How William Ruto has found himself in the murky world of Basil Criticos in Taveta

Deputy President William Ruto

Deputy President William Ruto at his farm in Taita Taveta. 

Photo credit: File | Pool

What you need to know:

  • The large plantations were eventually meant to be owned by local residents, after a loan had been paid off.
  • Instead, they ended up in private hands, the latest being the DP, who owns 2,500 acres.

In early 1991, Basil Criticos borrowed Sh20 million from Kenya National Capital Corporation. The money was received by his Agro Development Company and he executed a legal charge dated January 29, 1991 over a 16,000-acre property in Taita Taveta. That property, according to court documents, was co-owned between him and Kenya’s former First Lady Mama Ngina Kenyatta.

But Mama Ngina was neither a party to the transaction nor was she supposed to pay the principal money, interest or any other sums as the High Court was later told. As such, it was Mr Criticos, son of colonial era real-estate sterling pound millionaire, George Criticos, who would later carry the cross across Taveta.

A year earlier, in July 1990, Mr Criticos had borrowed Sh14.2 million from Agriculture Finance Corporation which was to be repaid over a period of seven years. This time Mama Ngina had transferred her interests in LR 6731 and 6732 to Mr Criticos, who used the land as collateral.

This week, Deputy President William Ruto – the new face of land lording in Kenya – told a meeting in Taita Taveta that, indeed, Mr Criticos gave him the expansive 2,500 acre farm in Mata Ward after he helped him to repay the AFC loan.

It is only when you dig that you get the whole picture – and this is a story that helps us understand the continued squatter problem in Taita Taveta and why politicos would rather not solve the issue.

 In April 2008, Dr Ruto was appointed the Minister for Agriculture in the coalition government of Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga that followed the post-election violence. As minister, the AFC was one of his dockets and, thus, Mr Criticos’ problems – or rather his failure to repay the AFC loans and which was a common Moi-era political problem — could only be resolved at that ministerial level. AFC is one of the opaque institutions and since its formation it has always been the playground of land barons looking to buy land for a song or seeking loans with no intention of repayment.

According to Mr Criticos, in his court papers, he had, from 1990, tried to negotiate with AFC on his pending loans and had written many letters that were filed in court in the Miscellaneous Civil suit No. 473 of 2006. Up to about 2007 he had been asking AFC to furnish him with statement of accounts but he never got an answer. Perhaps, somebody was eyeing this land at an appropriate time.

Mr Criticos was well known. He was a former area MP and a staunch Kanu member. He was desperate, too, and he had land – a combination that whets the appetite of land sharks, brokers and carpetbaggers. With his problems mounting, he approached Dr Ruto. Soon, both AFC and Mr Criticos agreed to withdraw the 2006 case in court — and that seems to be the help that Dr Ruto was alluding to when he recently spoke in Taita Taveta. But whether a Cabinet minister could be paid by an individual for doing his job is another matter. But that is how land in Taita Taveta has always exchanged hands.

 Basil Criticos

Former Taveta MP Basil Criticos at his farm in Taita Taveta County.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What we know from court records is that AFC agreed on a redemption figure of Sh36 million against an accumulated debt of Sh120 million. The AFC board also approved the settlement. According to the agreement, AFC “would sell part of the suit premises and use the proceeds of the sale to clear the legitimate, lawful, contractual and statutory indebtedness to (Mr Criticos).”

But an attempt to subdivide the land into small portions and sell it faced some handicaps after the Taita Taveta Land Control Board refused to give consent. Mr Criticos then accused the local district commissioner and local MP of frustrating his efforts. As squatters invaded the farm — before the sale of the parcels had been finalised — AFC on May 29, 2009 demanded an extra Sh263,102,911 from Mr Criticos and threatened to sell the suit property unless this debt was paid. Apparently, it seems the AFC realised that it may have made a mistake in accepting Sh36 million.

To stop a possible auction, Mr Criticos went back to court, but to argue that the 1990 charge which was done by AFC was invalid since it had been drawn by Mrs G.N. Tarayia who, then, did not hold a practising certificate, and it was also witnessed by a person who did not hold a practising certificate. Mrs Taraiya was the AFC lawyer.

While Mr Criticos had admitted in court that he owed money to AFC, Justice Martha Koome heard the case and ruled in July 2010 that this was about public funds, which had not been paid. She was also worried about the plight of some “innocent parties” who may have deposited money in the AFC/Criticos joint account. Justice Koome ordered Mr Criticos to make a deposit of Sh14 million into an AFC account, being the principle loan, and if not, the injunction he had sought would lapse and AFC would go ahead and sell his properties.

