Kenya: Moi - Conservationist Who Ruined Mau

Petitioners follow proceedings in Nakuru High Court during the mention of an application seeking orders to stop their eviction by the government from the Maasai Mau Forest (file photo).
5 February 2020

No Kenyan leader has had a more permanent imprint on the country's landscape as did Daniel arap Moi who died on Monday aged 95.

He was a man conservationists loved. From protecting the endangered elephant and rhino to running one of the largest anti-soil erosion campaigns anywhere, Moi also initiated tree-planting in many parts of the country, not least his Baringo backyard where he transformed rocky hills into beautiful forests and productive farms.

Yet no man fell more spectacularly from a noble beginning as did Moi who in the 1990s hived off Mau Forest, the country's largest and most important water tower, to prolong his stay in power.

Feeling threatened by the groundswell of opposition following the return of multiparty in 1990s, Moi sought to alter the demographics of Nakuru by carving out a friendly constituency out of the larger Molo.

Even though the agitation to excise Mau had begun earlier, ostensibly to settle the Ogiek who had been dispossessed, the clamour peeked after the 1992 election in which Kanu was whitewashed in the region that voted in unison with other opposition zones in the country.

Moi desperately needed a friendly constitution to cushion him from a fiercely opposition district, home of the populous Naivasha, Molo, Nakuru Town and Subukia constituencies. Only Rongai, Moi's Kabarak home constituency was a Kanu turf.

To meet the number of votes required to form Kuresoi constituency, however, the gerrymandering went deep into Mau, opening up the forest for a free-for-all with big commercial loggers and prominent individuals taking advantage.

Historians also suggest that the excision of Mau had something to do with the long-repressed Kalenjin desire for a greater share of the former White Highlands which they saw as having wrongly gone to "immigrants."

A report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Illegal/Irregular Allocation of Public Land, popularly known as the Ndung'u Report after the lawyer who chaired the team, details the rape of the forest that is the source of 12 rivers.

The report, released in 2004, found that primary beneficiaries of the allocations were prominent individuals and companies in the Moi government with only a small number of the Ogiek benefiting.

The report indicted virtually every senior Kanu leader, including Moi himself, for profiting from illegal forest excisions and demanded that most of the awards be revoked.

The explosive report, which largely remains unimplemented, put the number of fake or illegal title deeds -- in Mau and elsewhere -- that had been registered, often as a result of the actions of the President, the commissioner of lands or his deputies, at 200,000.

At Marioshoni, 18 firms were allocated portions ranging from 4-8ha. The forest had been eaten into also from the Narok side whose authorities dished out Kiptagich area in which Moi grew choice tea and built a factory.

Most of the prominent personalities got 20ha each, way above the five recommended as the standard size in settlement schemes. Some, were allocated several pieces.

At the end of the free-for-all, more than 60,000ha of forest cover had been destroyed and turned into farmland and much of the former Mau forest became wasteland.

The plunder of the key natural resource under his watch was therefore a blot on a brilliant beginning, making him both a hero and a villain in the same breath.

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