The ownership of 60,000 acres of Solio Ranch straddling between Nyeri and Laikipia counties remains the biggest puzzle yet to be solved by the judicial system since 1973.
On one side, there are senior citizens who are on their sunset days while, on the other, is the State, which is also fighting as the proprietor of the land.
A new faction has also emerged which also claims ownership of the vast wildlife sanctuary, with animals continuing to roam freely without the knowledge of a long-standing court dispute.
The story of the Solio Ranch cannot be told without the mention of Gucokaniriria Kihato Traders, who have presented themselves as victims who won the various court battles over its ownership albeit appeals by other claimants of the land.
The peasant farmers’ woes were triggered by a March 10, 1973 letter from the State addressed to Mr John Mwangi Mjumbe, the then Managing Director of Gucokaniriria Kihato Traders, granting them their wishes to meet the founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta at State House Nakuru.
“I refer to our telephone conversation Mjumbe/Kimuhu this morning 10th March 1973 and wish to confirm that HE the President has agreed to meet your delegation at State Lodge Nakuru on Wednesday, March 14, 1973, at 9am,” a letter written by G Kimuhu for Private Secretary/ Comptroller read in part.
Mjumbe and his group comprising over 2,000 former freedom fighters had envisaged petitioning President Kenyatta to give them a government land grant and after the founding father told them there were no free things, they handed him Sh30,000 which they had raised.
Former freedom fighters from Limuru, Murang’a, Kiambu, Meru and Nyeri had hoped to settle on the expansive ranch, but little did they know that they were on a wild goose chase.
“As soon as we got the documents, our leader Mjumbe was arrested at the gate of State House and locked up. CID officers took documents, among them the letter of allotment to the land and that is how we were left to seek justice for our land,” Kimunya Kamana, the current chairperson said.
What followed later were numerous court cases that saw the matter become one of the longest and most intriguing land disputes in Kenya.
The peasants have maintained that their efforts to settle on the land were frustrated by former Attorney General Charles Njonjo, whom they associate with the arrest of their patriarch and confiscation of land ownership documents.
In court, the peasants accused Njonjo of deceit for allegedly ordering Mjumbe to surrender the allotment letter together with the title deed four days after and when he allegedly failed, police were allegedly used to get them.
In replying affidavit, the late Njonjo claimed the land never changed hands and thus remained under Solio, which got an ownership title on November 26, 1965.
The case has passed through the hands of several judges, including Chief Justice Martha Koome, and Justice Joyce Aluoch, who now serves at the International Criminal Court, who all ruled in favour of the peasants.
“From the evidence, I am satisfied that the plaintiff company was allocated Solio Ranch by the late President Jomo Kenyatta, via a letter of allocation which was “taken” from their offices by CID officers who raided their offices and also took cash money,” Justice Aluoch, then a High Court Judge, ruled on June 23, 2006.
She commended the members of the land-buying company for ‘their spirited, relentless and brave fight they put up for what they believed was their right to the land which they had paid for. I admired their courage and only hope that the order I have issued today will be obeyed by the relevant Government Ministry to bring this long-standing dispute to an end,” said Justice Aluoch.
Retired judge Effie Owour had in November 1981 ordered the government to re-register the land-buying company and its name restored to the register of companies.
In yet another ruling in 1990, the court ordered the State to pay the members Sh46,870 taken from its offices and return the stolen documents including the letter of allotment.
In October 2008, Mr Njonjo lodged an application seeking orders to strike out the Gucokaniria case on grounds that it disclosed no reasonable cause of action ad that their claim was frivolous and an abuse of the court process.
Justice Mbogholi Msagha noted that the summary dismissal of the case as sought by Mr Njonjo would cause injustice to the land-buying company.
Aggrieved, Mr Njonjo moved to the Court of Appeal accusing Justice Mbogholi of failing to consider that he had an indefeasible title to the suit property. owever, the appellate judges dismissed his plea and upheld the High Court ruling.
In 2016, the issue took a new twist when Members of Parliament visited the expansive ranch to investigate whether it belonged to the government.
The Mburi Muiru-led National Assembly Lands Committee sought to investigate claims that the ranch could have irregularly and illegally changed hands and sold to the government.
Kamana, 94 said the delay of the matter has now attracted fraudsters who have been trying to use the back door to guise as the bonafide members of the land-buying company.
“From dealing with a powerful government and political figure, we are now fighting with another group of individuals who want to defraud and claim ownership of the land despite our continued payment of land rates,” noted Kamana.
The faction, Kamana noted was now soliciting money from unsuspecting members of the public asking them to pay money for them to be represented in court for them to get the disputed land.
“We have used our youthfulness to fight and demand our land, we are approaching 100 years and this means our days are limited, the only joy to our generation and the third generation is government to intervene and give us our land,” said the chairperson.
On the status of Gucokaniriria Kihato case, Mr Kamana says the judgement was deferred on June this year after a faction claimed ownership of the land and is now expected to be made December 6 before Nyeri Environment and Lands Court Judge James Olola.
“The court ordered for elections since the former management had never done so since 2007 and had not been remitting their land rates. Elections have been held and remittance on land rates done and we are waiting for C12 certificates as we look forward for the court verdict on December 6 this year,” said Kamana
According to Francis Karangi, the land-buying company’s secretary, they have been left to carry documents to every office and to every individual who cares to hear their plight and assist them.