Thousands of squatters living on the controversial 2,700-acre Machungwani farm in Taveta, Taita Taveta County, can now breathe a sigh of relief after the National Land Commission (NLC) confirmed it is yet to renew the leasehold for the land to former Taveta MP Basil Criticos.
The more than 5,000 farmers were living in fear after information emerged that the commission had secretly renewed the lease for the former MP.
In a letter addressed to Governor Granton Samboja, NLC Chairperson Gershom Otachi clarified that the file for the renewal of the lease is pending at the commission and has not been processed.
He said NLC will follow the law in its consideration to whether or not to renew the lease which expired in January 2013.
"In considering the application for renewal of the lease, NLC will take into account the provision of Section 13 of the Land Act, 2012," he said.
The county government has remained adamant that the lease should not be renewed.
The county executive for Lands Mwandawiro Mghanga had petitioned the commission to subdivide the land to the farmers.
The county executive wanted NLC to immediately put the land under the Settlement Fund Trustee (SFT) and issue the farmers with title deeds.
However, Mr Otachi said NLC will communicate its decision to the county government in due course.
"In a communication dated May 12, 2021, the county executive for Lands officially informed NLC of the county status, a position which the commission has taken note of. However, with regard to the county request on implementation of the resettlement program, NLC shall communicate substantially on the matter in due course," he stated.
In a press statement, the county government said Governor Samboja's administration will not give consent to the renewal of the lease.
The statement, signed by the county government's spokesperson Dennis Onsarigo, said Mr Samboja's administration is determined to fight for the land rights of the residents.
"The governor reiterates that his administration is, and will continue, fighting for the preservation of property rights for the residents of the county government of Taita Taveta despite spirited pressure from land cartels residing within and without the borders of this county," he stated.
He termed information that the lease had been renewed as unsubstantiated and baseless, claiming that the propaganda was being spread by individuals seeking political opportunities to serve their interests.
"The governor wishes to inform the public that the leasehold [for] the land above has not been renewed, a position he has held since the false information started doing rounds in the media," he stated.
Both NLC and county government officials including Governor Samboja, Mr Mwandawiro, and Land Department Chief Officer Reuben Ngeti have appeared before the Senate Committee for Lands to establish the status of the lease renewal.
The committee visited the farm in March after the farmers petitioned Senate to investigate the controversy surrounding the renewal of the lease.
Taita Taveta Senator Johnes Mwaruma, who is a member of the committee, is supporting the farmers in their quest to have the land subdivided among them.
The senator said Mr Criticos had allowed the farmers to occupy the land during the 1992 and 1997 General Election to woo votes from Taveta residents.
"The farmers did not invade the farm. He (Criticos) allowed them in so that he could get votes from them. It will be fair if they are given the land," he said.
Mr Criticos has also lodged a complaint with the land commission over delays to renew his leasehold since 2012 and wants NLC to carry out its constitutional mandate and grant him his application.
The 99-year lease was granted to Captain Morgan in 1914 and was later transferred to George Criticos, who was the father of the former MP.