Zachary Theodore Onyonka was born on June 28, 1939, in Meru, where his father, Godrico Oeri Mairura, was a policeman. Zachary was the second child of Oeri and Kerobina Kebati. The family left for Kisii after his father resigned from the police force to join the Provincial Administration as an assistant chief.
In school, Onyonka was brilliant and disciplined. He attended Catholic schools — St Mary’s Nyabururu in 1949 and St Mary’s Yala, where he studied till 1958. His schoolmates at Yala included Peter Oloo Aringo, later a fellow Cabinet minister.
After school, the Gusii County Council employed Onyonka until 1960 when he benefited from the famous education airlifts with a scholarship to the University of Puerto Rico at San Juan in the US. He graduated in 1965 and, in 1966, joined Syracuse University, New York, where he enrolled for a masters’ degree in economics, specialising in money and banking. Upon completion, he embarked on doctoral studies at Syracuse. It was then that Onyonka joined the University of Nairobi as a tutorial fellow, as he carried out research for his PhD degree. He pulled it off in 1969.
Onyonka closely worked with Prof Terry Ryan of the Statistics Department, who helped him with statistical work for his doctorate degree. Thereafter, the University of Nairobi employed him as a lecturer in the Department of Economics.
But he had political ambitions. It dawned on him that the Kisii considered an unmarried man unsuitable for leadership. To qualify as a serious parliamentary candidate, and to start a family, he married an undergraduate student Beatrice Mughamba from Moshi, Tanzania. At the time, Beatrice was a student of home economics at the University of Nairobi. Her peers included Chris Obure (now a Cabinet Minister), politician David Kombo and former Permanent Secretary Sospeter Arasa.
Beatrice remembers Onyonka as a dashing young lecturer, whose brilliance and articulate voice dazzled many. She describes him as talented, captivating and humorous. She was, however, attracted to him due more to his dignified and forthright nature and honesty regarding their future marital union. She recalls how his unusual candour played out when Onyonka proposed.
Onyonka and Beatrice married on August 2, 1969. They had six children: Elisabeth Kwamboka (1970), Tolia Nakadori (1972), Kiki Christopher Robert (1975), David Wilfred (1976), Timmy Eric (1977) and Naanjela Anna (1980). Beatrice describes Zachary as a loving husband and father. Even when he was engaged in public functions, Onyonka called home to say he wanted the family to share a meal in the evening.
When Onyonka worked at the Gusii County Council before he left for further studies in the US, he was married to Teresia Nyakarita, with whom they had a son, Momoima Onyonka, now an Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs. When Onyonka left, Teresia remarried and moved on with her life. Momoima finally linked up with his father when he was a Form Three student at Kisii High School. Beatrice accepted Momoima as her son. Before Onyonka died, Momoima teamed up with and helped his father in his political campaigns. It was then that Momoima polished his political skills.
When the political bug bit Onyonka while lecturing at the University of Nairobi, he confided this to close friends, such as Prof Kivuto Ndeti, a sociologist, Prof Maitha, an economist who later was the best man at Onyonka’s wedding, Dr Porter, principal of the University College of Nairobi, and Dr James Bukhala Ashiono, a tutor at Kenya Institute of Administration.
After six months at the university, Onyonka resigned to contest the Kitutu Chache seat against Sagini, the Minister for Local Government. Onyonka’s popularity surged and Sagini was the reason for it. Inadvertently, Sagini used to go round the constituency boasting that a minister and MP’s task was so challenging that only a well-educated person like Onyonka could rise to the occasion. Sagini did not know of Onyonka’s plans. When the time came, he simply went to the people and reminded them of what Sagini had repeatedly told them. The little-known Onyonka beat the legendary Sagini by 580 votes.
Kenyatta appointed Onyonka to the Cabinet at the age of 30 as Minister for Economic Planning, succeeding Tom Mboya, who had just been killed. In the Cabinet, Onyonka served in several portfolios — Planning, Health, Housing and Social Services, Information and Broadcasting, Foreign Affairs and Science and Technology. The one ministry he craved for, but did not have opportunity to serve in, was the Treasury as he was a banking and monetary expert.
Onyonka travelled to meet his constituents every Friday, no matter the circumstances. Even when he was on a foreign trip, he would immediately travel to Kisii after arrival.
