I sold Taveta land to William Ruto at market price, says Basil Criticos

Basil Criticos

Former Taveta MP Basil Criticos.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

Former Taveta MP Basil Criticos says Deputy President William Ruto paid “market price” to acquire a portion of his huge Taveta land.

Mr Criticos, in an interview with Saturday Nation, said he sold the 2,536 acres in the Mata area of Taveta to the DP in 2017. This was the first time the ex-legislator was speaking publicly about the controversial land deal. He said the DP was financed by Agriculture Finance Corporation (AFC), a parastatal under the Agriculture ministry, to buy the land. Mr Ruto is a former Agriculture minister.

At a rally in Taita Taveta in June, the Deputy President said he got the land from Mr Criticos as a “gift” for assisting him to resolve a loan issue with AFC. But on July 26, during a televised presidential debate, DP Ruto said he had regularly acquired the land, and could produce payment receipts to prove the transaction.

Mr Criticos, a former Assistant Minister for Roads and Public Works under President Daniel Moi's administration, in the interview, said the transaction was above board and was approved by the Taita Taveta Land Control Board. “I was paid the market rate but cannot disclose how much I was paid. He (DP Ruto) sent his valuers and quoted the price, which we agreed on,” he said.

The farm, located in Mata ward, borders the vast Criticos’ ranch and Lake Jipe to the South. According to a government valuer from the Lands ministry who did not wish to be named citing the sensitivity of the matter, an acre in the Lake Jipe area was valued at about Sh360,000 in 2017 and the current price is about Sh600,000. This means the estimated transaction price was Sh913 million, but the same land has appreciated to Sh1.5 billion.

“I did not do him any favour and if he had quoted below the market value, I would have definitely declined to sell the land to him,” said Mr Criticos.

The transaction has become a hot potato in the ongoing campaigns for the August 9 General Election. Azimio la Umoja One Kenya presidential candidate Raila Odinga has claimed the land was irregularly acquired, and stated that the government will repossess it and subdivide it for landless locals if he wins.

In early 1991, Mr Criticos borrowed Sh20 million from Kenya National Capital Corporation. The money was received by his Agro Development Company, upon which he executed a legal charge dated January 29, 1991, over a 16,000-acre portion of his property in Taita Taveta.

A year earlier, in July 1990, he had borrowed Sh14.2 million from AFC that was to be repaid over seven years.

With his financial problems mounting, he approached Dr Ruto when he was Agriculture minister under former President Mwai Kibaki’s administration. Soon, both AFC and Mr Criticos agreed to withdraw the court case, which Mr Criticos says could be the help that Dr Ruto was alluding to when he spoke at the Taita Taveta political rally.

“After completing the sale agreement with Kisima Farm (DP Ruto’s company), I received my cheque from AFC Bank. The land I sold to Mr Ruto was part of the 5,000 acres that I used to secure loans from AFC,” he said.

DP Ruto, in his June campaign tour of Taita Taveta, said he was awarded the land after he helped Mr Criticos to offset a loan he owed AFC.

“I am also a Mata elder because I helped the former Taveta MP to settle his loan at AFC and he gave me a portion of land,” he said.

Mr Criticos termed the current controversy around the transaction “political”, adding that land issues in Taveta recur during elections. “Several people in government own land in Taveta, some even occupying more than 30,000 acres but are not mentioned anywhere,” he said.

The former MP’s vast land has spawned an endless cycle of conflict with squatters. Issues started cropping up after his 99-year lease expired. The government failed to approve his renewal requests. Mr Criticos says he has lost most land on three estates he purchased in 1972, leaving him with only 1,400 acres in his possession. He owned three main sisal estates in Taveta, namely Ziwani Sisal Estate, where he had 30,337 acres, but 24,281 acres were sold to Settlement Fund Trustee, 2,574 sold to Taveta Multipurpose and 500 acres donated to Mata squatters.

In May this year, a court ordered that Mr Criticos be paid Sh2.2 billion by the National Bank of Kenya (NBK), which auctioned his 15,994-acre sisal farm 14 years ago to recover a Sh20 million loan. The Court of Appeal noted that the land was undervalued as it had buildings, sisal, a quarry, and a road network.

The bank wrote to him in April 1997 demanding Sh66.5 million from his firm, with a monthly interest rate penalty of 35 per cent.

Mr Criticos said he has also lost Taveta Sisal Estate to a private company, thus remaining with only a section of the Jipe Sisal farm, part of which he sold to DP Ruto. “With all the pieces of land I had, I currently own only about 1,400 acres where I have a sanctuary, my Grogan Hotel and a sisal farm. I have been trying in vain to recover my land,” he said.

He wants the government to settle squatters on the land he ceded to the Taveta community. “I gave out the land to squatters because of political pressure, but the 2,574 acres are still idle.”

Mr Odinga claims DP Ruto’s land acquisition on the Coast was a scheme to “sell his land back to the government” to make super profits. The DP has said on record that he will introduce a fund to resettle squatters in the region, should he win the August 9 General Election.