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Dr Zachary Onyonka: First Kisii man to get PhD


Dr Zachary Onyonka (1939–1996) was a Kenyan prominent politician and the first Kisii man to earn a PhD.

He first came into the public limelight in 1969 when he vied for Kitutu West parliamentary seat and dislodged incumbent Lawrence Sagini Ndemo, the first Cabinet minister from the Gusii region. After being elected, he was appointed to the Cabinet by President Daniel Moi and served in several portfolios, including Foreign Affairs, Economic Planning and Development, Education and Trade. Others were Information and Broadcasting, Health, and Research, Science and Technology.

Dr Onyonka was one of Tom Mboya’s student airlifts beneficiaries of the 1960s, alongside the likes of Rtd Justice Zacchaeus Chesoni, former Wildlife Director Perez Olindo and Helen Wamere. After his BA studies in the United States, he proceeded to Syracuse University in the same country for his MA, and later landed a scholarship for a PhD from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Popular among the Kisii community, Dr Onyonka was always at loggerheads with then Nyaribari Chache MP Simeon Nyachae. It is said Dr Onyonka hated Nyachae because he considered him to be too mean. The enmity was so intense that Dr Onyonka would lead anti-Nyachae crusades in Kisii.

While campaigning for re-election, Onyonka was arrested over the death of a rival's supporter at the Kisumu-Migori road junction. The man identified as Ouru Ndege was reported to have been shot by Onyonka’s security officer after the man confronted him with a knife.

The knife incident stirred chaos and Dr Onyonka had to scamper for safety. Joseph Nyambariga, a matatu driver, rescued him and drove him to a chief’s camp at Suneka. However, he was later to be picked up by police officers alongside his entourage from the chief’s camp and taken to a police station in Kodiaga, Kisumu, where they were required to record statements.

The police charged him with murder and detained him at Kodiaga Prison for almost six months. As politicians were busy campaigning for the 1983 elections, Onyonka rallied his supporters while in prison and he was re-elected.

By 1988, the former Kitutu West MP was among the longest-serving legislators in the country, alongside a few others such as President Moi, VP Mwai Kibaki, Jeremiah Nyagah, Robert Ouko and Martin Shikuku.

Dr Onyonka died at a London hospital in 1996 after a short illness.

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