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Bitter property battle as Udi Gecaga son moves to evict stepmother

Friday November 2 2018

Margaret Gecaga

Margaret Gecaga at her home in Muthaiga, Nairobi. At issue in the property case is interpretation of the ‘50-50’ rule — if a party who comes into a marriage where there is already accrued property has a right to half of it on divorce, or all of it when the spouse dies. PHOTO | MARTIN MUKANGU | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

MACHARIA GAITHO
By MACHARIA GAITHO
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Another dispute playing out in the courts is exposing, once again, the tangled webs and bitter property and inheritance wars among some of Kenya’s most prominent families.

Mr Udi Gecaga, the former chairman of Lonrho East Africa and son of one of Kenya’s pioneering indigenous corporate executives, Bethuel Mareka Gecaga, is moving to evict his stepmother Margaret Gacigi Gecaga from the palatial Muthaiga residence she shared with his father for nearly 10 years till his death in 2016.

This is after a set of arbitrators appointed by the High Court ruled that the house and seven adjacent properties were not part of the matrimonial property, and therefore Mrs Gecaga had no claim to them.

It is also a legal battle that will revisit and maybe make clearer the unresolved issue of what exactly constitutes family or matrimonial property, and how that property is to be shared or inherited in the event of a divorce or the death of a spouse.

ACCRUED PROPERTY

At issue will be interpretation of the “50-50” rule, if a party who comes into a marriage where there is already accrued property has a right to half of it on divorce, or all of if when the spouse dies.

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Calculating the non-monetary contribution of a spouse towards acquisition of the property is another issue.

It turned out that before his death, Dr Gecaga had transferred the home and the other properties from his private ownership to a company he owned, Quinvest Limited.

Soon after the ruling delivered in August by arbitrators Allen Waiyaki Gichuhi, Ngethe Njoroge and Solomon Karanja, the younger Mr Gecaga wrote to his stepmother giving her until October 1 to vacate the premises.

Mrs Gecaga was also hit with a demand for rent of over Sh9 million accrued from the time her husband died in December 2016. She is still on the property, telling the Nation that she is appealing the arbitrator’s ruling.

LEGAL BATTLE

The arbitration ruling aside, more legal battles loom over the rest of BM’s vast wealth in land, real estate, farms and interests in various blue-chip corporations.

The feud over the Muthaiga properties, one of Nairobi’s most exclusive addresses, was just the curtain-raiser for what could be a protracted inheritance war over property worth billions of shillings.

These are no ordinary families. Mr Udi Gecaga is the former husband of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s elder sister Jeni Wambui.

His son Jomo works at State House as the President’s long-serving personal assistant, and is named after his grandfather Jomo Kenyatta, President Kenyatta’s father and Kenya’s first President.

A daughter, Nani, serves as chief executive of the iconic Kenyatta International Convention Centre, a State corporation.

POLO CLUB

A Princeton graduate, Udi was one of the most prominent men of the Jomo Kenyatta era, and one of the first Africans to grace the lawns of the Polo Club.

It was through his relationship with the First Family that legendary Lonrho founder Roland “Tiny” Rowland tapped him to chair the East African operation of the continental conglomerate.

He was still in his 20s when he was appointed in 1973, but that was Lonrho’s typical way of installing an eye in the corridors of power across Africa.

After Mzee Kenyatta’s death in 1978, it took just two years for Tiny Rowland to transfer allegiance to the new regime, dropping Udi Gecaga from the Lonrho board and replacing him with President Daniel arap Moi’s acolyte, Mr Mark Too.

After Lonrho, Udi retained an enviable portfolio of his own business and property holdings, but was best known as owner of Masharaki Motors, which held the BMW franchise for many years.

TRADITIONAL BEER

He had also taken over from Lonrho the local dealership for the potent Zambian traditional beer, Chibuku, which for the Kenyan market was renamed Kibuku. The busaa-like maize meal-based gruel advertised itself as kinywaji chakula (drink-cum-food).

Dr Gecaga, a fabulously wealthy entrepreneur and corporate executive, who managed and served on the boards of some of Kenya’s biggest companies, including Kenya Airways, BAT, Nation Media Group and Gateway Insurance, and chaired the University of Nairobi Council, married Margaret in August 2007, having lived as a widower since 1979 when his first wife, former nominated MP Jemima Gecaga, died.