Whether or not this is the amount that the DP helped Mr Criticos to pay, we don’t know. But, generally, this was the case that faced Mr Criticos and AFC and which Dr Ruto says he helped the former rally driver resolve.

Since independence, Taita Taveta, a county rich in minerals and expansive agricultural land has been the playground of political families and the entry of Dr Ruto into the fray is not surprising. For years, the Kenyatta family has been criticised and scandalised over ownership of land in the region – and it was rather intriguing, though not surprising, that Dr Ruto admitted that he also owns some 2,500 acres in Mata ward given to him by Criticos.

Previously, only the Kenyattas and the Criticoses featured as some of the prominent land owners in Taita Taveta after subdividing parts of the former Grogan land. Criticos had later taken the lower side, some 15,000 acres, while the Kenyatta family took the upper Ziwani farm, commonly known as Gicheha farm. Both were surrounded by thousands of squatters.

Of late, it is Dr Ruto’s Kisima Farm that has been the centre of controversy. Two years ago, Taveta Principal Magistrate Benson Khapoya ordered police to accompany Taita Taveta Water and Sewerage Company officials to enter the farm and disconnect the illegal water connections from the Grogan canal, which were denying the locals access to fresh water. Kisima Farm had blocked the flow of water in the Grogan canal, which was built in the 1930s by the colonial maverick, Col Ewart Grogan.

The blockage of the canal was leading to dwindling water levels in Lake Jipe, which provides the locals with water and fish. Dr Ruto’s farm manager, Mr Aries Dempers, was accused by the Water Resources Management (Warma) and the local county of frustrating local efforts to unblock the canals and allow them access to clean water. That a court had to issue an order for Warma officials to enter the guarded farm was an indicator Dr Ruto’s might. More so, the managers had erected an electric fence around the 3.5 kilometre stretch of the canal inside the DP’s farm.

The Taita Taveta land has been Kenya’s sad story and one continuous circus. But that is not how it was meant to be. In December 1964, it had been agreed between the ministry of Works and Communication, then under Duncan Mwanyumba, that a British company, Ralli Brothers, led by Sir Isaac Wolfson, would invest £2 million into the Taita sisal estates and the former Grogan Estates comprising Taveta, Jipe and Ziwani Sisal Estates, by then the largest in East Africa, and that those farms would be owned jointly by the Taita-Taveta tribes and the financiers until they recovered their investments. It had also been agreed, and Mwanyumba said as much in a press conference, that “when the loan is finally paid back, the tribe will assume full ownership of the estates”.

In the arrangements, the interests of the people were held in a company known as Taita Taveta Development Corporation which was to take the interests of the locals. One share was to cost Sh20 and a member could not buy more than 500 shares. Non-locals were also allowed to buy shares but only if they were already working in the estates.

“The important feature of this investment is that the financiers are doing all they can to promote sisal growing among the tribe by encouraging individual farmers to plant sisal by providing machinery such as tractors to plough the land and giving the small-scale farmers young sisal plants,” said Mwanyumba.

Ralli Brothers was one of the most successful Greek family companies in the UK since its foundation in 1826 by Pandius Ralli. Over the years, it had spread its wings worldwide and It owned ships and exported thousands of tonnes of cloth, jute, spices and cereals. It had its own jute factories in India and hence its interest in the sisal trade in Kenya.

By the time Sir Isaac Wolfson was entering into business in Taveta – having purchased the Ralli Brothers in 1959 – sisal was a lucrative industry in Kenya. Sisal exports from Kenya ranked third and accounted for about 11 per cent of the total export value. It was only exceeded by coffee and tea. The UK, Canada and West Germany bought the bulk of Kenya’s sisal by taking 38 per cent of the fibre while Italy, Belgium, Australia, US, India, France, China and Japan bought 49 per cent. Kenya also exported sacks and bags, adding value to the sisal fibres.

Archival records indicate that Ralli Brothers first lent Taita and Taveta Sisal Company a total of £600,000 but the company did not pay back, leading to the widely reported Zola v. Ralli Brothers case. To cut a long story short, the sisal company was declared bankrupt and liquidated in December 1969 after a construction company, Gaily and Roberts, sought to wind up the sisal company over debts. In November 1981, the company was finally dissolved and that is how one of the Taveta Estates was auctioned. The land, contrary to Duncan Mwanyumba’s plan, never reverted to the county’s residents.

There is scanty mention of Taita Taveta Development Corporation and whether the Taita and Taveta bought shares in these companies – a move that could have solved the squatter problem in the district.

After the Kenyattas and Criticos – Deputy President William Ruto has added yet another twist into the land saga in Taita Taveta.

[email protected] @johnkamau1