 

"Although the Constitution says issues of community land and land administration remain the preserve of the NLC, the commission has erred. The 66-year lease is a punishment to our people in Alego Usonga and Yimbo in Bondo. Yala swamp is a great gift that we must preserve because there are a lot of things that can be done there, including environmental conservation, not only agriculture," said the governor. 

Human rights activist working with Community Initiative Action Group Chris Owalla accused the county government of flip-flopping and disregarding the interests of the local communities in the Yala swamp lease drama.

Yala Swamp is the largest freshwater wetland in Kenya. It is home to a host of fish, birds and mammals.

The Yala wetland also supports the lives of thousands of people. Communities rely on it for water, food, fuelwood and essential ecosystem services such as water storage and filtration, flood control and carbon sequestration, to mention a few.