Nessuit, Kenya – Kenya‘s Ogiek people dressed in traditional regalia have gathered in the western town of Njoro in the Rift Valley to celebrate the anniversary of an historic land rights ruling.
Men and women on Saturday performed traditional songs and dances at the Nessuit Primary School in a celebration organised by the human rights group, Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program (OPDP).
The Ogiek have designated May 26 as Ogiek Celebration Day.
It marks the first anniversary of a ruling by the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), which found that the Kenyan government had violated the Ogiek people’s right to land, religion, culture, development and non-discrimination by evicting thousands of families from the Mau Forest.
The landmark verdict also recognised the Ogiek’s indigenous status and their right to reparations from the Kenyan government.
“Our fight for land ownership is a battle of the weak against the mighty,” said 48-year-old Sarah Osasi, who now lives in a rental house after being evicted from her home in Ngongongeri.
“We want to remind the government through the celebration that we are still existing and we have nowhere else to go except running to it to safeguard our rights,” she said.
Ogiek, a community of about 45,000 people, are among the few indigenous groups in Kenya.
Human rights activists from across Africa, lawyers and hundreds of people from other ethnic communities joined in the celebrations.
Daniel Kobei, executive director of OPDP, urged the Kenyan government to implement the landmark ruling.
“We want the government to hear the voices of the people that Ogiek want their land,” he said.
“Justice for Ogiek now is our message today.”
OPDP is among the three groups that brought the case against the Kenyan government at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2009. The commission then referred the case to the ACHPR in 2012.
After delivering its ruling last year, the court ordered the Ogiek people to submit requests for reparations within three months and the Kenyan government to report on its progress on addressing violations against the Ogiek people within six months.
Kobei said members of the Ogiek community have already submitted requests for the reparations and are now waiting for the court’s decision.
Lucy Claridge, the lawyer who represented the Ogiek in the land rights case, said the “celebration is a call to the government to respect the rights of Ogiek and take serious and meaningful steps to return their land”.
Kagwiria Mbogori, chairperson of Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, a government watchdog, was emphatic that the ruling was a clear message to the government that they respect the rights of the indigenous peoples.
“The ruling was a major success for the community and this is a good time to appreciate the journey,” said Mbogori, who officiated the occasion.
The Ogiek community, however, is worried that the implementation process might be derailed by the politicisation of the issue as well as the potential influence of powerful figures who own land they are claiming.
Nevertheless, they remain hopeful that the government will fully honour the continental court’s decision.
In November 2017, the Ministry of Environment formed a 17-member taskforce to establish both registration and status of the claimed land and recommend measures to provide redress to the Ogiek’s claim.
Zachayo Lesingo, a 47-year old Ogiek, said the formation of the body gives them hope that the government is responding to the ruling and will finally become landowners in Mau.
“At least the government is making progress despite our land claim being politicised,” said Lesingo, at his home in Inging’e village in Nakuru county.
The Ministry of Environment said the taskforce has reviewed the judgement and related policies and legislations and has “appreciated the gravity of the matter”.
The body is preparing to hold meetings with leaders and affected community for dialogue, the ministry said, adding that it was also consulting with a separate “taskforce on forest resources moratorium since it was also looking at forest resources management vis a vis communities living near the forest”.
The ministry was referring to the taskforce it appointed in February following the imposition of a 90-day ban on logging activities in Kenyan forests by Deputy President William Ruto.
Korir Sing’oei, a member of the Ogiek taskforce, said the government is committed towards effective implementation of the ruling.
“I have come here today to pledge my support … I have come here today to pledge to continue working with your community to make sure the government implements the decision(of the African Court),” he said on Saturday.
The experts say the government is duty bound to protect rights of indigenous peoples and marginalised communities in Kenya as well as respect regional instruments it has ratified such as the African Charter.
“Implementing the decision will send a positive signal of government’s commitment to upholding indigenous peoples land rights as it has already shown its commitment towards land reforms in Kenya,” said Shadrack Omondi, an analyst at the Resource Conflict Institute, a regional environmental and natural resources policy advocacy NGO.
For Mary Chepkemei, 63, her eyes are on the executive. Speaking at the celebration, she called on the president and deputy president to respond to their sufferings and give them land.
“We want a place to call a home. We want a home where our ancestors lived. We have suffered for too long,” she said.