11 June 2019

Kenya: Villagers Kept Off Mastermind Tycoon Wilfred Murungi's Burial

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Photo: Alex Njeru/Nation Media Group
Residents of Kiurani village in Maara constituency watch through the fence as the casket containing the remains of Mastermind Tobacco founder Wilfred Murungi is offloaded from a chopper at Kiurani Primary School on June 11, 2019.

In life, Mastermind Tobacco tycoon Wilfred M'iti Murungi was reclusive; he hardly mixed with villagers in his Magutuni village in Tharaka-Nithi County.

After he died, the villagers and his friends were asked to keep off his burial ceremony at Kiurani village, Maara constituency.

Only eight family members were allowed to witness his burial on Tuesday, a ceremony that lasted approximately one hour.

HEAVY SECURITY

Heavily armed police officers from Magutuni and Chogoria police stations were deployed to Mr Murungi's palatial homestead.

They guarded the three gates leading to the home, making sure no villager sneaked in to see the body of the man referred to as 'Master' descend into the grave.

Two choppers, one carrying the casket and the other the tycoon's family members and a clergy from Nairobi, touched down at Kiurani Primary School at around 11.10 am.

From there, a Mercedes-Benz hearse ferried the body to the home about a kilometer away.

The casket was hurriedly taken out of the chopper and loaded into the hearse by family members including Mr Murungi's two sons and two daughters.

Curious members of the public were kept at a distance by police officers and local administrators, only seeing the casket that was wrapped with nylon papers through the school's fence.

NO JOURNALISTS

Journalists who turned up in large numbers to cover the send-off were also barred from accessing the school and Mr Murungi's home.

They were only able to take photos of the choppers and the hearse through the school's fence.

At the home, locals hired to dig the grave were asked to leave and wait outside the gate only to be called back to fill it with soil.

One of the men, who sought anonymity, said that when they returned into the compound, they did not view the casket because the pit had already been half-filled by family members.

One of the police officers guarding the home said no photos were taken during the service and that there were no printed eulogies.

WIFE'S BURIAL

Though the locals were astonished and also angered due to being kept off, they acknowledged that Mr Murungi's wife, Joyce Ithiru Murungi, who died back in 2012 was buried in the same manner.

Only 40 people were allowed to witness the ceremony and residents said Mr Murungi did not witness the burial.

"He landed at the same primary school in a chopper containing the body of his wife, handed it over to his children and the other family members and immediately went back to Nairobi in the chopper," said Mr James Mutembei, a villager.

Another local said that during the burial of the wife, water was poured on the dusty road from the school to his home and that nothing was cooked.

DISAPPOINTMENT

Members of the Arua clan to which Mr Murungi belonged expressed disappointment after being denied a chance to bury one of their clansmen or to even contribute for the ceremony as traditions dictate.

A local administrator told the Nation that Mr Murungi's eldest daughter directed that no one should get closer to the casket upon its arrival at the school grounds.

Only 20 people were to attend the burial, going by the number of seats at the venue, but things changed and only about eight people were allowed into the home.

In fact, some relatives, including one of the deceased's nephews who had driven his mother, were turned away.

"The son has been asked to stay outside with the vehicle and wait for his mother," said Mr Nicholus Mutegi, a villager.

UNFAMILIAR

Mr Murungi worked as an engineer at British American Tobacco (BAT) before quitting and setting up Mastermind Tobacco in the late 1980s - first in Nakuru and then, when the business flourished, in Nairobi.

He had to fight survival wars in the cut-throat tobacco industry, fighting the government, and the BAT, something that could have changed his lifestyle.

Young people in the village who are on their early 30s did not know him physically. They only heard of him and saw his two luxurious homes in Magutuni and Mwiria, both in Maara constituency.

These homes are highly guarded, with one having to pass through four gates before reaching the houses.

Villagers rarely visited the homes since Mr Murungi and his family lived in Nairobi.

The four children are also not known to the locals.

CHARITY

Despite the secrecy, the name Master was known even by the young people because of Mr Murungi's charity work in the community.

He only used his representatives in the village to attend to social functions in the village.

The tycoon supported almost all the neighbouring schools in putting up infrastructure.

For Kiurani Secondary School , whose board he chaired for many years, Mr Murungi bought a bus and constructed a multipurpose hall that is named after him.

He also supported Igakiramba Secondary School in building a laboratory and paid fees for hundreds of children through his family foundation.

"He made sure all bright children from poor backgrounds continued with their education and employed them in his companies after they graduated," said Ms Lucy Kaari, a resident.

The tycoon also offered a market for all tobacco grown in the region and always paid promptly.

WORKERS

More than 200 people who have been working at Mr Murungi's farm in the village do not know their fate following his death.

In fact, some of them started quitting after hearing of his demise though they had gone some months without pay.

Before he died last week, what troubled him most was the impending forced sale of his properties to settle a Sh2.9 billion tax claim demanded by the Kenya Revenue Authority.

Mr Murungi's Mastermind Tobacco, the makers of the Supermatch brand, had been forced to file a consent in court indicating that the pioneer indigenous cigarette maker in Kenya was willing to dispose of 12 properties in order to raise Sh1.54 billion as partial payment of one of the biggest tax claims against a local entrepreneur. He would do anything to succeed.

It was also reported by his handlers that at the tail-end of his life, Mr Murungi was willing to offload 51 per cent of Mastermind shareholding to the global giant Phillip Morris, the makers of Marlboro, hoping to resuscitate his venture.

Although Phillip Morris is a global company, it has a limited African footprint - in South Africa and Senegal. Mr Murungi hoped that he needed such muscle to survive this callous market.

GOVERNMENT TENDERS

In 2018, a company associated with Mr Murungi was awarded a tender to tarmac the nearly 30km Keeria-Magutuni-Kathwana road at a cost of Sh1.3 billion.

However, the tender was terminated after Maara MP Kareke Mbiuki petitioned Kenya Rural Roads Authority (Kerra) complaining of laxity in the work.

According to Mr Mbiuki, a company associated with Mr Murungi was set to be given a tender for construction of the proposed Maara dam at Sh6.2 billion.

A company associated with him is also working on the Sh300 million Kirumi kiamujari irrigation project which is also in Maara constituency.

The project is halfway complete.

EULOGIES

President Uhuru Kenyatta eulogised Mr Murungi as an industrious and vibrant entrepreneur who made a significant contribution to the growth of the manufacturing sector in Kenya.

In his condolence message to family and friends, President Kenyatta said the country had lost one of its most prominent business leaders.

"I am deeply saddened by the death of Mr Murungi. He was a man of great insight and unique leadership qualities. His commitment and determination were his strongest assets," he said.

"His death leaves a gap that will not be filled, certainly not by these few words of consolation, but we thank God for the time we shared with him, just as we are grateful for the full use he made of it."

The President further said that Mr Murungi will be missed by many Kenyans, especially those whose lives he positively impacted.

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