Siaya Governor Cornel Rasanga is in the eye of a storm after accused of influencing the allocation of vast tracts of land in the vast Yala Swamp to a private developer.
Yala is Kenya’s largest papyrus swamp and freshwater wetland covering 17,500 hectares in Siaya, Bondo and Busia counties. It includes parts of Alego Usonga and Bondo in Siaya and Budalang’i in Busia.
The disputed land sits on 3,700 acres that previously belonged to Dominion Farms’ American investor Calvin Burgess.
Orange Democratic Movement leader Raila Odinga held meetings with local leaders on the matter last month, but details of what they were discussing have not been released.
The National Land Commission issued a 30-day notice on October 14 to assign part of the land to Lake Agro, a company associated with the influential and wealthy Rai family.
Lake Agro, which now operates Dominion Farms, is owned by Jaswant, Tejveer and Onkar Rai, who each have an interest in the company.
Dominion had acquired a 25-year lease to use the swamp, but Mr Burgess’ big dreams of turning the company into Africa’s largest rice farm were shattered after losing a vicious political battle in the region.
He claimed his multi-billion shillings investment was besieged by Odinga’s allies, but the former prime minister denied the claims.
Local leaders and human rights activists have accused the Rasanga-led government of orchestrating the allotment of the package to a private developer without due process.
NLC chairman Gershom Otachi said they issued the notice following the district government’s intention to assign the land.
“When an application is received, we post a notice so we can get comments and responses before we act. The goal is to know the views of the people that we have received. We’ll look at the objections before we decide which way to go. “Forward,” said Mr. Otachi.
“If necessary, depending on the nature of the issues raised and the magnitude of the challenges, we can hold a public hearing and then decide how we can adequately understand those issues in order to decide how to proceed.”
Alego Usonga MP Samuel Atandi accused the governor of working with Lake Agro to “benefit personally from the proposed allocation”.
“The whole process is a shame aimed at taking advantage of Mr Rasanga. He has a local interest in Lake Agro through proxies,” he said.
However, Mr Rasanga has denied the allegations. He insisted that due process be followed with regard to the proposed allocation. “Everything that was done in Yala Swamp was through public participation. There was transparency, ”he said.
Mr. Edwin Ng’ong’a, a member of the community, said they were not against the investment, but against “illegally acquiring the farm.”
“We advised the governor to advertise in the newspapers and attract international investors in order to have the best with a good offer that will benefit our people, but this did not happen.
“Instead, he turned to Lake Agro directly out of personal interests. We know he aspires to become Alego Usonga MP in order to further advance his interests after his term as governor ends, but we will oppose such attempts, ”he said.
Two Siaya residents went to court to prevent NLC from assigning the land to a private investor.
Mr. Kennedy Ochieng ‘and Mr. Charles Oliech petitioned the Land and Environment Division of the Siaya High Court to find that the intent of the NLC and the county government is illegal. You want the court to stop the process until the case is heard and decided.
The petitioners affirmed in an affidavit that the property can only be allocated after the district government has drawn up a plan that regulates the registration and management of the said parcel.
They want the decentralized unit to conduct an investigation of the entire swamp for a clear demarcation, as recommended by the district assembly in 2019 and a task force formed by the governor in 2014.
“Yala Swamp has yet to be registered as a community land in order for people in the area to receive their share,” they said.
Bondo MP Gideon Ochanda, East Yimbo MCA Francis Otiato and his Central Alego counterpart Leonard Oriaro and activist Chris Owala have spoken out against the project.
The two MCAs held a meeting with Mr. Odinga in Nairobi last month on the matter. Mr Ochanda has also referred the matter to Parliament.
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Mr Owala, Executive Director of the Community Initiative Action Group – Kenya, wrote a letter to the NLC calling on the NLC to eliminate the agro-lake.
“We contradict the intention to have a Usonga / Usonga block measuring 3,698.1 hectares, a Usonga / Usonga block measuring 419.5 hectares, and a Usonga / Usonga block measuring 2,646.14 hectares assigned to Lake Agro Limited within the Yala Swamp, ”the letter says.
The organization said the proposed allocations violate the provisions of Article 63 of the Constitution, which says that any unregistered common land is held in trust by the county governments on behalf of the communities for which it is held.
“It states that community land may not be sold or otherwise used except within the framework of legislation that determines the nature and scope of the rights of members of each community individually and collectively,” the letter said.
She cited Section 6 (8) of the Community Land Act, which states that a county government may not sell, dispose, transfer, convert for private use, or otherwise dispose of any unregistered community land it holds in trust, or otherwise dispose of names of the parishes for which it is held.