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Red flag raised as residents of volatile Mt Elgon grapple with fresh tussle over land

By Daniel Wesangula | November 7th 2015 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

Bungoma County Commissioner Maalim Muhammed (right) at Chepyuk Grounds in Mt. Elgon on during a security meeting. PHOTO: CHRISPEN SECHERE

BUNGOMA: The mention of land on the slopes of Mt Elgon evokes a mosaic of emotions. Anger, nostalgia and pain all rolled up into one. When you talk to Alex Bera about land, a subject that has formed the agenda of countless village barazas, all these emotions flash across his face. Sometimes at the same time.

Early last month, the Deputy County Commissioner in Cheptais made a startling announcement. In one of his public meetings, he announced to the residents the availability of land ready for redistribution to the landless. His announcement has had various effects.

Some area leaders say there is no land to be given out. Others say there is enough to go round. In a place where the battle for land has left a trail of untold death and destruction, how hard can it be for such claims to be verified? And what would happen if an impoverished society is promised heaven only for a forsaken earth to be delivered?

Expectations have already been set. Some expect a piece of land, others monetary compensation and yet others can only foresee one outcome — violence.

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Once in a while, Alex looks out towards open fields whose landscape is dotted with green cabbage patches, brown near-mature maize fields, and a shrinking forest cover.

“There are two kinds of people here, the landowners and the landless,” he says. He is married. With children. When he dies, his people will have nowhere to put his headstone.

A crowd gathers around him. At Chepkurkur market, one cannot have a private conversation on certain matters that affect an entire community. And before we begin, something has to be done. A young man asks who we are, removes his mobile phone and makes a call.

“Let us first seek permission to talk,” the young man says. He then moves away to get a clearer signal. From someplace else, the man at the other end of the line has to be updated on the goings-on of a land some 3,000 metres above sea level.

Distrust and mistrust run deep. Word travels through the thin crisp air and permission is granted.

“You could have been sent by politicians — we want nothing to do with them,” Alex says.

His friends call him Van Damme. A name from a previous life. A previous life of murderous violence that sucked many of his friends to wage a rag-tag guerilla war in the area in the name of fighting for their land

Many were lost, many more remain forever scarred after Kenya’s military mercilessly crushed the 2006 quasi uprising. But after they came back out of the bush, there was nothing waiting for them. For this, they blame selfish area politicians with nothing but their own interests for causing the land mess in Mt Elgon.

To grasp issues that the present generation in Mt Elgon is grappling with, the past needs to be understood, for the actions of the forefathers are a heavy burden on the shoulders of the children.

The Elgony, as the Sabaot were then known, were removed from their communal lands in Kitale and Trans Nzoia districts into Mt Elgon forests and what was then called North Kavirondo native reserves. All this to pave way for white settlers within the greater Rift Valley.

“Their pastoral way of life was considered harassment to the white settlers as well as the colonial government hence the need to confine them in reserves. Many of them were pushed into Uganda with their cattle where they lived among the Sebei,” reads a section of the Report of the Judicial Commission Appointed to enquire into Tribal Clashes in Kenya, commonly known as the Akiwumi Report of 1999.

Life in the reserves was far from rosy and the 40,000 acres set aside for the settlement was far from sufficient for the roaming pastoralists.

In 1932, the Kenya Land Commission was set up to listen to the varied land grievances from different parts of the country. On October 8, that year, the Sabaot headman Arap Kasis appeared before the KLC and expressed his community’s position on matters land. “The top of Mt Elgon is not sufficient land for us. We do not like the cold. It is our country. You are in a position to grant us land. We want a country where we can make our shambas and grow our food. This country is very small....” reads and excerpt from the Akiwumi report.

When you exit the newly done Bungoma-Chwele road in Western Kenya and branch off into the rough and unpleasant road towards Namwela, an ascent towards the mountains and by extension the Chepyuk settlement scheme begins.

Deferred dreams

Past Kakai Secondary School, the road becomes almost impassable. And when it rains, movement is by foot or a four-wheel drive vehicle.  Then you go on to Masaek junction, turn into Kipsigon and proceed to Chepkurkur.

The story though goes beyond the road and the fast face first falls. As you reach Chepkurkur, one realises that the dream started more than 80 years ago in 1932, is yet to be accomplished. For eight decades, the resettlement issue remains a dream constantly deferred.

The question though remains, for how long will the centre hold for an area that has over the years erupted into bursts of violence partly due to dishonesty among residents  and hugely due to divisive politics that continue to fracture a dogged society occupying an almost absurdly fertile patch of land?

