Nairobi — It's official. The Government will resettle the Mau Forest evictees.
And with that announcement yesterday, President Kibaki intensified the scramble for the 2.5 million Rift Valley Province vote ahead of the November 21 referendum on the proposed constitution.
The President's "return-to-Mau declaration" caught proponents of the No platform flat-footed prompting them to accuse him of using the land issue to buy the vote ahead of the referendum.
A statement from State House, Nairobi, said the Mau Forest evictees would be allowed to return to their farms once the Government completes an on-going demarcation exercise setting out the forestland boundaries.
The statement also admitted that a majority of those evicted had acquired their land genuinely.
And in a further sweetener that is likely to generate more claims of political expediency, those found to have settled on catchment areas will now be moved to neighbouring land that has already been set aside for the exercise.
"President Mwai Kibaki has declared as follows in regard to the settlement of people evicted from Masai Mau Forest water catchment area. The forest boundary is being physically marked with a cut-line. Anybody who may have owned land outside the cut-line should go back after the completion of the physical marking of the cut-line," the statement said.
The President said 282 parcels of undeclared acreage had been set-aside within Nakuru District while more land was being sought to resettle "bona fide settlers evicted from the area."
So far, investigations have revealed 1,962 parcels of land whose total acreage was also not given had been acquired illegally. Details of the investigations and the findings can be found in the DCs' offices of Narok, Nakuru, Bomet and Buret.
Those who may have inadvertently acquired the land are to give details of their acquisition to the resettlement team comprising the Lands Ministry and the Provincial Administration.
The President said the Government had also expedited the issuance of title deeds in Ndoinet, Saino, Baraget, Karao, Tinet-Kabongoi and Tinet-Sotik settlement schemes. He urged beneficiaries to collect the documents.
But the statement fell short of giving a time frame when the families, who were forcibly kicked out in an exercise that provoked outrage, could return to their farms.
But even as State House confirmed the planned return and resettlement of the Mau evictees exclusively reported in The Standard yesterday, critics slammed the move as amounting to blackmail.
Politicians opposed to the proposed constitution accused the President of playing politics with the sensitive land issue.
The Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture, Land and Natural Resources, Mr Franklin Bett, accused the President of using land to blackmail the Kalenjin community into backing the proposed constitution.
Bett, a Nominated MP, said: "The question of return/resettlement of the evictees is a matter of a fundamental right. The President cannot use it to arm-twist the victims into supporting the referendum."
Bett, whose Kipsigis community was hard-hit by the evictions, questioned the timing of the Government's move, saying it was hard not to suspect partisan motives.
Sotik MP Anthony Kimetto, who was among those evicted from the forest, said nothing short of allowing the victims to return to their original farms would be acceptable.
He said although the resettlement was not entirely a bad idea, it was unlikely that the alternative land given would match the Mau farms value considering developments made by individual farmers.
"It would be unfair to expect people to leave their houses and crops for undeveloped land. Where are those to be resettled going to sleep? What are they going to eat when they were forced to abandon all their food crops?"
He said he suspected the offer was only meant to go beyond the referendum date, arguing that the President's intervention was too belated not to be suspect.
Kimetto claimed he had bought more than 100 acres of land in Sagamian. He said he had since sold more than half of it to clients who were now demanding their money back.
But Regional minister John Koech said the Mau resettlement was part of an on-going Government project that would have gone on with or without the referendum.
"It is wrong to conclude that this exercise is motivated by the referendum. Those of us who have been involved in it know the truth, which is that President Kibaki personally vowed to resettle the landless and not those in Mau and that is something he has been working on."
The Chepalungu MP, who has faced open hostility from his constituents linked to the eviction, however said the return to Mau and resettlement now made it easier to drum up support for the referendum, as "the people now know the Government keeps its promises."
In any case, he said, the evictions "were a Ntimama problem. That was in reference to State minister William Ntimama who has been accused of masterminding the evictions ostensibly to save Mau Forest, which is an important ecological zone.
Contacted, Ntimama who has since declared opposition to the referendum, declined to comment on the presidential announcement, but promised to hold a news conference on the matter today.