In life, Mastermind Tobacco Kenya Limited tycoon, Wilfred Murungi lived a reclusive live. He hardly mixed with villagers in his Magutuni area, Maara constituency, Tharaka-Nithi County.
When he died, the villagers, and his friends, were asked to keep off still. And during his burial on Tuesday, only eight family members were allowed to witness the burial that took approximately one hour.
Heavily armed police officers from Magutuni and Chogoria police stations were deployed at his palatial homestead guarding the three gates leading to the home making sure that no single anxious villager sneaked into to witness the body of the man they referred as ‘Master’ descended into the grave.
Two choppers – one carrying the casket containing the remains of the billionaire and the other one family members and a clergy from Nairobi – touched down at Kiurani Primary School at around 11:10 am where a classy Mercedes Benz hearse was on standby to ferry the body to his home, which is about a kilometer away.
The casket was hurriedly taken out of the chopper and loaded into the hearse by the family members, among them his two sons and two daughters.
Curious members of the public were kept at bay by police officers and the local administrators only to catch a glimpse of the casket, which was wrapped with nylon papers, from afar through a school fence.
Journalists, who turned up in large numbers to cover the sendoff of the prominent businessman, 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, locals hired to dig the grave were asked to leave and wait outside the gate only to be called back to fill the grave with soil.
One of the men, who sought anonymity, said when they went back to fill the grave with soil, they did not view the casket because the pit was half filled with soil by the family members.
One of the police officers guarding the home said no photos were taken during the service conducted by the clergy from Nairobi. There were also no printed eulogies.
Although the locals were astonished and also angered by the decision to keep them off, they said his wife, Joyce Ithiru Murungi, who died back in 2012 was also buried in the similar manner.
Only 40 people were allowed to witness the ceremony. Surprisingly, residents said Mr Murungi did not also witness the body of his wife lowered into the grave.
“He landed at the same primary school ground with a chopper containing the body of his wife, handed it over to his children and the other family members and immediately flew back to Nairobi,” said Mr James Mutembei, a villager.
Another local said during the burial of the wife, water was poured on the dusty road from the school ground to his home and nothing was cooked.
Members of the Arua clan, to which Murungi belonged, expressed their disappointment after being denied a chance to bury one of their clansmen or even contributing towards the ceremony as tradition dictates.
A local administrator told the Nation that Murungi’s elder daughter had directed that no one should get closer to the casket carrying his father’s remains upon arrival at the school grounds.
The burial was supposed to be attended by 20 people as per the seats that were at the venue. But things changed and only about eight people were allowed into the homestead.
In fact, some relatives – including one of the deceased’s nephew who was driving his mother – were turned away.
“The son was asked to stay outside with the vehicle and wait for his mother,” said Mr Nicholus Mutegi, a villager.
The man who was an Engineer worked with the British American Tobacco (BAT) before he quit and set up Mastermind Tobacco Kenya Limited in the late 1980s – first in Nakuru and then, when the business flourished, in Nairobi.
He had to fight survival wars in the cut-throat tobacco industry, fighting the government, and BAT, something that could have changed his lifestyle.
Young people in the village, who are on their early 30s, never knew him physically. They only heard of him and saw his two luxurious homes in Magutuni and Mwiria, both in Maara constituency.
These two homes are highly guarded and one has to pass through four gates before arriving where houses. Since most of the time Mr Murungi and his family lived in Nairobi, villagers rarely visited the village homes.
Murungi’s four children are also not known to the locals.
Despite his secret lifestyle, the name Master was known even by the young people because of his charity work in the community.
He only used his representatives in the village to attend to social functions in the area.
The tycoon supported almost all the neighboring schools in putting up infrastructure.
At Kiurani Secondary School, where he was the chairman of the board of management for many years, Mr Murungi bought a bus and constructed a multipurpose 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 Ms Lucy Kaari, an area resident.
The tycoon also offered a market for all tobacco grown in the region and always paid promptly.
HUGE TAX CLAIM
But following his death, more than 200 people, who have been working at his farm in the village, now don’t know their fate.
In fact, some of them started quitting after learning about his demise, although they had gone for some months without pay.
Before he died last week, what troubled Murungi’s most was the impending forced sale of his properties to settle a Sh2.9 billion tax claim demanded by the Kenya Revenue Authority.
Mr Murungi’s Mastermind Tobacco, the makers 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 off 12 properties in order to raise Sh1.54 billion as partial payment of one of the biggest tax claims to a local entrepreneur.
He would do anything to succeed.
It was also reported by his handlers that at the tail-end of his life, Mr Murungi was willing to offload 51 per cent of Mastermind 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 in only South Africa and Senegal and Mr Murungi hoped that he needed such muscle to survive in the tobacco market.
Last year, a company associated with Mr Murungi was awarded a tender to tarmac about 30 kilometer Keeria-Magutuni-Kathwana road at a cost of Sh1.3 billion but the tender was terminated after Maara MP Kareke Mbiuki petitioned Kenya Rural Roads Authority (Kerra) complaining of laxity in the work.
According to Mr Mbiuki, 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 to him is also working on Sh300 million Kirumi kiamujari irrigation project also in Maara constituency which is half way complete.
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.
In his condolence message to family and friend, President Kenyatta 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,” President 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.”
The president further said that Mr Murungi will be missed by many Kenyans, especially those whose lives he positively impacted.