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Two governors caught up in Sh2bn land row

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Nairobi Governor Johnson Sakaja and Embu Governor Cecily Mbarire are tussling over prime land in Nairobi that has been the subject of a 16-year-old court battle. 

Photo credit: File

A few minutes past noon on March 5, Lands Cabinet Secretary Alice Wahome called a press conference. The minister ordered security agents to evict former Nairobi provincial administrator Davis Nathan Chelogoi from an 18-acre piece in Loresho. She said records and past court decisions indicate the prime property is owned by Ashok Rupshi Shah and Hitenkumar Raja. She added that claims to the property by Mr Chelogoi and deceased businessman Jacob Juma were fraudulent. The CS said she had intervened in the matter after complaints. Almost a month later, the dispute rages.

A dive into the 16-year old land saga reveals how some powerful, politically-connected individuals tilted scales in favour of their interests, despite the ministry’s stand on what official records indicate. As of March, three parties were dangling three different title deeds, all claiming ownership of the same property. The courts have dealt with the authenticity of two of the titles and concluded that the one held by Ashok Rupshi Shah and Hitenkumar Amritlal Raja is genuine. Judges dismissed the one of Juma, who died in 2016. Juma’s widow and administrator of his estate, Miriam, says she will take the matter to the Appellate Court.

She is represented by city lawyer and former Law Society of Kenya President Nelson Havi. Then there is the third and most recent title held by Mr Chelogoi. Save for the facts that Mr Chelogoi’s title shows it was presented on June 4, 2021 and that the lease is for 99 years from February 1, 1995, the Sunday Nation will avoid comment on this document since its authenticity is still being contested in court. Despite the disputes, there have been attempts to tamper or “regularise” records at the Lands registry concerning the property now valued at almost Sh2 billion.

The Nation.Africa has established that Nairobi Governor Johnson Sakaja, through his Ayoti Ltd, agreed to pay Mr Chelogoi more than Sh900 million for the purchase of the property on April 18, 2023. Mr Sakaja and his company signed the agreement when the property was a subject of a court dispute and as Mr Chelogoi – who in the agreement is referred to as the vendor – had already filed an application for joinder as an interested party in a case pitting Ashok Shah and Hitenkumar Raja against Juma.

Mr Chelogoi made that court application on August 3, 2022, begging the question: Didn’t Governor Sakaja know about the disputes surrounding the land when his company sought to buy it? The amount agreed on is half the value of the land, going by data from reputable realtor HassConsult, which released quarterly reports on land prices in the Nairobi Metropolitan. Ayoti Ltd was incorporated on January 13, 2020 and has not declared a physical location, according to Business Registration Service records.

The governor is the sole shareholder with 10 shares. He is also the only director. Our attempts to have him clear the air over his interest in the matter were futile, despite constant requests through his known phone number and WhatsApp number. He has also not responded to our letter, physically handed to him with questions on his involvement with the land. Mr Sakaja had not responded by the time of publishing this despite being given many opportunities to do so.

Shares sold

On Friday, Land Principal Secretary Nixon Korir said the ministry is appalled by security agencies that have not evicted Mr Chelogoi from the property. “This is a very clear case. The goons there are only using the power of the panga. There are rogue police officers who need to be dealt with,” Mr Korir said by phone. “Between last year and today, we have interdicted many officers. Some judicial officers are issuing orders to support criminals and some police officers. I have already written to the Interior Principal Secretary about this.” The dispute has sucked in another powerful figure. Mr Korir said that a few months ago, Embu Governor Cecily Mbarire reached out to him, asking if he could give Mr Chelogoi an audience on the matter.

Mr Korir said he set an appointment but Mr Chelogoi did not show up. Ms Mbarire admitted that she reached out to the Lands PS, but denied meddling in the issue. The Embu Governor said Mr Chelogoi is her in-law and had asked for help. The county boss added that she only tried to get Mr Korir to hear his side of the story and then make a fair decision. “Mzee (Chelogoi) came with documents and a story and asked me to help him because his land was being taken away,” Governor Mbarire said. “Listening to mzee, you would be convinced it is his land. I do not work at the Lands Ministry and don’t have documents showing who the land belongs to.

All I did was to call the only person I know at the ministry to hear mzee’s side of the story.” In the ownership trail Ms Wahome referred to, Liney Company Ltd reportedly acquired the land in 1993 by applying for allotment. The company was by then owned by two individuals – a Mr Paul Kipsang Kosgei, now a retired judge, and one Phillip Kimaiyo Kandie. The two rely on the strength of a letter of allotment dated March 1, 1993 as their proof of acquiring the land. This letter would later be presented to court in a case that ended in July 2022 and declared Mr Shah and Mr Raja the legal owners of the land.

Mr Kosgei and Mr Kandie would later sell their shares at Liney Company Ltd for Sh16 million to a Kenyan couple, Dipti Kiran Shah and Kiran Kumar Shah on November 18, 1994. They have a written agreement presented in court during the case. The agreement was drawn by Kandie Kimutai & Company Advocates – Mr Kandie’s law company. Fast forward to 2007, and after close to 13 years of claimed ownership and use of the land, Liney Company Ltd – under the directorship of Dipti Kiran Shah and Kiran Kumar Shah chose to sell the parcel. Mr Shah and Mr Raja bought the land for Sh33 million.

