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Convicted in old age, Prof Davy Koech never says die

NATIONAL
By Caleb Atemi | October 15th 2021

After suffering a heart attack in old age and enduring abject poverty, calamity and sorrow in childhood, Davy Kiprotich Koech, a Harvard Professor and researcher extraordinaire is now fighting a six-year prison sentence after being convicted of corruption charges. His lawyers are seeking legal means of addressing the Sh19.6 million fine imposed on him otherwise he will go to jail at 70. This THREE PART series, tells you the story of a man who suddenly turned from a national hero, into a villain.

After a seven decades’ journey through life, Koech thought he had seen it all.

He thought he had mastered the art of survival. He knew he was made of steel and could withstand any amount of pressure.

As an acclaimed scientist and researcher, he served his country diligently. When he was relieved of his duties as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), Koech suddenly turned from a national hero into a villain.

He became an enemy of the state; hunted and haunted by various state agencies. Even the strongest of mortals eventually break down mentally and emotionally. Koech had no idea that his mental and physical faculties were crumbling until the morning of the heart attack.

Prof. Davy Kiprotich Koech. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

He reeled and staggered like a drunkard. He had just woken up and was trying to walk to the bathroom. Something had gone horribly wrong. He couldn’t stand straight. A terrible pain gripped his chest as he gasped for air. With one last effort, he managed to shout for help. His two daughters rushed to the bedroom just as their dad collapsed on the floor.

They slowly and gently helped him to his feet but realised he couldn’t walk. In a panic, they quickly dressed him up. He was struggling to breathe: “Take me to hospital. I think I have suffered a heart attack,” were the last words he uttered before his speech failed him. As the girls dressed him up, his son turned on the car engine. At the Nairobi hospital, he was hurriedly ushered into the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

24-hours of prayer

For 24 hours the family prayed, asking God to spare their father. They prayed that he would recover fully and complete the projects he was working on. They prayed that God would enable him to realise the dreams and desires he had. For even in old age, he passionately pursued his research with the hope of finding a drug to manage the numerous diseases that afflict Africa.

As they watched him lie in the life support machine, they remembered what he always told them: “I shall live and not die.  I remain confident of this; I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

Professor Davy Kiprotich Koech is one hard nut. He refused to die. “I woke up the following day. My speech was completely gone and I couldn’t use my left hand. I told God, ‘You are not yet finished with me. I have a lot to accomplish. After two days I was transferred to the HDU.”

Within one week he was back home. But on a wheelchair. He quietly swore to reject the confinement of the wheelchair. After a week of struggle, he was eventually back on his feet. Though rickety and weak, he was more comfortable walking on his own. Months later, his speech was slowly taking shape.  

Koech has suffered two major disasters in his life that brought him to his knees. The first was the death of his son, a pilot. The second was the public humiliation of being dragged in the corridors of justice for decisions he made when he served as the CEO of KEMRI.

Prof Davy Koech with part of his family. [Courtesy: Family album]

The devastating death of a son

The two nightmarish experiences have left him shuddered and broken. He has however stumbled back to his feet to continue with his voyage through life.

Like his polygamous father Mzee Samuel Kipkoech arap Mitei, who died in 1998, Koech is also polygamous.

Koech, a father of ten, has, however, retained the prayerful spirit that his mother instilled in him. Since her death in 2004, Koech has ensured that all his children join him for prayers in the mornings and evenings. It is prayers that have seen him through some of the traumatic moments in his life.

His son, a professional pilot, died in the US aged 26: “I received a phone call telling me he was in the hospital. I asked if he had crash-landed. I was told he had acute and severe pancreas problems. Being a doctor, I found myself telling them what to do. I called a friend of mine in the US and asked him to check on him. At 5.30 am the following day, he passed on.”  Koech has never recovered from that phone call.

The call came on Tuesday, January 15, 2002. His son Kiprop, said, “Daddy, Chang’ (Chang’-Toek) has fallen ill. He has been taken to the hospital and he is in the ICU. I said, what? How did he fall from the plane?”

Kiprop said, “No father!’ He then gave me the contacts of the hospital where he had been admitted.”

Chang’-Toek and Kiprop were living together in the US.

“I told myself, he will be fine. He was in one of the best hospitals in the US, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was a professional pilot and graduate of Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University. But later while driving home I received a call from the hospital informing me that my Chang’ was dead.”

Koech was devastated. He called his wife and asked her to meet him at home. She had gone into the city to pursue some business.

He had difficulties breaking the news to her. His good friend Dr Stephen Herman, who lives in Florida, assisted his son Kiprop with the processing of the necessary papers for transporting Chang’s remains to Kenya.

Koech thinks about his son every day. He sees him in his other sons. At times, in his moments of solitude, he cries his heart out when he thinks of the great dreams the young pilot had.

“No parent should bury their children. It is our children who need to bury us in our sunset years. But I’ve learned never to question God,” he reflects.

President Daniel Arap Moi attending the burial ceremony of the late Chang Toek Kibet, son of KEMRI director Davy Koech in Soliat, Kericho district Jan 2002. [Courtesy: Family Album]

 EACC officers raid his home

Koech thought he was watching a movie when detectives raided his home. They came in big numbers, armed and fierce-looking. It was as if they were raiding the home of a dangerous terror suspect or drug lord.

What did they want? His laptop. Six months later, they asked him to visit the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC), offices to collect the laptop.   

