11 December 2018

Kenya: NHIF Suspect Flies Choppers to Beat Traffic

A suspect in one of Kenya's most shocking corruption scandals lives like a king, taking the occasional helicopter ride to his Athi River home rather than endure the 30km journey by road from his office.

Mr Fredrick Sagwe Onyancha, 39, was Monday described by his friends as a "private man who loves the finer things in life". Those finer things include eight town houses in the upmarket Green Park estate off the road to Mombasa at Athi River, where he lives with his young family. A modern villa town house at the estate costs upwards of Sh35 million, according to the developer's website.

Mr Onyancha also loves the little creature comforts of the best in cars and is said to own the latest edition of the Toyota Land Cruiser V8 and a Range Rover Sport.

But it is the occasional helicopter rides by the young procurement staffer at the National Hospital Insurance Fund, from Wilson Airport in Nairobi to his home, that have caught the attention of his friends and neighbours, who marvel at his opulence.

TENDER COMMITTEE

He was among those charged with several counts of abuse of office and flouting of procurement procedures in the Sh500 million scandal at the Fund on Monday, but was released on a Sh500,000 bond.

In court, Mr Onyancha cut the image of a lowly suspect. His humble, if not ordinary, demeanour came almost naturally, especially when pitted against the imposing stature of his co-accused, chief executive officer Geoffrey Mwangi and finance director Wilbert Kurgat.

Until 2013, Mr Onyancha was an average middle class Kenyan earning a monthly salary of about Sh150,000. That changed in 2014, when he was picked to join NHIF's tender evaluation committee. In Kenyan parastatals, tender evaluation committees usually comprise people from different departments to capture all concerns by users.

DEEP POCKETS

In a short four years, Mr Onyancha announced his elevation by buying, at a go, eight town houses at the estate in Athi River marketed using a conservation theme that promises the best of luxury, freedom and space.

His refined neighbours at Green Park were soon left in consternation as Mr Onyancha embarked on a mission to spruce up one of the houses, which he had chosen to make his home, taking its value to more than Sh40 million. The cost of labour in the estate soared as he paid groundsmen Sh2,000 daily in a rare show of generosity in the construction sector. Developers like to stretch the value of their shillings as far as possible, and Mr Onyancha's deep pockets caught the attention of labourers around the estate.

All this could be explained by old money, but that does not count in Mr Onyancha's case. He grew up in Umoja Estate in Nairobi's Eastlands and was raised by a relative. He attended Nakuru High School and upon graduation from USIU-Africa, Nairobi, joined NHIF in 2007.

FACE OF SCANDAL

The 39-year-old is now the face of the NHIF scandal, with his vast estate among items targeted by the Asset Recovery Agency, which confiscates properties accumulated through proceeds of crime.

Prosecutors told a Nairobi court yesterday that Mr Onyancha and his 19 co-accused had committed a crime "worse than murder" by stealing money meant for treatment of patients.

This provoked a confrontation with defence lawyers, who told anti-corruption court chief magistrate Douglas Ogoti that nothing had been proven yet.

"They are the ones who enabled siphoning of public funds," assistant deputy director of public prosecutions, Ms Emily Kamau, said. "We are talking about more than Sh500 million stolen from the management of the health scheme. (The court should) put the NHIF fraud case in the category of murder."

She said the accused were the enablers who facilitated the siphoning of public funds, and so might have caused the deaths of many people through lack of facilitation by NHIF.

STIFF PENALTY

Defence lawyers Tom Ojienda, Cliff Ombeta, Danstan Omari, Annita Mesaki, Migos Ogamba, Katwa Kigen, Ham Langat and Felix Kiprono objected, asking for evidence that any patient had died as a result of the scam.

"There is no charge sheet of a dead patient before this court. You have no evidence to support the claim. Just forget it," said Mr Ombeta.

Ms Kamau asked for stringent bail terms against the accused, saying the offence also attracts a stiff penalty and a harsh fine upon conviction. But, pressing for lenient bail terms, Mr Lang'at narrated how some of the accused were pulled from hospital beds to be arraigned in court.

"Irene Jepng'etich Rono was removed from her hospital bed today, where she had been admitted, to be charged," Mr Langat said.

He added that her child, who is two-and-half months old, has a medical condition. Ms Rono, who is charged with breaching tendering procedures, breastfed the child in court.

Mr Ogoti asked the suspect to attend to her child from outside the courtroom.

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