At the time of the marriage, Dr Gecaga was 82 years old, while Margaret, who told the court she had been his live-in partner for many years before solemnisation of the relationship, was 69.

Court records showed that the marriage was not attended by Dr Gecaga’s two children from his first marriage, Udi and his sister Noni, nor any of their own children or other relatives.

POWERFUL MEN

The marriage was witnessed by former Foreign Minister Njoroge Mungai, and Mrs Joyce Gathoni Wamae.

Dr Mungai, one of the most powerful men in Mzee Kenyatta’s inner circle, was the brother of Dr Gecaga’s first wife, Jemimah.

He was on the original panel of arbitrators when the hearing started in 2014, but died midstream and was replaced by his brother, Ngethe Njoroge.

The case at hand dates back to 2011, when Margaret Gecaga sued Udi Mareka Gecaga and Quinvest Ltd, seeking nullification of the transfer of the eight Muthaiga properties from the ownership of her husband, BM, to the company mentioned.

Interestingly, BM was alive at the time the suit was filed, as he obviously was when the transfer of the properties to Quinvest, his own company, was effected from around 2007, the time he married her, and concluded in 2011.

He was curiously not listed as party or witness in a case involving his own properties and his own actions in transferring ownership to a corporate entity he controlled.

FRAUD

Margaret’s main grounds of complaint, according to the suit papers, was that the transfer of the properties was tainted with “fraud, undue influence, misrepresentations on the part of the respondents”.

Represented by lawyer Jeremy Njenga, Mrs Gecaga claimed that her husband was duped by his son, Udi, into signing transfer documents he did not understand; or alternately that his signatures on the transfer documents were forged.

She submitted evidence that Udi had for a long time tried to take control of the property from his elderly father, who had, in the past, even disowned transfer documents and other instructions allegedly issued without his knowledge.

He had even issued instructions to his then lawyers, Kaplan & Stratton, not to act on any letters or documents regarding the transfer of any of the properties unless he had personally signed and the action witnessed by his legal representative.

BLOCK TRANSFER

In contention at the time was the blocked 2006 sale of four of the properties to his granddaughter, Udi’s other daughter Soiya, a transaction Dr Gecaga reversed because he could not remember any such meeting agreeing to the sale, or signing the documents tendered.

Also tendered were letters to then Lands minister James Orengo, now Senator for Siaya, where Dr Gecaga allegedly sought to block the transfer of the properties, as well as change of majority shareholding in Quinvest Ltd from himself to his son.

The arbitrators, however, found that the letters to Mr Orengo were written under the direction of Margaret Gecaga, rather than her husband.

Apart from the property transfer, the other matter in contention centred on Mrs Gecaga’s right to sue, and the status of the Muthaiga land parcels under matrimonial property laws.

LEGAL WIFE

That she was Dr Gecaga’s legal wife since 2007 was not in dispute, but Udi disputed that Margaret had cohabited with his father from soon after the death of his mother in 1979.

He countered that she had only come into his life not long before the marriage, after initially having only been brought in to nurse him when he started ailing.

Margaret is one Kenya’s pioneer nurses. She was among the first African nurses to rise to the topmost ranks in the public health sector, and takes pride in having cared for Mzee Kenyatta in his old age. She is still popularly known as ‘Matron’.

How long Margaret had been with Dr Gecaga might seem like a moot point, but it could be important when it comes to considering her contribution to the acquisition and care of matrimonial property.

MATRIMONIAL PROPERTY

In the suit, she contended that she lived with Dr Gecaga on one of the properties, LR 214/721, otherwise known as Thomar Hall, which was their matrimonial home.

The other seven properties, which with Thomar Hall were originally part of one large block before sub-division, she also considered as part of matrimonial property in which she held a beneficial interest and which could not be sold or transferred without her consent as a spouse.

The court disagreed, accepting Udi Gecaga’s submission, through lawyers Kimani Kiragu and Lawrence Ondieki of Hamilton, Harrison & Mathews, that Margaret had no valid claim.

The court ruled that Dr Gecaga had transferred the properties through his own free will.

More controversially, in a decision that is bound to be challenged on litigation that could revise relevant case law in Kenya, the arbitrators found that Mrs Gecaga had no claim to Thomar Hall or any of the other seven pieces of land on the basis that they had already been purchased by the time she got married to Dr Gecaga, and therefore had made no measurable contribution to purchase or upkeep.