Six-year legal tussle that led to demolition of Jack and Jill

PHOTO | DENISH OCHIENG The scene inside Jack and Jill supermarket on May 23, 2013.

What you need to know:

  • Landlord vs Tenant: After buying property that housed one of Nairobi’s oldest supermarkets, the new owner issued notice to tenants to move out because he wanted to renovate it, but businessman Schon Noorani rushed to court seeking protection. As the case dragged on, the bulldozers rolled in, looters in tow

After 30 years of its existence, what was once an iconic Jack and Jill supermarket in downtown Nairobi is no more. It was demolished to the ground in a matter of minutes last week, to the merry of opportunists who looted millions worth of goods as a handful of police officers stood guard.

The story of this iconic building is as interesting as the way it met its waterloo. Jack and Jill, to most people, was not just a supermarket, but a meeting point, a matatu stage, an eatery and a landmark. For the millions who travel upcountry every year, this was the place from where they charted their courses, especially to and from the Machakos Bus Station nearby.

But, at the dawn of May 23 this year, Jack and Jill’s decade’s-old splendour faced its worst in the name of a bulldozer, which poked holes into its walls and scurried away, leaving the rest of the dirty job to looters who tore down the building within minutes.

Beneath that demolition, however, lay a boiling legal tussle over the tenancy of the building that has stretched for up to six years between the proprietor, Victor Maina Ngunjiri, and the tenant, Schon Noorani.

In a civil suit number 1589 of 2013, Maina filed an application seeking Noorani to vacate the premises, located along Temple Road in Nairobi. In the suit, he argued that the premise was in a dilapidated condition and had given notice to Noorani to do substantive repairs which the tenant had never heeded.

When the Business Premises Rent Tribunal toured the premise in 2009, it noted that the building had cracks on the wall, which led health officials and the city engineer to order its closure. City engineers in February visited the site and reported that, to save life and property, the structure needed to be evacuated to give way for renovations.

As a result, acting Chief Magistrate C Obulutsa ordered Noorani to vacate the premise temporarily for a period not exceeding three months to facilitate the repairs as directed by the Public Health department and the City Council of Nairobi.

However, Noorani was opposed to the idea, arguing that the seven-day notice he had been given to clear the premise was not enough, and that the supermarket housed millions worth of goods that would require a lot of logistical planning to relocate. As a result, he argued, he required time to scout for alternative premises. The Court of Appeal temporally halted the order.

But, as Noorani scouted the market for another premise, the bulldozers rolled in.

His problems, he says, go way back to 2006, when Maina purchased the building he had rented for Sh72 million. Within a short period, Maina asked Noorani to move out so that he could renovate the place, but the tenant would not budge.

After a series of attempted evictions, Noorani sought protection from the Business Premises Rent Tribunal in 2009. The tribunal, on March 24 that year, gave injunction orders to Maina barring him from forcefully evicting, harassing or doing anything illegal to his tenants.

The tribunal further stopped the tenants from paying their monthly rent until the case was determined. However, on December 15, 2009, nine months down the line, the tribunal lifted the orders, a decision the Court of Appeal found erroneous and unjustified.

“In the court’s judgment in this Appeal, this court ruled that the tribunal’s order to lift its earlier order of April 3, 2009 to withhold rents was irregularly done,” Judges David Onyancha and M A Ang’awa ruled in October last year. “For that reason, if we properly understand it, the tenant herein felt justified that the rents paid between December 15, 2009 and November 24, 2011, were refundable,” Those rents, for which Noorani demanded a refund, amounted to Sh4.3 million.

Maina, however, argued that the issue of rent was protected by contractual law between a tenant and the landlord. As a result, the court dismissed Noorani’s application for a refund on grounds that it had no jurisdiction.

Last Sunday, Noorani said he has been paying Maina a monthly rent of Sh250,000 and termed the ‘war’ declared by the landlord as personal vendetta. “I built a name for all those years, he only wants to harvest from my sweat by putting his supermarket there,” Noorani said, supporting the claim by quickly pointing out that Maina is the owner of the Maathai chain of supermarkets.

The businessman lamented that it had taken him more three decades to build not just a supermarket, but also a strong brand in the name Jack and Jill. The name was coined 30 years ago by Noorani’s daughter, then a nursery school kid who loved singing the famous Jack and Jill rhyme.

Painstakingly through the years, Noorani struggled to grow his business, although, unlike other chain stores that came years later, he never bothered to open other branches.

Today, he rues that decision because, when the bulldozers struck, he was reduced to nothing. The estimated loss as a result of the demolition and subsequent looting is about Sh150 million. More than 100 employees, both direct and indirect, have also been rendered jobless, while a number of distributors and suppliers are in the red since they had not been paid for many of the goods looted from the supermarket.

“I was not aware that Maina was planning to demolish my shop,” he says. “I was actually asleep when I got the distressing call... I had housed my lifetime investments inside that building but did not get the chance to rescue a single cent from it. I was a millionaire when I went to bed on May 22, but woke up a pauper the following day. This is impunity of the highest order.”

Noorani’s only hope of regaining a semblance of the life he had lived for the past 30 years now lies in the corridors of power, and Embakasi South MP Irshad Sumra says he will do anything to help him regain his footing.

“I was moved by the events of that day,” says Sumra. “That was a brutal, hurting and inhuman way of handling issues. How do we guarantee the safety of a potential investor’s property if people can go to the extent of defying court orders? “I will move this case to Parliament, where I will question the conduct of the judge and whether this is the kind of justice investors will be getting in future,” an agitated Sumra told DN2.

Sumra also said he would push for Noorani’s compensation, as well as “write a letter to the president asking to him to stop the reckless demolitions we witness everyday.”

Denis Ambai, a cashewnuts supplier to the supermarket, said he was horrified by the scenes he saw on TV of a crowd surging into the store and looting it dry. He said he had delivered unpaid cashew nuts worth Sh280,000.

“That is nearly all my capital, how will I get my money?” he questioned.

Another supplier, Morris Muli, said the supermarket owed him Sh150,000 which he was expected to get this week and pay his 20 employees. “I was shocked that the police did not act fast to salvage anything,” a tearful Muli told DN2.

The suppliers and distributors have since vowed to stage a demonstration at the Judiciary, where they intend to file a complaint over the demolition of the supermarket. They argue that Maina did not use the right channels to evict Noorani from the building.

— Maina was not available for comment.

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