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How death stalks those who try to right wrongs at Mumias Sugar

Abandoned farm machinery at the Mumias Outgrowers Company in Mumias, Kakamega County. [David Gichuru, Standard]

Death has never been too far off for those who have tried to look into the collapse of Mumias Sugar Company.

If you walk around Shibale Town, you will hear murmurs of death and near death experiences from former or current employees of the company.

Of these, two stand out. Those of two former managers who died within days of appearing before the courts as star witnesses in a case that fingered their former colleagues in running to the ground the giant miller and for the loss of some Sh3.5 billion.

Close family members who spoke to Sunday Standard said the death of their kin was related to their talking about the scandals that rocked the sugar miller.

In 2005, just a year after the company’s privatisation, the firm’s agricultural manager Jorwat Kagumbas was shot dead by gunmen inside his house within the miller’s complex.

Although it may have been the first, this signaled the beginning of a stream of killings that was to follow those who dared raise a voice on the going-ons within the company.

How the gunmen were able to move from the heavily guarded gate, through numerous barriers, past another gate that demarcates a housing complex that hosted senior staff, access the manager’s house, shoot him and make it out of the complex remains a mystery.

Only around 200 metres separate the house in which the manager was shot dead and the Booker Police Post. The shooters were never nabbed.

More death was to follow Kagumbas’ killing. One Saturday morning in October 2015, Gabriel Atoko got out of his house in Matungu, looking forward to what the oncoming make-or-break week would mean for a labour of love that was slowly becoming an obsession. As a former finance man at the collapsed sugar miller, Atoko had taken up a personal challenge to intricately detail the plunder that was going on at the mill.

“He was the brains behind all of what we did,” Gamaliel Anamanjia, current CEO of the Mumias Outgrowers Company (MOCO) says. “With his background in matters finance, he was in a position to poke holes into whatever theories the company advanced.”

Working in his garden

Those who know him say Atoko’s paper work on the financial ills within the company went back nearly 10 years, from 2005 to the time of his death in 2015.

Atoko was the star witness in the team of three former managers who had over the years, leading up to his death been fierce critics of the company’s management at the time.

“Before he died, we were to meet Andre McClay, a British forensic auditor who had been appointed by the Capital Markets Authority to look into the evidence we had gathered over the years,” Anamanjia says.

The two men had talked about what the information they had would mean to the local farmers and the company’s shareholders who had seen the value of their shares plummet over the years. Each trading bell signaled a further loss of value.

That Saturday morning, three men known to Atoko visited his home and found him working in his garden. They then called him to the fence that separated his farm with the nearby dirt road. They had a brief chat.

To date, no one knows what the conversation was about. Witnesses say one of the men had, in initial meetings, tried to dissuade Atoko from proceeding with exposing the ills within the company.

Minutes after the meeting, Atoko collapsed in his farm. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

A postmortem conducted by the Government’s Pathologist on November 24, 2015 told the rest of the tale. A toxicological screening on the contents of the stomach, kidney, blood and urine was conducted.

“Cyhalothrin, a carbonate pesticide was detected in the stomach sample of the deceased. This indicates that the deceased had ingested cyhalothrin. Cyhalothrin is poisonous and could have contributed to the death of Gabriel Atoko,” reads the postmortem report authored by a Stephen Matinde and which is in our possession.

“They had to silence him,” Anamanjia says.

Attacked by bees

Atoko was to be the third and last witness in the case. The second witness was a former director of the Mumias Outgrowers Company Basil Misango Khalumi. He too was key in piecing together events that lead to the loss of some Sh3.5 billion.

He died before he appeared before the courts three years after the death of Atoko.

Khalumi, an ardent beekeeper, was mysteriously attacked by bees while in his house. He didn’t survive the sting. Investigators could not explain how the bees made it to Khalumi’s house and why he couldn’t get out of the house after they descended on him.

Anamanjia says he knows he might be targeted. Of the three key witnesses in the Sh3.5billion case, he is the only one alive.

“Even if they kill me, what will they gain?” he poses. “After all my life means nothing in comparison to the suffering of the farmers who helped build Mumias and have been abandoned.”

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