‘Secret’ Sh8bn property claim in family feud of Uchumi founder (2024)

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  • Ms Winifred Wangari Karani, Gitao’s third-born, is also on the spot for alleged perjury and intermeddling with his estate by selling assets before getting authority from courts.
  • Among the assets not listed in succession proceedings based on the “forged” will, is a 333.4-acre piece on Kenyatta Road, Kiambu County. An acre in the area goes for up to Sh25 million. The wealth distribution proceedings began in 2012.

Had the family of Uchumi Supermarkets co-founder James Karani Gitao honoured two debts against his estate, there would be little to write about the succession. But claims by a former in-law and an estranged friend have drawn attention to Gitao’s succession, with his daughter accused of forging his will to conceal assets valued at more than Sh8 billion from courts, creditors and others.

Ms Winifred Wangari Karani, Gitao’s third-born, is also on the spot for alleged perjury and intermeddling with his estate by selling assets before getting authority from courts. Among the assets not listed in succession proceedings based on the “forged” will, is a 333.4-acre piece on Kenyatta Road, Kiambu County. An acre in the area goes for up to Sh25 million. The wealth distribution proceedings began in 2012.

Read:The Uchumi meltdown

The Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) is looking into the forgery and perjury claims following a complaint by Ms Karani’s ex-husband Kenneth Mwige.

Mr Mwige is pursuing compensation after Ms Karani reportedly instigated an illegal eviction from some land in Ruiru and destroyed the business he was operating. Milton Kuyers, an American who was a family friend, has also protested the distribution of the assets on account of a Sh129 million debt. Gitao died on October 25, 2011. A year later, his family instituted succession proceedings at the High Court on the strength of a will purportedly drafted on November 15, 2010. Aside from numerous land parcels cumulatively valued at Sh10 billion, Gitao owned shares in Kenya Airways, Absa and KenGen.

He had money in at least two bank accounts. In that document, Gitao left several pieces of land, shares in numerous firms and money in banks to his widow Edith Wanjiku and their four children – Catherine, Philip, Winifred and Sospeter.

The document also tasked survivors with settling his debts.

As the succession case dragged on Wanjiku died on May 16, 2017.

The children instituted succession proceedings in relation to her in 2020. Wanjiku was also wealthy, having co-founded Akiba School in Nairobi and made other investments with Gitao.

Despite Gitao and Wanjiku owning some assets individually, their succession proceedings are joined as the latter inherited a chunk his assets. Mr Mwige and Mr Kuyers protest the distribution of Wanjiku’s assets. Mr Mwige had jointly invested in a business on the land in Ruiru, initially owned by Gitao and intended to be passed to Ms Karani as per the will presented in court.

Read:The inside story of Uchumi supermarket’s turnaround

Mr Mwige argues that Gitao had actually prepared a will on June 21, 2000 – eleven years before he died. The will, he adds, was drafted by Hamilton Harrison & Mathews. The will filed in the succession case and dated was reportedly drafted by Ms Karani.

Two individuals that appear as witnesses in the will have disowned it. Mr Charles Luvai, who a gardener of Mr Mwige and Ms Karani between 2010 and 2013, when the two were still married, says in an April 18, 2024 affidavit that he has never seen the will and did not sign it.

“The name ‘Charles Luvai’ is not in my handwriting. I did not write that name. P.o. Box 78-Karen has never been my postal address. The signature of the 1st witness on the last will and testament of James Karani Gitao dated November 15, 2010 is not my signature,” Mr Luvai says in the affidavit.

Ms Esther Macharia, who was the house manager of the married couple from 2007 to 2012, and whose name appears as the second witness, also told the court on April 18 that her signature was forged.

The succession case related to Wanjiku was filed by Ms Karani and her brothers Philip and Sospeter. The siblings in the court papers say their mother owned three pieces of land, 600 shares in East African Breweries Ltd and Akiba Schools and 49 per cent of two family companies – Akiba Properties Kenya Ltd and Central Impex Enterprises Ltd.

She also owned 1,950 shares in undisclosed companies, some 1,100 units in an investment fund held at Britam, a car and cash in two bank accounts. The three place the total value of their mother’s estate at Sh2 million, a paltry amount when measured against the assets listed.

Mr Mwige wants the court to interrogate the Sh2 million valuation, alongside the two individuals that signed as sureties to Wanjiku’s estate.

The siblings say their mother had no debts. This is what made Mr Mwige and Mr Kuyers protest the distribution of the estate. Mr Kuyers in his affidavit says he was a close friend of Gitao and Wanjiku, and that he invested in their businesses for 25 years.

He invested in Akiba School, Akiba Properties Kenya and Central Impex Enterprises, with a 49 per cent shareholding in the latter two. In a bid to consolidate her husband’s interests under the family, Wanjiku reached a deal with Mr Kuyers. She would pay him $981,000 (Sh129 million), and the American would transfer his shares to her.

