Kenya: Hezekiah Oyugi Was Poisoned: Family Speaks 28 Years Later

30 September 2020

Fit as a fiddle, the man with a razor-sharp memory is armed with a series of documents as he prepares to defend himself against allegations that could tear the country apart.

Hezekiah Oyugi, the Permanent Secretary for Internal Security, has been arguably the most powerful individual in the country after President Daniel Moi.

Provincial administrators stand up and salute whenever he calls them, and President Moi dines in his home whenever he visits the South Nyanza region.

But, he has now fallen from grace. He is accused of having a hand in the murder of Robert Ouko, Kenya's influential Foreign Affairs minister, touted by powerful foreign nations as the man who could have been president. The year is 1990.

Ouko's charred remains have been found at Got Alila, a hill, where were it not for a wandering herdsman, wild animals would have eaten every bit of them.

The government pushes the incredible narrative that the minister shot himself dead.

After a public outcry, Oyugi is named as one of the two prime suspects. The other one is powerful Cabinet Minister Nicholas Biwott, nicknamed "Total Man".

Oyugi vows to die fighting.

To travel

He summons a few of his family members and his lawyers and tells them he is ready to make the journey from his home in Nairobi's Kileleshwa to Kisumu to face a tribunal investigating Ouko's death.

Scotland Yard detective John Troon, the man hired to investigate the death, has placed Oyugi, who has since been sacked from his position, at the centre of the gruesome murder.

Oyugi confides in his lawyers and family members that he has water-tight evidence that will not only absolve him, but also change the course of the country. He threatens to bring down some "big men".

He is set to appear before the tribunal the next day.

Then, as the evening sets in, heavily armed policemen raid his home. They turn the house upside down and cart away every document in his possession.

On the day he is scheduled to give evidence, the government disbands the tribunal.

Instead of giving evidence, Oyugi finds himself a prisoner of the State, held incommunicado in a small cell at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport police station in Nairobi. He stays here for the next 14 days.

Body movements

A month after he is released, he is unable to control his body movements. He keeps collapsing.

Now, 28 years after his burial in September 1992, members of his family, have for the first time, spoken about the last days of Oyugi.

One of the UK's top neurosurgeons, who was hired to treat him, linked Oyugi's strange illness to a poison common with ex-Soviet Union spies.

In an exclusive interview, the family reveals that in his last days, Oyugi suffered from symptoms similar to those of second liberation hero Kenneth Matiba.

They suspect the two were exposed to the same substance.

The former powerful PS's illness started by him falling down. He gradually lost his ability to walk, lost control of one side of his body, was put on a wheelchair and lost his speech. In the end, all his organs failed.

Doctors at BMI Bishops Wood Hospital in the UK, told the family that he was suffering from a motor neurone disease, which occurs when specialist nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord - the motor neurones - stop working properly.

Five years

According to doctors, those who have the disease have a life expectancy of one to five years.

But in Oyugi's case, the deterioration was so fast, that the doctors made an inconclusive decision that he had been exposed to a foreign substance, says the family.

"The neurosurgeon called it a very rare poison, which made the body die as if it was a natural death. The only difference from a natural death is that the body deteriorates very fast," members of his family told the Nation.

The family members, who requested that we don't publish their names due to the sensitive nature of the matter, said they were finally coming out, not to condemn, or seek assistance from the government to find out what killed their father, but to tell his side of the story.

"He has been christened a murderer but he was our father. He was a kind, loving and considerate man, with a big heart. He was willing to speak his version of the story on the Ouko murder, but someone never wanted him to testify," said one of his children.

They revealed that after his death, the whole world shut their doors on them. No senior government official attended their father's burial.

Oyugi wielded power both in private and public sectors.

The Nation, reporting his death, noted: "Until his removal as security chief last October, Oyugi wielded power both in private and public sectors, second only - outside the presidency - to former Energy Minister Nicholas Biwott's clout, and comparable to that of one-time Attorney-General Charles Mugane Njonjo".

"So powerful was Oyugi that I saw Francis Lekolool, then-Western PC, salute him on phone when he called him," veteran journalist Emman Omari wrote about him.

No single senior official went to condole with his family at his Nairobi home and neither did they turn up at the airport to receive his body after it was flown to Kenya from London. They also gave his funeral a wide berth.

"No one cared about us and no one wanted any association with the Oyugis. We have lived under the radar for all these years and managed to survive on our own. We now are a family of successful farmers, businessmen, doctors, bankers and lawyers," they said.

His survivors

Oyugi left behind three widows (one of them died in October 2018), 12 children and a multimillion-shilling empire that almost crumbled soon after his death.

"People tend to accuse us of not doing enough to protect his wealth. The truth is that when he died, our eldest sibling was only 24 years old while the youngest was aged about five. Our father was also the eldest in his family. We had no one to guide us," said one of his children.

"Many of his firms collapsed after his business associates went underground, fearing reprisal from the Moi regime. We could not even hold a meeting to discuss how to run the business," they said.

Oyugi's remaining widows live in the family home in the sleepy village of Kanyajuok, South Kamagambo location in Rongo Sub County, where the family patriarch was buried.

Situated on the Kisii-Isebania highway and six kilometres from Rongo town, the home of the former PS is a pale shadow of its former self.

Dilapidated roofs

A lot has changed. The huge bungalows that shouted affluence and power are now unkempt, with dilapidated roofs.

Villagers mill around the compound freely, as children play.

His widow, Mary, told the Nation it has been a while since the family held anniversary celebrations for Oyugi, whom the locals still fondly remember as "messiah," for his development projects.

His neighbour, 74-year-old Mzee Ezekiel Oswago, described the former PS as a reformist, a development-minded man.

"He set up schools from scratch and built them to quality standards at a time when most rural schools were merely mud-walled classrooms," said Mzee Oswago.

Some of the schools accredited to the late PS are Kanga Primary and Kanga National School, Oyugi Ogango girls, which was named after him, Moi Institute of Technology - now Rongo University, Kitere Primary, and Rongo Primary, just to mention a few.

Despite the alleged connection to the Ouko murder, his village mates describe Oyugi as a loving man, who employed the destitute and promoted majority of those in the civil service to higher ranks.

Police officers

Thanks to him, his home area has probably the largest concentration of police officers who never reached Standard Eight. The main contributing factor in their employment was that he recommended their recruitment.

For his penchant to push for employment, the locals nicknamed him Kalamu Maduong - the man with a big pen who influenced their recruitment into government.

"He never distanced himself from neighbours and would mingle freely with locals whenever he was home. Unlike many civil servants who move to towns, Mr Oyugi's presence in the village was noticeable. He never turned down anyone who approached him for assistance," said Mzee Oswago.

Gordon Ogutu, another neighbor, said death had plucked a pillar of the community who had immense potential.

"We could have been far as people of Kanyajuok. Mr Oyugi was a man with a big pen who could hire and fire at will. Majority of locals here are eking their living out of his good heart," said Ogutu.

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