Story originally published in the Saturday Standard on October 3rd 2015.
On September 9, 1981, somewhere amidst the greenery of Kiambaa in Kiambu District, a slim, well-built man in a trademark suit stood up to eulogise a close personal friend. Mourners, who included the then President Daniel Moi and Kenya’s who-is-who, trained their eyes on him. Reading the mood of those around, some hunched over, others sobbing others with blank stares, the man in the dark suit cleared his throat and begun in familiar impeccable English:
“Today we say farewell to one of the greatest sons of Kenya… a fighter to the very end,” he said. “…A perfectionist because everything he did had a certain level of thoroughness to it.”
Thirty four years after that funeral service, survivors of the man who was called a “perfectionist” by the then minister for Constitutional and Home Affairs Charles Njonjo, finally closed a not so perfect chapter of their lives, drawing to an end one of the longest running court battles in the history of the country.
At the centre of this years-long back and forth were two things: the nature of the relationship between the deceased and immensely wealthy Mbiyu Koinange with two women, and to whom the property would be divided amongst the Koinange heirs. On Friday September 25, the court finally ruled on the succession case.
“We thank God that it is over and that the ordeal is finally over. We have spent many years looking for justice but we now have it. We can move on with our lives,” Mbatia Koinange, a son of Mbiyu, told The Standard on Sunday.
At the heart of the dispute is the disbursement of an estate valued, conservatively, at Sh17.1 billion. Court documents point to a laisser-faire attitude among those that were entrusted as administrators to the estate with virtually all those involved at one point or another, cutting their own separate deals, without the knowledge of the other administrators.
For a relatively well educated family, scioned from one of the first indigenous Africans to reach the echelons of education that the patriarch reached, what went wrong to threaten the wheels from falling off this vast empire?
The genesis can be traced to a series of key events. After his death in 1981, an administrator had to be appointed to manage the vast estate and make sure all arms of the different companies were running smoothly. For this to happen, David Njunu Mbiyu Koinange, a son from Mbiyu’s first marriage to Loise Njeri Mbiyu, was appointed an interim administrator on November 13, 1981 and tasked with collecting and preserve the estate.
But this was not what Njunu wanted. He had applied for a full grant to run the estate as the sole administrator. The following month two of his relations went to court to stop Njunu from assuming full control. This matter was to run for the next three years.
By 1984, sensing that the estate was suffering as a result of the prolonged battles, Njunu and his siblings entered an agreement. This agreement was to include others as administrators of the Koinange estate, resulting into a court-sanctified agreement that recognised three other people as administrators. Among them were Isaac Njunu, a son of the deceased from his second marriage, Charles Karuga Koinange, who was Mbiyu’s brother, and Eddah Wanjiru. For a few years, the ship seemed to have steadied. Seven years later though, the Koinanges were back to court, this time contesting the position of Margaret Njeri and Eddah Wanjiru in the family hierarchy. The two deeply believed they had been married to the patriarch at different times in history, a fact challenged by sons from Mbiyu’s first marriage.
“I was married to the deceased under Kikuyu customary Law on August 8, 1976 although I had been cohabiting with him since August 8, 1968…,” Margaret Njeri said during her cross examination.
Margaret also said that the children for the first and second wives were not invited to the ceremony. She, however, failed to provide any witnesses to back her claim of marriage to Mbiyu. In the 1984 management agreement, it was agreed that every homestead associated with Mbiyu would nominate an administrator to the Estate to look after the individual families’ interests.
Margaret Njeri, at the time presumed to occupy the slot of third wife, put forth a name familiar to many overseeing the interests of the estate. Her nominee was Charles Karuga Koinange— Mbiyu’s younger brother with whom Margaret had been accused of having an affair with and subsequently marrying. She denied the allegations.
Alleged fight In the course of her cross examination, details of an alleged fight between her and Charles’ wife emerged pointing to a brawl at a relative’s wedding between the two women over Charles’ affection. Ruling on Margaret’s status, Justice Musyoka found that she was not Mbiyu’s widow. “Margaret Njeri was not married under a system of law allowing polygamy to a man who was already married under statute… and no evidence was placed before court to satisfy me that the two ever went through a ceremony of marriage under Kikuyu customary law…I cannot therefore pronounce her a widow of the deceased,” the judge said.
As Margaret’s relationship with Mbiyu deteriorated — she says the two never met from again 1976, not even till the patriarch’s death in 1981. Another romance seemed to be on the cards. This time a spritely 21-year-old, Eddah Wanjiru walked into Mbiyu’s life. According to Eddah, the two met while on duty at the Office of the President, and, she says, the office romance flourished into something bigger and in 1976, she resigned after she married the deceased in November 1975 so as to “concentrate on her wifely duties”.
In her defence, she says that the two had a customary marriage. Justice Musyoka, however, poked holes in her testimony. “She appeared to state two conflicting positions. On the one hand, she appeared to say that she had married traditionally although there was no ceremony; and on the other she said that dowry was paid and the ngurario ceremony performed, although the deceased was not in attendance,” said the judge.
Eddah, in her cross examination, also says that there was no traditional ceremony to celebrate their union because her father was a leader in the local Anglican Church, the St John’s Church Kiambaa, and thus would not have been party to such traditional ceremonies.
“She did not call any of the persons that she alleged to have been present at the ngurario, nor her own mother, who she said was still alive, to attest to those claims,” said the judge. “I have come to the conclusion that Eddah Wanjiru has not established that she was married to the deceased and therefore that she was an heir to his estate.”
Ironically, even before meeting Mbiyu, Eddah spent her high school years at Chania High School close to another Koinange. She was desk mates with Isaac Njunu, a son from Mbiyu’s second marriage.
The recently-concluded case is among old matters the Judiciary has prioritised to deal with. Before its conclusion, it had been presented before 25 judges. But after so many years shuttling between the corridors of justice, the Koinanges are not ready to vacate just yet. Some of the assets that need to be distributed to the beneficiaries are not available. Many sold off, according to family members, by individuals not legally authorised to do so.