Read:How politicians, land row choked Uchumi’s revival

Court papers show that Mr Kuyers transferred his shares to Wanjiku before getting paid. Wanjiku promised to offset the debt and even made a $250,000 payment. Ms Karani has now says Mr Kuyers’ debt was registered as a loan to Wanjiku, and that it was to be repaid through the sale of Theta farm, part of which hosted one of Gitao’s homes and now his grave.

But Mr Kuyers insists that he and Wanjiku signed an agreement in 2011, which stated that the debt was to be paid by Wanjiku and the two companies – Akiba Properties Kenya and Central Impex Enterprises.

“I was made aware that Akiba Properties...sold the property known as Land Ref number 209/363/2/8, Nairobi for Sh150 million and the proceeds...were not utilised to repay the debt,” Mr Kuyers says in his affidavit. Mr Kuyers filed correspondence in court, showing the family first-born, Catherine Leftwich, pleaded with Wanjiku to settle the debt. According to Ms Karani, Mr Kuyers’ debt stems from a coffee business he got into with Gitao.

Ms Karani says in court papers that Akiba Properties Kenya grew coffee on Gitao’s Theta Farm and the beans would be bought by Central Impex Enterprises. Apart from investing funds, Mr Kuyers would double up as a marketing agent as they sought to export the coffee. She says the sale of Theta Farm is Mr Kuyers’ only saving grace. But Mr Kuyers says the deal with Wanjiku on settling the debt was signed two months after Gitao’s death, hence the Uchumi founder could not have offered to have it paid from the sale of the farm. Mr Mwige seeks compensation for destruction of his business.

He says in his affidavit that he got into a joint venture with Ms Karani, Wanjiku and their company Akiba Properties.

The venture was to see Mr Mwige develop a piece of land in Ruiru, originally owned by Gitao but bequeathed to Ms Karani through the contested November 15, 2010 will. “Edith Wanjiku Gitao repeatedly assured the 1st protester (Mwige) that there were no risks to him investing in his wife’s land because she (Wanjiku) was fully in charge of processing probate and administration of the estate of James Karani Gitao to herself.

Several visits to the site in the company of Edith Wanjiku Gitao confirmed and cemented this agreement,” Mr Mwige says. “The 2nd petitioner (Karani) affirmed and confirmed her mother’s assertions, promises and representations to the 1st protester, her thenhusband. She assured him, as a corporate lawyer, lecturer in commercial law and equity, as a family and commercial law practitioner with decades of experience, and as a wife, that any investment he made on her land would be safe and would be for the benefit of the children of the marriage,” Mr Mwige adds.

Mr Mwige and Ms Karani incorporated Restitution Chambers Kenya Ltd.

Through the company, they set up a business called Karani Boxpark on the Ruiru land. Restitution Chambers was a tenant paying rent to Akiba Properties. The couple parted ways years later. Following an eviction threat, Mr Mwige filed a case against Akiba Properties at the Business Premises Rent Tribunal, which issued orders in his favour.

Ms Karani, in that case, filed an affidavit stating that she was a stranger to Akiba Properties. That is the statement that has attracted perjury claims. Searches at the Business Registration Service indicate that Ms Karani is the Akiba Properties company secretary and its only living official.

Her phone number and email are listed as those of Akiba Properties Ltd. Mr Mwige filed a complaint against Ms Karani with the DCI and Law Society of Kenya offices in Mombasa, citing the findings.

Akiba Properties sold the Ruiru land to an individual identified in court as Scholastica Kibathi for Sh40 million in 2021. Karani Boxpark was demolished.

On Mr Mwige’s request, the Business Premises Rent Tribunal terminated the case he filed, as the subject matter of those proceedings was no more. Mr Mwige is pursuing damages for the destruction and eviction. He says in the filings that the two wills bearing Gitao’s final wishes should be interrogated and a determination made on which is likely to be genuine.

The piece of land his business stood was to be inherited by Ms Karani on the strength of the “forged” will. In the will Mr Mwige says is original, the land was not in the register of assets.

He has also asked the judge to interrogate how Akiba Properties sold the Ruiru and Westlands assets for a combined Sh190 million, yet the High Court is yet to conclude the distribution of Gitao’s and Wanjiku’s estates, or formally appoint administrators with authority to sell assets. The land sales, Mr Mwige adds, were done by Ms Karani.

He wants the proceedings in the Gitao’s succession quashed, “as they are based on false statements and forged documents”.

  • Pilot charged over Sh250m Karen land fraud schemeEric Ogola Lugalia denies 11 counts of crimes including forging a title deed and several signatures.
  • EACC wants Jirongo arrested over Sh250m land dealThe recommendation has been forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Renson Ingonga, who is yet to respond.
‘Secret’ Sh8bn property claim in family feud of Uchumi founder (2024)


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