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Ongwae Scandal: County Officials Conspired With Land Grabbers To Buy Non-Existent Sh34M Cemetery Land In Kisii



Kisii Governor James Ongwae (right) and his Deputy Joash Maangi at the court of Appeal in Kisumu.

An investigation by a local daily has revealed an elaborate theft scheme that took place during the tenure of former Kisii Governor James Ongwae involving top county officials and land grabbers.

According to the report, the former Kisii County Government administration may have spent Sh 34 million on a phantom project for the purchase a 20-acre piece of land meant for a cemetery and a dumpsite.

investigations indicate that a man posing as the owner of the land used fake documents and duped officials of the county government to pay for the parcel of land in Nyatieko on the outskirts of Kisii town.

Kisii County Land Registrar Steve Mokaya said some senior politicians and county officials may have colluded with land grabbers to illegally and forcefully acquire the piece of land, yet they knew there was a dispute over ownership pending in court.

Kisii County lacks proper waste management system given lack of a dumpsite and designated cemetery.

The land registrar stated that a former top county leader, a seating MCA, former and current senior county administration officials were part of the scheme that saw millions of shillings spent on the phantom project.

According to Mr Mokaya, the said officials worked hard to cover up the ongoing litigation and purported to legitimise the land ownership before spending the money.

Besides the ongoing court contest over the legal owner of the property, the county officials also ignored widespread opposition from the community that the site was not conducive for a dumpsite and cemetery because it is located within a school, a health facility and village residential homes.

The land registrar noted that had the county intended to conduct the purported purchase above board, by now Kisii town residents would have started utilising the property and that the town dwellers could not be contending with streets full of garbage because there is nowhere to dump the trash.

It is not clear when Mr Mokaya, who is the custodian of land matters in the county, discovered this but before the land in question was purportedly bought, he had defended the process.

Mr Mokaya said the new Kisii County leadership should pick up the issue and determine whether the county lost money through fraudulent means where people knowingly spent money on a non-existent property.

When the county attempted to hive off 13 acres of the 20-acres of the land in order to set up the public cemetery, villagers came out in large numbers to resist the move.

However, the protesters were met with menacing county askaris with the support of riot police who beat them up claiming the villagers were obstructing alleged development initiatives that was purportedly meant to benefit the community.

At that time, the county was under pressure from the national government, which required that the devolved unit demonstrate that it had adequate space set aside for public cemeteries in preparation for a possible surge of deaths from the dreaded Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr Mokaya named some top politicians, leaders in the county and a number of officials in the last and current regime as the principal culprits in the illegal sale.

The MCA was a member of the land committee of the county assembly and was among those tasked to defend the property.

The cemetery land dispute is just one of the many cases of land ownership wrangles in Kisii where double allocation, overlapping, forged title deeds among other issues reigns supreme.

Ongwae’s corruption

The former governor’s tenure was clouded with allegations of corruption.

In the previous regime where Ongwae enjoyed the handshake immunity, Members of Parliament (MPs) allied to Deputy President (now the President) William Ruto called for the arrest and prosecution of Kisii Governor James Ongwae and his Nyamira counterpart John Nyagarama over corruption allegations that they claim is hurting the economy of Gusii region.

MPs alleged that millions of money allocated for development in the two counties had been misappropriated through corrupt dealings by the governors and their county executives.

MPs claimed that Ongwae’s cronies and relatives owned local companies under proxy accounts, which they used to tender, win and do ghost projects at the expense of honest suppliers and contractors.

They also claimed that the county chief executives allegedly collude with procurement officers and the finance department, irregularly to scoop huge tenders worth millions of money.

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Already, the Director of Public Prosecutions Noordin Haji ordered the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) to initiate investigations into a series of rip-offs in the county ranging from fraudulent procurement and hiring of staff, it is however unclear how far the cases have gone since the regime shift.

Earlier this year, Ongwae was taken to court on allegations of corruption, money laundering and misuse of public funds.

The suit emanated from a borehole the ex-governor allegedly sanctioned to be drilled at his rural home in Rioma, Nyakongo village, Kitutu Chache North constituency, using public money.

The borehole, which cost Kisii County taxpayers Sh3.5 million, was drilled inside the homestead of Mr Ongwae, suit papers show. The case was filed by human rights activist Okiya Omtatah and now the Senator of Busia.

In his application at the Milimani courthouse, Mr Omtatah claimed the matter was extremely urgent on the grounds that Mr Ongwae was about to leave office after serving 10 years and that he should be held accountable before vacating office.

Mr Omtatah gave a detailed account of alleged theft of public funds by the governor and accused the EACC of failing to take action against him.

He claimed the EACC received confidential information implicating the former Governor in alleged corruption and money laundering but instead of taking action, the officer who investigated the allegations was removed from Kisii and transferred to Bungoma.

Mr Omtatah, who attached a slew of correspondence from members of the public to the EACC detailing the alleged corruption, claimed that the graft watchdog had refused to release information in their possession to show what action, if any, it had taken against Mr Ongwae.

Personal gain

In his petition, Mr Omtatah relied upon several letters delivered to the EACC pointing out that Mr Ongwae had allegedly privatised a publicly funded property for his own personal gain against the leadership and integrity clause of the Constitution.

Mr Omtatah also attached several payment vouchers, expert reports on the borehole and complaint letters from the public, who demanded to know why the governor had spent public money to drill the borehole in his own homestead and not for the benefit of the public.

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In one letter dated April 27, 2020 and filed in court, one Thomson Kerongo, who represents the Rigena Human Rights Watchdog organisation, told the EACC that the ethics body had allegedly been compromised and that is why it did not investigate Mr Ongwae.

Among documents filed in court is a sketch of the borehole, a map of the area and the site, solar connection documents, a certificate of analysis issued by the Kisii County government, the county’s department of Water and Sanitation, Kisii County, and payment receipts for project-related expenses.

On money laundering, the petition states that a resident of Kisii filed a complaint at the EACC Kisii branch office over a suspected syndicate of money laundering involving Governor Ongwae in or about January and February 2019.

The complainant stated that a phone number registered in the name of a woman that the Nation will not disclose at this time was being used in money laundering allegedly by the governor.

The owner of the phone number is or was the wife of a county worker employed as a security warden, working at the governor’s residence.

The number was in the custody of the worker and was allegedly used by him to carry out the governor’s dubious transactions.

The EACC officer investigating the case recommended a lifestyle audit of the Kisii governor after getting an M-Pesa statement from Safaricom and through his forensic analysis.

Shortly thereafter, the officer was transferred to Bungoma.

Supporting Ruto

Ongwae who enjoyed the handshake immunity and faced with a heap of corruption allegations against him, strategically jumped ships and dumped Raila Odinga as soon as he lost the election and shifted his allegiance to President Ruto perhaps with the hopes of enjoying the political shielding and escaping possible prosecution.

Ruto claims in his reign there will be no sacred cows and only time will tell whether he’s willing to stand with his words on matters corruption. Will Ongwae and other suspected corrupt Kisii officials get away with it?

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