For more than 17 years, Diana sat pretty knowing that there was no dispute over her late husband’s land in Nyeri.
Diana was married under a woman-to-woman union after being approached by Nyambura to bear children for her husband Ngugi since she could not conceive.
She agreed to the proposal in 1990 and bore four children.
Ngugi and the first wife died in 1993. Diana settled on the deceased’s property in Ruringu until 2016 when she sought transfer of grant.
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The local chief, however, refused to issue a letter of introduction to the deceased’s dependents for succession proceedings.
In her sworn affidavit filed in court, Diana said: “I have on several occasions sought to obtain the requisite letter from the local administration. The chief and the assistant have adamantly declined to issue the said letter to me or any of the other beneficiaries of the estate.”
What she did not know is that the chief’s office had issued a letter to ‘strangers’ and a succession case filed in court in 1998. Subsequently, the estate was distributed among six people who were unknown to the family.
According to Diana’s lawyer Kamau, they learnt of the distribution when the court was issuing a grant of administration to Diana and her children.
Forced to intervene
“We had to withdraw the case and file an appeal to the ruling that transferred the land to strangers,” said Kamau. The case is before the Nyeri Court of Appeal.
Diana’s case reflects a worrying trend gaining traction in Mt Kenya where the role of government administrators in succession matters has been questioned.
So critical is the situation that the Office of the President has been forced to intervene with Interior Principal Secretary Karanja Kibicho warning administrators that they are under surveillance over the issue.
A number of administrators have been faulted for either colluding with brokers to sell land without family’s consent or taking bribes from some of the deceased’s relatives to dispossess the legitimate inheritors of property.
In a letter seen by The Standard, Kibicho wrote to County Commissioners over the high numbers of land cases involving chiefs and their assistants.
“A number of complaints have been raised against chiefs and assistant chiefs for misuse and abuse of office, conflict of interest and unethical conduct while dealing with land issues, including succession and sale of family land without consent of family members,” reads the letter in part.
Diana’s case is among the numerous succession matters where administrators’ role has been questioned.
Force the dependants
Lawyer Kamau is also representing a family seeking revocation of grant after the chief’s office deliberately omitted two daughters in a succession case of their father’s estate on pretext that they were married.
“That is a deliberate way to complicate the succession process and disinherit the daughters who are entitled to the property. The administrators conspire with some of the successors and force the dependents to agree in the chief’s office on the mode of distribution in favour of some. That is illegal,” said Kamau.
If the administrators don’t interfere with distribution of property, they introduce strangers - mostly buyers of land through the back door - in the list of the dependents against Section 45 of the Law of Succession Act.
In some cases the administrators collude with cartels to file succession matters in court on behalf of the families.
“They mostly withhold the letter of introduction until the dependents agree to allow the process be done by his office at a fee. Unsuspecting inheritors give in and surrender all documents required and pay the chief,” said the lawyer.
The role of chiefs and their assistants is to issue an introductory letter stating all the legitimate beneficiaries of the deceased’s property, but some have made it an avenue to enrich themselves.
The administrators also over charge dependents in land transfer matters.
“The cases are so rampant and most of them have made money out of the illegality. They even charge higher “legal fees” than lawyers,” the lawyer says.
In Nyeri registry, for instance, Kingori estimated that out of 10 succession cases about five are done by the chiefs.
“We have had meetings as lawyers for a long-lasting solution for such interferences, which delay succession matters,” he said.
During a tour of Murang’a, Chief Justice David Maraga said the Judiciary would introduce more alternative dispute resolution centres in Central to reduce backlog of succession cases.
If an administrator gets away with collusion to disinherit in a succession case, the estate’s administrator carries the burden of ‘giving misleading information’ to the chief on the true beneficiaries.
In another succession matter filed at the Meru High Court, Mugambi Mukiira was accused of obtaining an introductory letter from a chief in a neighbouring location to dispossess four children of his deceased cousin Ndegwa M’Mukira.
Mukiira averred that he was the only surviving dependent of the deceased.
He argued that Ndegwa was brought up by his deceased mother and he was the rightful beneficiary of the land.
Sold three acres of land
He successfully transferred the property and registered it in his name and later sold three acres of land to Leonard Chabari.
Two of the deceased’s children applied for revocation of the grant arguing that it was obtained fraudulently by making of a false statement and that the true beneficiaries of the estate have been left out. In their objecting petition, George Muriungi, the assistant chief Gakeri sub-location, Igoji Location in Meru – where the said land is located - testified that the letter of introduction was not issued by his office, but by the chief of the neighbouring Kinoro location.
Judge William Ouko found that Mukiira had intention to disinherit the legitimate successors.
“The petitioner deliberately and conveniently went to the neighbouring location to obtain the chief’s letter to avoid being exposed by the chief of his location who was versed with the estate,” said the judge in his ruling that revoked the grant and reverted the estate to the State.
Ordinarily, Law of Succession Act limits the role of chiefs and assistant chiefs to identification of legitimate beneficiaries of deceased persons’ estates, but some misuse their offices to disinherit rightful beneficiaries.
The critical role of the administrators in the process is what Kibicho said has given a leeway to chiefs to misuses their mandate and involve themselves in land transaction processes like land brokerage and title transfers, hence running against the values of integrity and professionalism of public service.
“It is regrettable that some of these officers oversee and witness the execution of land sale agreements on office letter-headed papers as motivated by personal interests. In addition, most complainants are reportedly unable to access fair administrative action from some of these officers,” reads Kibicho’s letter.
“In a nutshell, some chiefs and assistant chiefs have simply turned themselves into land brokers. Take note that the administrators have no roles to perform in either land buying, selling or conveyancing processes,” reads the letter further.
The PS instructed the county commissioners to ensure that chiefs and their assistants perform succession and land matters in a manner that maintains public confidence and integrity of the offices they hold.
“These officers must uphold the values and principles of objectivity, impartiality, transparency and accountability in the execution of succession and land issues. This office will henceforth exercise disciplinary control against officers and supervisors found engaging and condoning such improper practices,” Kibicho ordered.