In Summary
  • In a clandestine move, the Registrar of Companies in July 1967 struck off Murita Coffee Estate Limited from the register of companies.
  • Justice Simpson — and he allowed Njenga to have his way — seemed to agree that the government could declare a property bona vacantia and then dispose of it.
  • The Court of Appeal ruled that the former Provincial Commissioner was incapable of writing a will before he died because he had Alzheimer’s disease.

If you want to know how land grabbing was legally done in the 1960s and 70s — and with the help of the Judiciary and government mandarins — follow this story of the late Charles Karuga Koinange, a former provincial commissioner in the Jomo Kenyatta government.

There is something called Karma in Hinduism: ‘Do good things and good things will follow your way.’

British settler Douglas Leonard Bessant had a coffee farm in Kiambu — which he had, of course, acquired in 1959 thanks to the colonial mischief in the former White Highlands.

Bessant had bought this farm at the wrong time; at the climax of the agitation for independence.

The arrival of Governor Sir Patrick Renison in 1959 and his intention to end the state of emergency had given colonial farmers a ray of hope especially due to his paternalistic attitude to African politicians.

This is the man who refused to release Mzee Kenyatta from jail, describing him as “a leader unto darkness and death”.

CHOICE FARMS

Before Besssant bought the farm, he incorporated a company in Nairobi on December 24, 1957, with a nominal capital of Sh100,000 divided into 5,000 shares of Sh20 each.

He owned 4,999 shares — meaning he was the sole owner of the company.

On July 24, 1959, Bessant purchased a coffee farm in Kiambu, LR No. 5999, and which was known as Murita Coffee Estate, after taking a loan from National and Grindlays Bank Ltd.

By then, on April 14, 1959, Jomo Kenyatta had just been released from Lokitaung and moved to Lodwar where he was joined by his wife Ngina and two daughters: Jane and Christina.

He would stay here until April 4, 1961 when he was flown to Maralal — pending release.

Every Sunday, Ngina would take the two daughters for mass at the local Catholic mission.

With the coming of independence, choice farms in Kiambu, and then White Highlands, became the target of the honchos in the Kenyatta government with Jomo leading from the front.

WELL-CONNECTED

It is not clear whether Bessant had deliberately mortgaged his farm on January 17, 1964 to protect it, or whether he wanted the money to turn around his venture, which had been hit by berry disease.

But what we now know from records is that he had taken Sh700,000 — a colossal amount in 1964.

There were three ways of getting choice land in the 1960s. Either you forced the settler owner to sell to you on a ‘willing-buyer-willing-selling’ principle, or the land was purchased by the government through the Land Bank and sold to known well-connected individuals under the Z Plot Scheme, where senior government officials were rewarded with 100-acre parcels and houses.

It was also the foundation of the settlement schemes in which the landless would be settled. The third is the gist of this story and has largely been unknown. Read on.

Koinange was well-connected in the Kenyatta government. His eldest brother, Mbiyu Koinange, was Jomo’s number one ally.

More significantly, he was Kenyatta’s brother in-law; a connection that came in handy as CK, as he was known, rose to become a District Commissioner and later a Provincial Commissioner.

In a clandestine move, the Registrar of Companies in July 1967 struck off Murita Coffee Estate Limited from the register of companies.

BESSANT BANKRUPT

It was one of the mischievous avenues used in the 1960s to dispossess adamant white settlers their land.

As such, the entire property was declared bona vacantia, which in law denotes a property with no legal owner.

The registrar did not care to find out whether Bessant was still repaying his loan; he had a balance of Sh400,000. The timing was perfect.

Murita farm had been hit by coffee berry disease and Bessant was struggling to pay his debts by the time the politicos came for his farm.

In September 1966, a petition to declare him bankrupt was lodged at the High Court and in six months he was declared as such.

It is not clear why the company, which was still in operation, was dissolved rather than be put under receivership.

What we know, however, is that the bank had appointed a manager for the farm who managed to repay the loan by 1976.

Ordinarily, the farm should have reverted to Bessant, whose bankruptcy had also been discharged on July 13, 1973. But it didn’t.

KOINANGE MAKES PURCHASE

The Commissioner of Lands, Jonathan Njenga, wrote to the manager on December 20, 1976, and asked him to hand over the farm to the government.

His argument was that after the dissolution of the company, the property was deemed to be bona vacantia and a day later, December 21, 1976, the farm was purchased by Koinange for Sh857,200.

By this time, Bessant was operating from an office on Muindi Mbingu Street, hoping that he would one day get his farm back.

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