Monica Gathoni Ndung’u could feel her dreams come true when she secured space to set up a restaurant in Accra Hotel, one of downtown Nairobi’s most sought-after prime pieces of real estate.
The building’s “landlord” Zaweria Wangari Mwangi had shown her the vacant space in August 2021 and a deal was struck. Ms Ndung’u would lease the space for five years and three months, and pay Sh200,000 monthly rent for the duration.
For the businesswoman, this was a double victory as she was on course to becoming a part of Nairobi’s unique food culture while minting cash from her happy clients.
So when Susan Nyokabi Mwangi and her brother Solomon Irungu Mwangi started demanding that she pay rent to them instead, Ms Ndung’u was confident that the duo was just trying to mischievously make a quick buck off her.
In the lease contract handed to Ms Ndung’u, Ms Mwangi alongside Francis Mwangi Kingori and Anthony Maina Kingori are listed as her landlords and she remitted the Sh200,000 rent to the trio every month.
But unknown to Ms Ndung’u, a past declaration by the Business Premises Rent Tribunal(BPRT) had stated that the estate of the late Kingori, including the Accra House, was represented by Susan Nyokabi Mwangi and Solomon Irungu Mwangi who were exclusively entitled to the rental income accruing from the commercial building otherwise known as Accra Hotel.
Last month, the BPRT delivered a verdict that leaves Ms Ndung’u in a fix – she could lose money by compensating the actual landlord and possibly lose her business if an agreeable payment plan does not materialise.
The Tribunal’s vice chairperson Gakuhi Chege ordered Ms Ndung’u to pay Sh3.6 million to Susan and Solomon in pending rent arrears for the 18 months she had been in possession of the premises, despite the fact that she had remitted a similar amount to Zaweria.
In addition, she has to pay Sh50,000 in legal costs to Susan and Solomon.
Susan and Solomon filed a case at the BPRT on October 13, 2022, seeking the Sh3.6 million in rent arrears and permission to retake possession of the space Monica had occupied for a year and a half.
It turns out that Accra Hotel has been at the centre of a succession battle dating back over three decades, and has of late tested the loyalties of its tenants who now risk losing millions in double rent payments.
Despite claiming to be the building’s landlord, there were past court and tribunal decisions giving Susan and Solomon authority to collect rent and other charges.
Accra Hotel, one of downtown Nairobi’s most prominent and iconic landmarks, has become a commercial powder keg, as protracted family wrangles over its management now test loyalties while placing tenants at risk of paying rent twice.
Ms Ndung’u is not alone as another tenant – Eunice Njoki Mwaura – last year moved to the BPRT seeking to block Susan and Solomon from demanding rent on grounds that she had also made payments to Zaweria.
The BPRT dismissed the case and ordered Eunice to pay legal costs of Sh100,000 to the siblings that also double up as administrators of their father’s estate.
The family patriarch, Laban King’ori Macharia, died on February 16, 1986, but left behind a divided family – children from three wives.
He had written a will that named his son John Mwangi King’ori, the man who would go on to become the eighth African Nairobi Mayor and coin the popular “Kanjo” moniker for City Hall officers, as the executor of his will.
John was from the first family, and would become an adversary of his sister, Zaweria, who felt she got a raw deal in the distribution of her father’s estate.
Susan and Solomon are John’s children, and they have inherited their father’s battle with their aunt, Zaweria.
John’s death has now complicated the succession battle. Zaweria, his years-long adversary, has now replaced him as an administrator of their father’s estate in a move that could eventually tilt the battle for control of Accra Hotel.
But as that plays out in the family division of the High Court, tenants are likely to remain a confused lot.
Zaweria enlisted Ms Ndung’u as a tenant just seven months after John had died following complications arising from a brain tumor.
Susan and Solomon told the BPRT that their father was a valid administrator of Laban King’ori Macharia’s estate, hence the valid landlord.
Ms Ndung’u, the tenant caught in between family fights, argued that she had always paid rent to Zaweria. She added that John considered her a trespasser hence the High Court’s environment and land division was the right platform for dispute resolution, not the BPRT.
Ms Ndung’u argued that the BPRT could only intervene where a landlord-tenant relationship was conceded to by all parties in a dispute.
But the BPRT held that it had already ruled that John was the legitimate landlord hence Ms Ndung’u could not hide under an illegal contract.
“The respondent (Monica) purported to enter into a lease agreement with persons who had no authority or capacity to act as landlords in respect of the suit property and now seeks to use the illegal contract to oust the Tribunal’s jurisdiction by arguing that the same created an uncontrolled tenancy within the meaning and interpretation of section 2(1) of Cap. 301, Laws of Kenya.” “I find and hold that no rights or obligations can legally flow from such an illegal lease neither can it afford the respondent any protection from payment of rent to the applicants,” BPRT vice-chairperson Ms Chege ruled.
Monica had also argued that her tenancy started after Zaweria was listed as an administrator of her father’s estate.
For now, the court and Tribunal cases have placed Accra Hotel tenants in a precarious situation that could see some forced to part with rent twice.
There are other court disputes where siblings and beneficiaries of estates are feuding over the administrative rights.
Top on the list is the estate of Nairobi businessman Mwangi Kirung’o alias Kahama where his widow Eunice Njeri Mwangi has been fighting with his two sons over the administration of the vast estate, whose value is estimated to be over Sh2 billion.
The properties include the Sh500 million K1 Klubhouse in Parklands, Nairobi, and the Kahama hotels in Nairobi and Mombasa.
Others are the Small World Country Club off Mombasa Road and a 100-acre farm on Mombasa Road, a residential house in Parklands, an apartment in Kilimani, two pieces of land near the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, and two others in Nyahururu.
Another estate where beneficiaries are fighting over its administration is that of former Nakuru North MP Kihika Kimani. The dispute concerns his Sh600 million wealth.
The court named four of the widows — Margaret Wambui Kihika, Alice Mukuhi Kihika, Mary Wangari Kihika, and Miriam Warau Kihika — as co-administrators of the estate in 2009.
The grant is, however, yet to be confirmed after the widows and their children failed to agree on the distribution.
One of his daughters Elishifa Wanjiru was aggrieved by the decision of the court to dismiss her request to be appointed to substitute her mother (Margaret Wambui Kihika) as joint administrator of the vast estate.
The court ruled against her wish and appointed her sister Florence Nduta Kihika to substitute for their mother.
In another case, the family of late Kiambu billionaire Mbugua Mwangi remains divided over the distribution of his properties among them Paradise Lost on Kiambu Road.
The disagreement is between siblings Mr Daniel Mwangi, Isaac Gichia, and Joseph Mbai. The estate is also valued at Sh2 billion.
They have been fighting in court over the property scattered in Kiambu, Nairobi, and Laikipia counties.
The assets were registered under Ndunde Investments Ltd which, apart from Paradise Lost, owns the Misarara Coffee Estate, the Suguror Ranch in Laikipia, and property in Karen and Runda, running into billions of shillings.
The dispute escalated after Mr Mwangi claimed that the family’s flagship holding company, Ndunde Investments Limited, which owns various assets is on the verge of being wound up irregularly.
In the case, Mr Daniel Mwangi Mbugua accused his two younger brothers, Mr Isaac Gichia Mbugua and Mr Joseph Mbai Mbugua, of disinheriting him of the land that hosts Paradise Lost and Paradise Gardens.