Raila in tough battle over Mau forest

As with everything else in Kenya, the conservation and destruction of the Mau forest is proving an intractable matter for one simple reason: too many vested political interests will ensure that nothing will change despite ongoing destruction of the forest and which can only be described as a looting spree.

A tea plantation (foreground) bordering part of the Mau forest. Excisions of the Mau forest have been driven by demand for farmland.

A tea plantation (foreground) bordering part of the Mau forest. Excisions of the Mau forest are driven by demand for farmland.

Many people wish for the Mau settlers to just pack up and leave to let the forest regenerate itself. With intensified settlements in the past 20 years, the weather patterns in Western Kenya have changed for the worse. Rivers have dried and timber has become a scarce commodity as vast swathes of indigenous forest were cleared for settlements. It is believed that restoring the Mau forest could improve water supplies and help attract rainfall.

Unfortunately, its not easy asking tens of thousands of people to leave a place they have called home for more than a decade. It is a political tinder-box with the capacity to not only ruin careers but also to spark instability in a part of Kenya notorious for ethnic clashes. It gets worse when politicians are the cause of the problem.

Excisions of the Mau forest began during the British colonial era. Tens of thousands of acres of land were cleared to make way for tea plantations and white settler farms. After independence, most white settler farms were allocated to Africans (for a fee) while the tea plantations remained in the hands of multinational corporations.

Between Independence in 1963 and 1990, there were several excisions done to create room for an growing population. However, the excisions responsible for the current controversy were done in the 1990s by former President Daniel arap Moi.

Faced with opposition to his rule after grudgingly accepting to register opposition parties in 1991, Moi needed support. As a practitioner of patron-client politics, this meant dishing out gifts in exchange for votes. That is how the Mau forest complex began getting sub-divided as a means of rewarding Moi’s cronies.

Initially, the beneficiaries of the plots were top government officials, senior security officers and members of Moi’s Kenya African National Union (KANU) party. Provincial Commissioners, District Commissioners, Permanent Secretaries, KANU branch chairmen, military commanders as well as clergymen benefited from the allocations. Of course, Moi did not forget himself and his land parcel was big enough for him to establish a tea estate.

The initial allottees subdivided their parcels and sold to tens of thousands of other people, mostly from the Kipsigis dialect of Moi’s Kalenjin tribe but also some Kisii. The politicians are believed to have made millions from the scheme as most of them were allocated the land almost for free.

Today, the politicians who made so much money selling forest land are at the forefront resisting the eviction of their settlers. That is to be expected considering their role in the saga. President Mwai Kibaki has, for long, wanted the settlers evicted and ordered an operation in 2005. However, Prime Minister Raila Odinga finds himself in a difficult position as most Kalenjin legislators are from his ODM party.

As a matter of fact, Raila himself used the Mau saga in his campaigns against Kibaki during the 2005 Referendum and the 2007 elections. Kibaki became unpopular in Kalenjin districts largely due to the brutality of the 2005 evictions. Raila capitalized on the Mau saga to win Kalenjin votes by promising that he would not evict them.

Reality was to come crashing on Raila in 2008 when the new Sondu Miriu hydro electric plant in his Nyanza home turf could not operate as the Sondu Miriu River was drying. Reason? The river’s source high in the Mau forest was affected by settlements. Faced with the spectre of a failed project, Raila quickly changed tune and began demanding for the eviction of settlers from the Mau.

Raila is having a difficult time with Kalenjin legislators because of his abrupt change of political stance regarding the Mau settlements. Only two years ago, Raila promised their continued stay in the forest but now, he appears to have sided with President Kibaki. The Kalenjin community sees the stance as the ultimate political betrayal considering the fanatica support they gave to Raila’s presidential candidacy back in 2007.

The Kalenjin were the most militant during post election violence, where they made it very clear that they did not recognize President Kibaki. For Raila to turn against the community is something that has not been taken kindly by the Kalenjin.

Certainly, the Kalenjin will never forgive Raila for the treachery and there will be major political ramifications on Raila’s political future as far as Kalenjin support is concerned.

For the settlers though, it appears their fate is sealed. Public opinion for their eviction is running high, largely due to water shortages caused by dying rivers. Even the international community has said that it would support the restoration of the Mau forest.

As debate rages on what to do with the settlers, illegal loggers have taken advantage of the confusion to engage in massive looting of timber and other forest resources. From reports coming out of the Mau, it would seem that by the time a hard decision is made, there will be very little forest left to conserve.


Picture of the Mau forest by sll627



Why Michuki rules failed

The Michuki rules failed not only because they cannot be sustainably enforced but because the tough measures were driven by factors other than road safety.

