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Tobacco tycoon’s send-off, attended by only 8 mourners, leaves village in awe

Wilfred Murungi
Family members offload the casket carrying the remains of Wilfred Murungi, the Mastermind Tobacco founder, from a chopper at Kiurani Primary School grounds in Tharaka Nithi on June 11, 2019. Only eight family members attended the burial. PHOTO | ALEX NJERU | NMG 

Mastermind Tobacco tycoon Wilfred M’iti Murungi lived a reclusive life. He hardly mixed with villagers in his Magutuni area, Tharaka-Nithi County.

When he died last week, the villagers and his friends were still asked to keep off.

Only eight family members were allowed to witness the burial ceremony that took approximately one hour.

Heavily armed police officers from Magutuni and Chogoria police stations deployed at his palatial homes guarded the three gates, making sure that no single curious villager sneaked in to watch the casket containing the body of the man they referred to as ‘Master’ being lowered into the grave.

Two helicopters, one carrying the casket and the other one family members and a cleric from Nairobi, touched down at Kiurani Primary School at around 11.10 a.m. A classy Mercedes-Benz hearse was on standby to ferry the body to his home, about a kilometre away.

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The casket was hurriedly taken out of the chopper and loaded onto the hearse by the family members, among them his two sons and two daughters.

SCHOOL FENCE

Curious members of the public — kept at a distance by police officers and the local administrators — craned their necks over the school fence to see the casket wrapped in nylon papers.

Journalists who turned up to cover the send-off were also barred from accessing the school and home, and were only able to take photos of the choppers and the hearse through the school fence.

At the home, local men hired to dig the grave were asked to leave and wait outside the gate only to be called back to fill up the grave.

One of the grave diggers, who sought anonymity, said they did not view the casket because the pit was already half-filled with soil by the family members when they went back.

A police officer guarding the home said no photos were taken during the service, and there were no printed eulogies.

Mr Murungi’s wife, Joyce Ithiru Murungi, who died in 2012, was also buried in the same manner. Only 40 people were reportedly allowed to witness the ceremony. Some residents claimed Mr Murungi did not also witness the burial of his wife.

“He landed at the same primary school ground in a chopper carrying the casket, handed it over to his children and other family members and immediately went back to Nairobi in the same chopper,” claimed James Mutembei, a villager.

Another local said the dusty road from the school to Mr Murungi's home was watered during the burial of his wife. No food was cooked at the ceremony.

Members of the Arua clan where Mr Murungi belonged expressed disappointment at being denied a chance to bury their prominent member or even contribute towards the ceremony as is their tradition. A local administrator said that Mr Murungi's daughter had directed that no one should get close to the casket carrying her father's remains on its arrival at the school grounds.

EIGHT PEOPLE

The burial was to be attended by about 20 people as per the seats that were at the venue, but things changed and only about eight people were allowed into the homestead.

Some relatives were turned away, including one of the deceased's nephews who was driving his mother.

“The son has been asked to stay outside with the vehicle and wait for his mother,” said Nicholus Mutegi, a local resident.

Mr Murungi, a professional engineer, worked with the British American Tobacco (BAT) before quitting to set up Mastermind Tobacco in the late 1980s.

He first opened shop in Nakuru and later, when the business flourished, in Nairobi.

He fought many survival wars in the cut-throat tobacco industry, including having run-ins with the taxman, and BAT.

A majority of the people in the village in their early 30s never got to see him, only hearing of him and viewing his two luxurious homes in Magutuni and Mwiria in Maara Constituency.

The homes are highly guarded and one has to pass through four gates before getting to the houses.

Mr Murungi and his family lived in Nairobi, and therefore villagers rarely visited the homes.

His four children are also not known to the locals.

Despite the secrecy, his alias name, Master, was known even by the young people due to the wide reach of his charitable works in the community.

He only sent his representatives in the village to attend to community projects.

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

In Kiurani Secondary School where he was the board chairman for many years, Mr Murungi bought them a bus and constructed a multi-purpose 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 that all bright children from poor backgrounds continued with education and employed them in his companies after graduating,” said Lucy Kaari, a local resident.

The tycoon’s business also offered a market for all tobacco grown in the region and always paid farmers promptly for their produce.

More than 200 people have been working on his farm in the village.

Some of them quit work after hearing of his demise. They said they had gone for months without pay.

FORCED SALE

Sources said that before Mr Murungi died last week, what troubled him most was the impending forced sale of his properties to settle a Sh2.9 billion tax claim by the Kenya Revenue Authority.

His Mastermind Tobacco, the maker of 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 to a local entrepreneur.

At the tail end of his life, Mr Murungi was reportedly willing to offload 51 percent of his Mastermind Tobacco 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 limited African footprint only in South Africa and Senegal.

Last year, a company associated with Mr Murungi was awarded a tender to tarmac about 30 kilometres of the Keeria-Magutuni-Kathwana Road at a cost of Sh1.3 billion but the tender was terminated after a local MP petitioned the Kenya Rural Roads Authority (Kerra) complaining of laxity in the works.

DAM TENDER

According to the MP, 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 in Maara Constituency.

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

The President 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,” Mr Kenyatta 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."

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