According to Mr Shah, by the time they were to develop the property in 2008 – having been affected by the electioneering period of 2007 – people unknown to them were occupying the land. The two said the land occupiers were employees of businessman Juma who emerged with a second title deed. Juma, also had a letter of allotment that appears to be a replica of the letter of allotment granted to Liney Company Ltd for the land in 1993. The only difference between the two letters of allotment is that whereas Liney Company Ltd had theirs dated March 1, 1993, Juma’s is March 1, 1992.

Just a day before the court was to initially deliver its 2022 judgment, the Daniel Toroitich arap Moi-era provincial administrator Chelogoi came into the picture with an application seeking to be enjoined in the suit as an interested party. The court, however, went ahead to render its judgment without considering Mr Chelogoi’s application. On August 3, 2022, just five days after the judgment was entered, Mr Chelogoi went back to court seeking to have it stayed. The former administrator also wanted to be enjoined in the case.

Allotment letters

This second attempt for joinder as an interested party would be granted by the same court on July 20, 2023, even though the court declined to set aside its judgment. Meanwhile, Miriam Juma is challenging the 2022 judgment. Mr Havi, who is representing the businessman’s widow, says Ms Wahome’s visit of the land in March was wrong. “It smirks of conflict of interest, possible compromise which does not sit well with the office of a Cabinet Secretary, more so, in this particular case where the minister is a lawyer,” Mr Havi said.

“This matter is still in the Court of Appeal because it originated from the Environment and Land Court where Ashok Shah had laid claim to the property. Substantially he had sued Juma and the Ministry of Lands.” The matter is even more complex as Mr Chelogoi now faces six criminal counts related to the disputed land, alongside Mr Andrew Aseri Kirungu. The two have already pleaded not guilty and are out on bail. On the other hand, Mr Chelogoi insists that he will fight for what he says is his property as was seen in an early 2024 video alongside former Nairobi Governor Mike Mbuvi Sonko.

Mr Chelogoi suggests in the video that he was given the land by the President Moi in 1995. The former governor supported Mr Chelogoi’s position. We contacted Mr Sonko, who is also a former city senator, to understand his position on the matter and especially informed by the evidence of his shifting goalposts since his 2014 letter to then-chairperson of the National Lands Commission Muhammad Swazuri.

In the March 14, 2014 letter, Mr Sonko asked Dr Swazuri whether he (Swazuri) had advised the Director of Public Prosecutions on the position of the ownership of the said title: that the land belongs to Ashok Rupshi Shah and Hitenkumar Raja and that the documents by Juma were fraudulent. Mr Sonko had not granted the Sunday Nation an interview by the time of publishing this despite promising to do so. It is not in doubt that by August of 2022, Mr Chelogoi had learnt of the existing suit in court and had even filed an application for joinder as an interested party.

Yet with this knowledge, the former top government employee would enter into an agreement to sell the property to Governor Sakaja’s Ayoti Ltd. When Ms Wahome was at the contested parcel on March 5, 2024, she together with her entourage that included journalists and police officers were locked inside. “We have a duty and responsibility to support and help Kenyans. These people (Mr Shah and Mr Raja) have cried in my office and said they want to invest in this land, but they cannot access it because of the goons who have the audacity to lock the gate,” a seemingly helpless Lands minister said.

“We have actually had to break that gate to get out. I do not understand how that can happen. That means the members of the press, police officers and ourselves have been detained illegally and unlawfully. It is okay to feel threatened.” The Cabinet Secretary added that she had since asked Inspector-General of Police Japhet Koome to assist the ministry in evicting the individuals “protecting” the land, reportedly under Mr Chelogoi’s instructions. For Mr Shah, the hope that the Cabinet Secretary could finally hand him uninterrupted possession of the land were immediately dashed.

In an interview with the Sunday Nation, Mr Shah said his experience has been draining since first acquiring the property in 2007, through a long-time struggle on the corridors of justice against Juma. Mr Shah sued the businessman for trespass in 2009. “Jacob Juma forged the title deed in 2009. I complained to the police at the time and we also filed a case at the ELC Court. I fought for five to six years,” he said. “Because he died in 2016, his wife was ultimately appointed as the estate owner. The case was on hold until somebody could take over. She came on with case in 2020. The judgment was delivered in my favour in 2022 and it was declared that we are the bona fide owners of this property and Juma was to pay us Sh50 million.”

When Mr Shah and his team went to the property to execute the court judgment, they found a group of men “protecting” the land. The businessman went to the Ministry of Lands and demanded to be informed how someone else had acquired a title deed to the property. Lands Ministry officials said any other ownership document was a forgery. The ministry directed Mr Shah and Mr Chelogoi to appear before a panel of three officials, who were expected to unravel growing puzzle.

“They summoned me and Chelogoi and he never appeared at the Lands office,” Mr Shah said in the interview. “There was a panel of three registrars that was listening. They verified all my documents, including transfers, title and when I did subdivisions. They ruled that Chelogoi was holding illegal titles and documents.” Armed with the court decision and the ruling by the three land registrars, Mr Shah reported the matter to the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI). The DCI initiated criminal proceedings against the former provincial administrator following doubts about his documents.

Mr Chelogoi took plea on March 24, 2024 when he denied six counts related to forgery and fraudulent acquisition of the 18-acre land. The land case is ongoing. Mr Shah said expected the young men on the property to be arrested alongside Mr Chelogoi, but that never happened. When he asked officers at Spring Valley police station to assist with the eviction, they said only a court order could aid such action. Mr Shah extracted an eviction order stemming from the 2022 judgment in his favour. Still, nothing has happened to date.