And just like it was in 1997 and in 2006 at the height of the evictions that took place in large parts of the settlement schemes, strong undercurrents continue moving beneath the artificial  calmness of the picturesque area fuelled by news of yet another round of settlements.

“There is no vacant land in the area,” Enock Ndiema, the Chepyuk Ward Representative, says. “All the available land was allocated during the Ouko Commission. No more land exists. Anyone telling our people that there is land is lying.”

Area DC Omar Salat says vacant plots exist and a further 105 families would qualify for allocation. Each plot measures 2.5 acres, translating to slightly more than 260 acres. Residents like Alex say they have personally confirmed the availability of the said land. But when this latest announcement of resettlement was made, more than 13,500 people turned up to be registered.

“How will they deal with this? What will happen to those who will not get a plot to settle on,” the MCA asks. “This has been a dishonest exercise from the beginning.”

But some of the people who voted for him in the 2013 elections accuse him and area MP John Serut of playing politics and not wanting them to live a settled life.

“They want to keep us poor so that they make decisions for us. We do not even want to see them here... in any case, they never even come to us for anything,” Alex says.

The interview with the MCA is held down the slopes, at the nearby town of Kimilili. If he looks upwards he could make out his home town. But just barely. And as he looks up towards his home, he says the DC is working with a former MP, allegedly intent on regaining power to cheat the people into expecting none-existent land. The alleged vacant land isn’t really vacant. On the blocks of land are families that have lived there for years. If they are to be evicted, where will they go?

Alex argues that those currently living in these government plots should simply move out since they have nothing to show ownership.

“My family was evicted during the second phase of the resettlement. We moved out and left the parcel for the one who was legally allocated by the government. We had no issues, now we wait for our turn too,” Alex says. “We know that not all of us can get this land. But let those who get it get it.”

There could be another reason for this push though. It is alleged that there have been promises that the government will compensate families that will not get any land to the tune of Sh400,000 similar to what IDPs have been getting in certain parts of the country.

“The recipe for this will be chaos. And some people thrive in it,"  Mbona DC anafanya kazi na vijana tu? Haongeleshi wazee,” says the ward leader.

In Chepkurkur and other nearby villages, vijana has a somewhat different meaning. It means those who went to the forest in 2006 to try and regain what they think they have been denied over decades. Vijana refers to former members of the now defunct Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF), rumoured to be at the beck and call of a former area MP.

DC Salat is adamant. “Where were these politicians when we were going round with the taskforce in 2010 and 2011? They were not there when we were doing this. They have suddenly started speaking about this,” Salat said. “They have no authority to speak on a process that started before they went into their various offices.”

Salat says he has records indicating where the parcels are and that he is operating from a position of knowledge.

“Politics should be kept out of such sensitive matters,” he says.
After the 1932 presentation by Arap Kasis, the provincial administration recommended that some 80,000 acres on the slopes of Mt Elgon be set aside for the exclusive occupation and use by the Sabaot.

“According to the Sabaot, this recommendation was never considered when government finally bought and turned certain former white settler farms into settlement schemes open to all Kenyans to purchase,” reads the Akiwumi report.

Because of this, politics and land matters continue to be estranged bedfellows in the region and over the years individuals have exploited whatever crevices exist within that society.

First, it was the us versus them mentality that pitted the Sabaot against the Bukusu community, but lately the fault lines run deeper. The Sabaots themselves talk about the Ndorobo and the Bok, Someek and Koony. The Bok, Someek and Koony have settled more in Chepkurkur, the location of the third phase of the scheme.

No good

James Chepkuto sits amongst friends outside a shop at Cheptoror shopping centre. Chepkuto, a retired assistant chief knows all too well the politics of the region. But most importantly he knows what happens when politics are mixed with land and resettlement issues.

“Nothing good comes out of it,” he says. “The truth is that there is no more land. The resettlement programme is complete and dusted and everyone who ought to have benefited got his parcel of land.”

The descent from Cheptoror is not much different from the ascent to Chepkurur. Once you start your journey towards Kapsokwony, you will be forced to go through Cheptolol, then Kamneru, onwards to Sambocho, Sendera, Nomorio, Kimobo, Kibuk and finally to the town on the edge of a hill known as Kapsokwony. From there, the earth road evens out and spits you onto the Kimilili- Kitale tarmac road.

If you decide to look back towards the slopes, the beauty will momentarily make you forget the turmoil residing on it. Almost a decade ago, thousands were evicted from their properties. The cause? Land disputes, not entirely different from what is about to happen now.


Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF) Mt Elgon Cheptais
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