The rice farmers of Mwea in central Kenya have lived under oppression since the colonial days when an irrigation scheme was established in the area. Successive governments have ignored their plight. But the people refuse to give up their quest for justice
I came to Mwea in 1954 as a detainee having been captured by the colonialists; I was brought to Tembere, which by then was a vast wilderness inhabited by buffaloes and other wild animals and hardly any human beings. I was among the captured agitators in Lari, Central province, which was my hometown. My comrades and I were captured by the colonialists in Tanganyika where we had fled to after the Lari troubles. We would be held in Langata for a time, then Sagana and later be brought to Tembere.
We were brought to Tembere initially to provide labour for the mapping of the area as a viable rice production site. We dug canals for what would become the Mwea Tembere Irrigation Scheme. This work was done under the abusive supervision of the colonial guards; 50 detainees per cohort. We drove off the wild animals and dug these canals along a 6-mile stretch. Hours on end were spent with our backs arched down and outward everyday under the cracking whips of the colonial officers. We were overworked and starved; all they gave us was a small portion of cabbages and beans in a day.
New detainees at the camp were classified and coded black; grey was for the acclimatizing and reforming detainees, while white was for the rehabilitated scheduled to be released. Many detainees died in these camps. Many of us died in this detention camp.
Many of us after being freed from detention went back to our places of birth to only find out that we were maliciously excluded during the land parcel demarcations and allotment. We opted to come back to Tembere where we thought we had an opportunity to earn a living on the rice fields, to property ownership and settlement. In 1958, we were each given 4 acres of land for rice cultivation within the scheme. We were licensees on this land, nothing more but tenants. We would also construct a rice mill in Mwea with our own bear hands.
The scheme had kicked off successfully and was under the management of the African Land Development (ALDEV) - a parastatal body of the colonial government. ALDEV would later hand the scheme management over to the Ministry of Agriculture at the dawn of independence and the ministry would in turn give the National Irrigation Board (NIB) the ownership and mandate to run and manage the scheme in 1966.
The NIB would maintain the same structures of operations as those of the colonial masters. The NIB bought all our rice and would market it independently to the rest of the country. We did not have the freedom to choose our own markets and buyers. A farmer would deliver an average of 70 bags of his rice harvest to the NIB. The NIB would then from these bags deduct a supposed equivalent of the cost of fertilizers, irrigation costs and canal maintenance. An average of two bags of rice was in the end given back to the farmer as payment for his own produce.
As rice farmers we sought to establish the Mwea Farmers Co-operative Society to safe guard the interests of the farmers. As farmers we were able to invest our meagre earnings into the society and as a group bought real estate in the capital Nairobi and maintained a semblance of cordial relations with the NIB.
In 1999 we as the farmers decided to cut off the NIB from being our middleman. The then area Member of Parliament Alfred Nderitu incited farmers and especially our sons to burst out into a violent rampage against the NIB. Many thought Mr Nderitu’s intentions were noble at the time; they would later learn otherwise. After fierce fighting, the NIB would leave the role of marketing and direct produce handling to the farmers’ Society. All the NIB was left to do was service the canals and deliver the water to the scheme.
The woes of Mwea properly started at this point. Our Society was soon lost to us and we are yet to have security of land tenure; we are licensees at the mercies of the NIB manager to this day.
The Society was infiltrated by selfish interest in 1999 and farmers lost control over it entirely. The Society came to be in cohorts with the NIB. From that time on, our shares and dividend returns in the NIB ‘owned’ Society were made inaccessible to this very day. We as farmers have been relentless in fighting the bullying tyranny of the NIB since. They have harassed and made attempts on our lives. Personally, I have been attacked while in Nairobi following a Mwea Farmers court hearing. They have made up false water payment debts against me. I have had NIB goons forcefully apprehend my wife and grandchild and confiscate my motorcycle, which I had acquired on loan. To this day they still have that motorcycle. They did all these with no court order or involvement of the police.
They feel I am a threat to their agenda of greed and systematic oppression. I am not their only target. Many have suffered like I have and many have also died. Farmers have been made to cower in silence by the NIB Manager.
What I would really wish if there were ever a way, is that our old Society would be redeemed by its rightful founders, the Mwea farmers. Corroborating evidence exists to this effect. Someone with enough clout should demand to see the records and bring to light our plight. We own the Society, the rice mill and Mwea is ours.
It doesn’t make sense being a shareholder of a co-operative society and never receive a dividend return! We want the property our investment in the Society has earned over the years.
And I would also wish that we the farmers of Mwea are given the title deeds of the lands we occupy in a legitimate and proper fashion.
If I were to suggest the way, the NIB should only mind the canals and roads, they can own that, but we can keep the arable land for rice production.
They should maintain the canals, after all we pay for these services and we should have these services at a reasonable rate. In fact, the NIB should not at all handle transactions on irrigation water; we should be paying the Water Resource Management Authority eliminating NIB and its manager as the middleman.
Much as we the farmers have wanted to contest the legitimacy and control of the NIB in court we have been met by several challenges; financial resources being the obvious one. Time after time again we have faced the frustration of having the NIB bribe judges, lawyers. Everyone one who could help the Mwea situation has been bought or will be bought by the NIB. Case in point, when the NIB apprehended my family members and took my motorcycle – it was futile to go and report it to the police. The Officer Commanding Police Station (OCS), Divisional Criminal Investigation Officer (DCIO), Provincial Police Officer (PPO), they are all in the NIB manager’s pocket. The number of formal complaints we have lodged are countless, but there is hardly any justice to show for it.
Right now I have a formal complaint lodged against my own lawyer, Obachi, who in an interesting twist of events represents me against the NIB in one case and represents the very same NIB against the Water Resources Management Authority in another. There is a clear conflict of interests, no surprise my case against the NIB has stalled for a very long time. The NIB and its manger, who are one and the same thing, do not recognize the rule of law; justice never prevails here.
My pursuit for justice in Mwea cannot and will never be bought, I will not stop telling my story and there is no amount that can keep me quiet.
Currently there is fresh wind of Mwea scheme title deed issuance. Many powers in Mwea have vested interest in it. Many want to spear head the title deed process here; the NIB, the Society, the Governor, the MP. The political class here fashions their electoral campaign rhetoric around the title deed agenda from time immemorial. The title deed promise is the ultimate campaign promise in Mwea.
The Society chairman has been in the helm of the body for 20yrs now; how is this so? Where is it in the co-operative societies laws of the land permitting a chair to sit for all this time? After such a long tenure, would I be wrong to make the claim that the Chair securely owns the Society, isn’t the Society his homestead? The Society’s Chair uses our tractors, our government issued fertilizers, our investments in the Society for his own interests. If he has done all these crimes against the farmers can he be trusted with the title deed issuance process?
All these people have stakes and interests in it.
This is why I am calling out to human rights defenders out there to join our cause and raise their voices. I am calling out to friends and would be friends of Mwea farmers to lobby the National Land Commission. Join and support us the farmers. Come investigate for yourselves and run your research if that is what you need. Round up some old farmers like myself and corroborate my story and get the information first hand. Call the Kenya Human Rights Commission back here to support us in this. We are calling out to all free Kenyans out there; come to the aid of your brothers and sisters who are still living under the yoke of the colonial legacy.
* Edwin Rwigi is Programme Associate, Fahamu.
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR/S AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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