The driving force of his political activities was the public good, and road and school projects in his constituency. Onyonka supervised construction works, appointment of school boards of governors, admission of students and recruitment of teachers. With regard to his political style, he supported the Mboya instigated centrism of Kanu, and loved teamwork, and discipline within party ranks. However, he was not a party-hawk. His parliamentary speeches portrayed him as a technocrat who believed in the rule of law and fair play. Onyonka abhorred acquisition of public property for personal gain even at a time when abuse of public resources was common. He turned down an offer of 50 acres of public land in Kitale and, instead, proposed that it be given to his constituents.
He worked for long hours, related well with colleagues in Government and was a sober mind in the Cabinet. During the Kenyatta succession debate, the 1982 coup attempt against Moi and Kanu’s infighting, Onyonka took the middle ground.
During the 1983 General Election campaigns, Onyonka and his Kisii opponents, including Jimmy Angwenyi and Bosco Mboga, engaged the youth in the search for votes, resulting in hideous scuffles. Consequently, a young man, Uhuru Ndege, was shot and killed at Daraja Mbili in Kisii town. The police arrested and detained Onyonka in Kisumu for six months during the trial. In the highly charged circumstances of the election campaign, it became difficult to ascertain whether it was Onyonka or his bodyguard who had fired the shots. But the court acquitted Onyonka of all charges. He blamed his tribulations on “persons in Government”, whom he accused of plotting to dim his political star.
After the trial, Onyonka stayed out of the Cabinet for a year. He was then appointed to the high profile Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He ably articulated Kenya’s position at international forums, and defended the country’s image and interests abroad.
He was Minister of Foreign Affairs when the Cold War tensions began to thaw, with Western states abandoning former allies allegedly for their non-democratic governance. Kenya was among countries the West perceived to have had a poor human rights record.
Despite evidence of bad governance in Kenya, Onyonka used his oratory to respond to cynical questions from journalists and human rights groups. No matter what the allegation, criticism or challenge was, he masterfully answered, explained or threw back the challenge.
At times, he questioned the basis of Western-imposed requirements on developing countries. The often-querulous Western journalists had finally met their match. Although he was Foreign Minister for only two years, it was probably his best performance in Government.
His other major achievement was in posting staff to missions abroad. Onyonka discovered that this had been based on one’s tribe and was unfair. He developed a fair process of identifying qualified individuals to serve abroad, and stubbornly monitored its implementation. Delegations that accompanied him to international forums were amazed when they learnt that Onyonka was fluent in Spanish and spoke some French.
Onyonka loved to watch football and other sports on television. He had himself been a football player at St Mary’s Nyabururu and St Mary’s Yala. Onyonka was an avid reader. He had a big library and carried a suitcase full of books whether he was in Kenya or abroad.
He would read when he travelled by road or air to Kisii, at a public function or on his frequent flights overseas. He bought The Economist religiously. His wife remembers times when he would revisit old copies of the magazine to keep track of contemporary events, especially economics.
He used to write his own speeches and officials in his office knew that no draft was complete until Onyonka himself had subjected it to intense surgery to reflect his thoughts. He would finally drastically reduce the speech. He would then speak off the cuff. He never read a written speech. Onyonka was self-assured, confident and authoritative. However, his distaste for hypocrisy, and a tendency to be blunt courted controversy. In his characteristic straightforward manner, he once confronted teachers in Kisii over allegations that some were cheating in national examinations to qualify for promotion. He cautioned teachers and parents that cheating would undermine the credibility and standards of education in the area.
He predicted that those cynical of his view would regret it later. Although the remarks solicited intense anger among teachers, it was not long before education standards in Kisii plummeted. He treasured education so much that it was his deathbed last wish to his wife — to ensure that his children obtained adequate education.
Onyonka was hugely decorated in his academic and public life. Kenyatta decorated him with one of the highest titles in the land, Elder of the Golden Heart (EGH). His alma mater, Syracuse University, awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters degree for his distinguished service to the community. He also held many positions, including chairing the Kisii Kanu branch, the Council of Ministers of the East African Community, the Council of Ministers ACP/EEC and IGADD, the South Sudan Mediation Talks and the Board of Directors of the East African Development Bank. He also has a housing estate in Nairobi named after him.
In 1988, Onyonka suffered a stroke which incapacitated him. Despite this setback, he was active until he got a second and fatal stroke on October 22, 1996, when he was the Minister for Research, Technical Training and Technology.
During his funeral, he was eulogised as a great intellectual, a man of integrity and a highly respected individual.