Public service vehicles on a Kenyan highway

Public service vehicles on a Kenyan highway

Motoring analysts and traffic police officers say John Michuki never really meant to cut down road accidents in the country.

Instead, the Michuki rules were intended to bring down established bus operators and replace them with a monopoly whose ownership is linked to powerful figures close to President Mwai Kibaki.

At least twenty national bus companies collapsed within two years of the implementation of Michuki rules on 1st February 2004. The financial strain of the arbitrary decree was more than any business could bear. Companies that were servicing loans were forced to divert hundreds of millions of shillings into seat belts and speed governors.

Kenya Bus Services (KBS), which had plied Kenyan roads from 1934, struggled for a year under Michuki rules but finally died. In its place, Citi Hoppa became the new Nairobi bus company but it lacks the technical and managerial capacity of the old Kenya Bus. Citi Hoppa is associated with President Kibaki’s parliamentary Chief Whip, George Thuo.

Unlike KBS which went to every corner of Nairobi, Citi Hoppa prefers operating on a few routes with good roads mostly around Kenyatta Hospital, Ngummo and Kawangware. Far away suburbs such as Dandora and Kayole whose roads are in poor state are largely ignored. After KBS collapsed, rickety matatus rushed to fill the vacuum with negative effects on road safety. With more matatus on the road, criminal gangs have become stronger through extortion rackets. Kayole area is now effectively governed by such gangs.

What exactly were the Michuki rules?

After the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) won the 2002 polls, one of its pledges was to make Kenyan roads safer. The annual death rate from traffic accidents was in excess of 3,000. The transport minister at the time, John Michuki – a key Kibaki ally – proposed the tough measures in his first year of office.

Michuki decreed that all commercial vehicles fit speed governors set at 80 kilometres per hour. On city streets, the speed limit was enforced at 50 kilometres per hour. Seat belts were to be fitted for all seats in buses and matatus.

Standing passengers in city buses were banned. Meanwhile, the passenger capacity of matatus or minivans was reduced from 18 passengers to 13. In addition, crews of buses and matatus had to be vetted by police and receive a Certificate of Good Conduct before employment. Michuki made it mandatory for bus and matatu crews to be in uniform and to have their pictures posted in the vehicle.

Effects of Michuki’s rules

KBS was most affected by the ban on standing passengers. During its 70 year operation, KBS was licensed to carry standing passengers within the capital city. The company’s buses could carry over 100 people a time. After Michuki’s edict, KBS could only carry 48 passengers per bus. The move was a disaster in addition to the unplanned costs of seatbelts and speed governors.

KBS buses were low speed, city transport carriers that, even without a speed governor, could not surpass 80 kph. Since the company was already adhering to decades-old city bylaws, KBS management pleaded for an exemption. Michuki rudely dismissed them saying that competition from Citi Hoppa would be, “healthy.”

After Michuki’s rules were effected in February 2004, there was an immediate reduction in road accidents. Kenyans were convinced a new era of road safety was in place. However, the reduction in road accidents was merely cosmetic as explained by a motoring analyst:

“The Michuki rules reduced the number of vehicles on the road while reducing the number of passengers in each vehicle,” explains the motor consultant. Fares doubled as transporters raised money to conform to the rules. “The immediate increase in fares forced people to cut down on travelling, meaning that each passenger was exposed to a lower risk.”

“After February 2004, there were fewer public service vehicles, each vehicle carrying fewer passengers, and each passenger travelling less often. Therefore, even if the percentage rate of accidents remained the same, the actual figures would be lower.”

“Let’s say, for example, that 5 percent of all vehicles will be involved in an accident. 5 percent of 20,000 vehicles will give a lower accident figure than 5 percent of 50,000 vehicles. That is what happened” says the consultant.

Eventually, the high fares in public transport attracted massive investment, what Michuki called “healthy competition.” There was a rapid increase in the numbers of new public transport vehicles, to the extent that the government ran out of registration plates. Intense competition forced operators to reduce prices. By 2006, public transport fares were down to pre-2004 levels. Passengers began travelling more often.

The economic boom of 2006 and the hawking of low interest loans by commercial banks resulted in more Kenyans buying private cars. With more cars, matatus and trucks on the road, and each passenger travelling more frequently, the actual road accident figures began rising.

Motoring analysts blame road accidents on a poor driving culture, badly designed and neglected roads and poor enforcement of existing traffic laws. Kenyan police are notorious for demanding bribes only to turn against the same motoring public by conducting “crackdowns” whose only achievement is inconvenience to travellers.

Last Christmas, the Kenyan Police conducted an ill-planned crackdown on Christmas Eve that paralysed public transport. Needless to say, the sight of stranded families on the roadside did not do much to improve the government’s image.