He arrived at the Integrity House offices at 8 am. He sat at the reception until 11 am. No one attended to him. He then asked one of the officers, “What is going on?”

The officer replied; “We are detaining you. We are putting you under arrest so that you will go to court tomorrow.”

“I looked at my watch. It was around 11 o’clock. I told him, ‘Is this what you called me for? If you are actually putting me under arrest, can you please take me to court now, not to a police station,’ because they said we are taking you to Kilimani Police Station. I said, ‘If you want to take me to court why don't you take me now? Why haven’t you arranged with the court that you take me to court now and charge me?”

He then called his lawyer.

It is when he was being led out of the building that he realised what was actually unravelling. There was a battery of journalists outside the Integrity Centre. Cameras and microphones were all aimed at him. They clicked away as he entered the vehicle. He never uttered a word to the eager press.

Former Kemri boss Dr Davy Koech on Wednesday, September 15, 2021, when he was found guilty of corruption when he was the boss at the organization.He was sentenced to serve 72 months in jail or alternatively pay a fine of Sh19.6 million. [Collins Kweyu, Standard]

The EACC had issued a statement earlier on saying why they were charging him. But he still wonders why they had to create drama out of it. Maybe to prove to the public that they are doing something about corruption.  

“They did not handcuff me. I walked out with my laptop. They claimed later that they had arrested me at home. I was put into a small unmarked car. I was not armed but I was placed between two officers. Other officers sat in the front. I was treated me like some dangerous criminal.”

He was taken to Kilimani Police Station where his fingerprints were processed. Then an officer shouted: “Take care of this criminal until further notice. If we don't come to collect him, continue keeping him.”

Koech’s day in court

Some officers at the police station recognised him. They were thoroughly embarrassed and didn’t know how to handle him or where to place him. Both the male and female cells were full. There was however some open space with a seven-year-old boy whose identity was unknown. Koech was asked to share the space with the boy.

He appeared in court the next day and was slapped with a cash bail of Sh 1 million. His family managed to raise the money and he was released at 3pm. He escaped the journey to the dreaded Industrial Area Remand Prison. This happened in 2009.

In January 2010, Koech was once again charged together with some of his former senior colleagues. Koech shakes his head in bewilderment at how life can change suddenly. He however remains hopeful that all the lessons he has learned so far will serve him well in the next phase of his life on earth.   

After years of lengthy court proceedings, Koech eventually appeared before Senior Principal Magistrate Victor Wakumile. On the day of sentencing, silence enveloped the court. Koech sat pensively waiting for the magistrate to pronounce his sentence. The punches and kicks that life had hit him with turned him into a fighter. He was ready for anything; however, he wasn’t prepared for the kind words that the young magistrate had for him.

Dr Davy Koech displays trophies won by KEMRI during COYA Awards in July 2003. [File, Standard]

Sh19.6 million fine or six years in prison

The magistrate who invoked Article 29 of the Constitution of Kenya said that Koech could not be subjected to “cruel treatment” by being hauled into prison: “Because of the current Covid-19 pandemic, this court takes judicial notice of the difficult economic times people are going through. I find it fit to exercise my discretion and show mercy to Koech now 70.”

The good professor was therefore handed a fine of Sh19.6million shillings or to serve six years in prison for corruptly acquiring public funds. Koech had been charged that on August 17, 2006, in Nairobi, he fraudulently acquired Sh800,000, the property of KEMRI. A second charge read that on December 12, 2006, he irregularly acquired Sh6 million and another Sh12.5 million from KEMRI.

The magistrate noted that Koech had returned with interest, the malaria research money he had acquired corruptly and therefore no loss was suffered.  He even allowed Koech to pay the fine in two instalments, a ruling that caused an uproar in some quarters.

However, after retirement, reeling in debt, Koech endured many dates with auctioneers. He lost his properties and had to financially cater for countless court proceedings. He was even forced to return the money he believes he had utilised for the public good to enhance medical research in Kenya. The sentence couldn’t have come at a worse moment.

He acknowledged he is financially on the rocks. He scratches his balding head for answers while battling ill health. His lawyers, however, are spending sleepless nights on the corridors of justice-seeking a formula that will keep their client alive and out of prison.

Koech is certain that with God on his side, he will overcome this obstacle the way he has all others since childhood. He has refused to fade away like an evening shadow. 

Part 2:

Koech broke his leg and was admitted to the Kericho District Hospital. What followed were three months of misery and agony under cruel doctors and nurses. Doctors would push a pin through the flesh in his broken leg instead of inserting it between the bones. They would then pull the pin using a weight. They laughed as he screamed and wailed. When they eventually pulled the pin out after one month, it came out with flesh and blood. They then placed his leg in plaster and hang it up. This experience made Koech vow to change how hospitals treat patients in Kenya.  

The writer, Caleb Atemi is a; Biographer, Storyteller, Media Trainer and Mentor

[email protected]    

 

Read PART TWO here:

Prof. Davy Kiprotich Koech, a Harvard Professor and researcher extraordinaire survived on three meals a week, and almost lost his leg after an accident saw him spend three months in hospital under the care of cruel doctors. Part TWO of this series looks at the traumatic childhood experiences that shaped Koech’s life. 

Read PART THREE here:

Prof. Davy Kiprotich Koech looks back and reveals the pain, blood and tears that went into setting up KEMRI and why he refused to renew the patent for KEMRON, a drug KEMRI had developed to treat and manage HIV/AIDS.

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