Did businessman Karim Hirji’s late wife, a propertied woman in her own right, leave all her properties in Uganda and London to the three children she bore with the businessman and none to the three she had in her first marriage?
This is the question over which the deceased’s first children are making a lot of noise lately.
Ziba Nanyonga Hirji, who died in London in 2004, is the woman in question. She, according to her eldest daughter Linda Birungi, was born and raised in Ganda-Nansana, Wakiso District, under the care of her grandmother Fatuma, a propertied woman.
Nanyonga attended Kako SS in Masaka and Rubaga Girls’ SS in Kampala and later became a businesswoman dealing especially in import trade.
She would later venture into real estate. By the time of her passing, she had residential flats and premises in London.
In Uganda, she owned properties including Jenina Building in Nansana, Ziba Building in Kampala, 11 hectares of land in Gayaza where she was buried, and properties in Bugolobi, Kiyindi Zone in Nakulabye and Kamwokya in Kampala.
Born Barbra Nanyonga, the deceased first married Robert Birungi, with whom they had three children.
After Birungi died, she married Mr Hirji in 1986, converting to the Ismaili sect of Islam and taking on the name Ziba Nanyonga Hirji. She was known to many by her nickname Cham.
In October 2003, Ms Birungi says, her mother was diagnosed with advanced cancer and was told she would die. She sought treatment in a hospital in London, where she eventually died on February 8, 2004.
Ms Birungi, the deceased’s eldest daughter who is a product of the first marriage, would together with her brother Ronald Birungi and sister Anita Birungi kick off a property wrangle, asking Mr Hirji and Mr Joseph Ssempembwa, the legal advisor to the family, a lot of questions.
The wrangle ended in allegations that Mr Hirji had connived with others to forge a will which they purported to have been done by the deceased during her final days while in hospital in London. The issue would end up in court.
According to the will, which the first three children contest, Nanyonga bequeathed all her wealth to her three children with Mr Hirji – Anisha, Karima and Nabila.
Court documents seen by this newspaper show that Mr Hirji and Mr Ssepembwa were allowed to take over the administration of the late Nanyonga’s property on November 19, 2004.
The first three children allege that the will that Mr Hirji used to acquire the powers of administration – he and Mr Ssempebwa are named in the contested will as the trustees – was forged.
Nanyonga’s first three children say their mother was too sick to write a will and was not of sound mind at the time.
“It would not be possible to have made this will in the hospital because she was very sick. All that I need is justice for my mother. Some people kept saying this was her wish. But I know my mother, and she was very ill. If someone took advantage of her, I need to find out,” Ms Linda Birungi says.
We have seen two copies of the contested will, which show Mr Hirji and Mr Ssepembwa as the trustees to the property. The will names the last three children, Ms Nanyoga had with Hirji as the beneficiaries of her property.
One copy certified by the court has no date, while another which Ms Birungi says was provided by the lawyers of Mr Hirji, despite having the same content, shows that it was signed on January 6, 2004. This was one month before Nanyoga died.
Ms Nanyonga says that the certified copy of the will from court not being dated, and their mother being very ill to sign a will at the time she is said to done so, is what prompted her to go to court.
In civil suit No. 238 of 2015, Ms Birungi and her two siblings sue Mr Hirji and Mr Ssempembwa, contesting the will and alleging that it was forged.
The case did not kick off for years, but Mr Hirji and his co-accused would later file a defence through their lawyers, MMAKS Advocates and A F Mpanga Advocates.
The case also drew in Attorney General William Byaruhanga and businessman Patrick Bitature, who are said to be close associates of the family and are said to have been in London when the contested will was signed.
Mr Hirji explains in his defence that Ms Nanyoga, in the year 2003, met with the London-based law firm Evans Dodd Solicitors and asked them to prepare her will, which was drafted and executed by the deceased on January 6 that year.
Ms Birungi contests this however, saying it would be odd that only Mr Hirji and the other children would know of the will and the firm that drafted it.
“After the burial … you expect a will. They are going to read her (deceased) wishes and let us know. But none of that happened. We later got to find out that her husband had managed to get letters of administration to take over our mother’s estate,” Ms Birungi says.
The case went into mediation in 2016 but no settlement was reached. Ms Birungi and her two siblings have showed dissatisfaction over the years, alleging foul play and even having to change lawyers on a number of occasions.
Through their lawyers, Kirya and Co. Advocates, Ms Nanyonga has now petitioned the Speaker of Parliament seeking the intervention of Parliament.
She says they have been denied justice in the courts of law.
Hirji’s children speak out
We were unable to speak to Mr Hirji for this story because repeated calls to his known phone number went unanswered.
But in a press release dated July 27, Mr Hirji’s children – Anisha, Karima and Nabila – denied the allegations made by Ms Nanyonga, saying it was meant to soil their names.
They said court had dismissed Ms Nanyonga’s application to declare their mother’s will for want of prosecution, but that they were unhappy to have the case re-instated for a final settlement.
‘‘….this contestation of the will is in court. We will limit ourselves to saying that we were with our mother when she was ill in London at the time she made the will on January 6, 2004 and through our interactions with her both in December 2003 and early January 2004, we confirm that she was both clear minded and mentally astute and was to make her last will and testament as she did,” the press release reads in part.
The trio added, however, that they “remain committed to working out an amicable settlement with Linda for her perceived grievance at being left out of our mother’s will”.
The press release also dealt with
the matter of whether Mr Hirji was helped by Attorney General Byaruhanga and other powerful individuals to prevent the suit from progressing or coming into the limelight.
“They had nothing to do with the drawing of the contested will and only acted for us in defending our interests in the suit filed by Linda, and they have done so both ably,” the statement further said.
The three sisters referred to Ms Birungi’s claims as ‘unfortunate’, accusing her of seeking ‘‘sensational gain and to play victim’’.