When Members of County Assembly (MCAs) in Taitas-Taveta County on May 2015 approved plans to build a Sh100 billion Diaspora University Town at Ndara B in Mwatate sub-county, they termed it as a game changer to address the unemployment crisis in the county.
The figures flaunted were truly impressive. The varsity town, which at the time was eyeing 3,000 acres at Ndara B Community Land, would have a population of 90,000 residents living and working in its precincts. The varsity would accommodate 30,000 students. There would be a modern hospital and 50 Small and Medium-scale enterprises.
The proponents argued that once operational, the project would generate Sh20 billion dollars in the first five years of its establishment. It was a grand vision that seduced the most inflexible of the skeptics.
However, six years down the line, the grand vision lies in tatters. The project teeters on the verge of collapse, torpedoed by a cocktail of obstacles including strict government regulatory dictates, land wrangles and local politics.
Leaders who once embraced the project are refuting ever having endorsed it. Politicians who once called it ‘a game changer’ are now saying it is ‘suspect.’ That a venture which was once a darling to all got universally panned and now walks the lonely paths of pariah projects perhaps shows the capricious nature of grand projects that takes public by storm only to fizzle away into oblivion.
This is the puzzle that the Parliamentary Committee on Lands is trying to solve. The committee has initiated a probe to establish the true status of Ndara B Community Land in relation to the local community and the varsity project.
During a recent tour to the land in Mwatate, the Lands Parliamentary Committee led by the Chair Rachel Nyamai said it sought to understand the nature of disputes between members of the community land and Mto Mwagoti villagers as part of establishing truth on land ownership.
“We are here on a fact-finding mission to establish the truth about the status of the land and this project,” she said.
Mwatate MP Andrew Mwadime had earlier petitioned the parliament to address land disputes in Ndara B pitting the project against hundreds of villagers claiming native rights to the land. The petition, written by officials of Mwagoti/Mlambenyi Association on behalf of 664 residents, asked parliament to intervene.
However, intrigues in Ndara B are never far away. Afterwards, a group of 32 families listed as part of the original petition wrote to the MP dissociating themselves from his petition.
“We are not party to your listed petition and have not asked parliament to intervene so that land can return to its residents,” reads the letter to Mwatate MP dated 16th August 2021. The residents said they supported the project.
While addressing the Parliamentary committee Ndara B Community Land Committee chair Mr. Benjamin Mwandaa stated their 6,000-acre land had a legitimate title deed. He disclosed that members had voluntarily given a nod to the Diaspora University Project after engaging the proponents of the project.
He further accused those derailing the project as being illegally settled in the ranch.
“We have a valid title deed for this land. We are stakeholders of this diaspora university project. Those opposing it are not members but outsiders,” he explained. The project already has approval from the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).
The chair said only the genuine families of Mto Mwagoti village had reached an agreement with the varsity project officials.
However, a group supported by Rong’e Member of County Assembly (MCA) Haris Keke are claiming that part of the 1,500-acre is their ancestral land.
However, the true number of residents claiming the land as their ancestral land keeps shifting depending on whom you ask. While the MCA said his list had approximately 200 people, the secretary of the residents said their numbers were well over a thousand.
Mr. Keke said the officials of the community land were trying to dispossess the residents off their land. He said that when the group ranch was being formed, it did not incorporate families already living in the land.
“The families have lived here for ages yet are not members of the ranch because they were overlooked when the ranch was being established,” he said.
He further said the Diaspora University Project was suspect as it was shrouded in secrecy and it lacked legal documents. Ironically, while acting as the chair of the County Assembly Education Committee in 2015, Keke had led the County Assembly in approving the project. The County Assembly would late in 2018 rescind the approval granted for the project.
Ndara B officials read malice in what they consider as constant meddling of their affairs by authorities and government officials. They argue that after the first County Assembly approved the project the first time, that decision was final.
In 2018, Governor Granton Samboja halted the project to ‘safeguard’ the local residents’ interests. He termed the project as suspect and warned it might be an avenue to defraud locals’ their land and money. The national assembly is the next state organ to face the members’ wrath.
In a hard-hitting letter to the parliament dated 14th August, Ndara B complained that police, officials in the ministry of interior and even courts were meddling in the ranch’s affairs and impinged on their rights to develop their land.
“Parliament has become the next government body to be invited to use public resources to interfere with our development,” the letter goes on.
Despite the huge setbacks, Ndara B members remain optimistic the varsity will proceed on as planned.
However, as land wrangles pitting several stakeholders mount and with the land department reluctant to register the land to the varsity citing irregularities, all indicators point to a painful possibility that the varsity dream might remain just that.