Zachary Theodore Onyonka was born on 28 June 1939 in Meru District where his father, Godrico Oeri Mairura, was a policeman. Onyonka was the second child of Oeri and Kerobina Kebati. The family moved to Kisii District after his father resigned from the police force to join the Provincial Administration as an Assistant Chief.
As a young man, Onyonka was among the beneficiaries of the famous education airlifts of the 1960s. Before that, he had made a name for himself as a brilliant and disciplined student at St Mary’s Nyabururu from 1949 and at St Mary’s Yala until 1958.
After he had completed high school, the Gusii County Council employed him until 1960, when he won a scholarship to the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan in the USA. He graduated in 1965 and the following year joined Syracuse University in New York, where he enrolled for a Master of Economics degree specialising in money and banking. Upon completion he embarked on doctoral studies at the same institution. He then joined the University of Nairobi (UoN) as a tutorial fellow while carrying out research for his PhD, which he completed in 1969. Thereafter, the UoN employed him as a lecturer in the Department of Economics.
Onyonka had political ambitions, but it dawned on him that the Kisii community considered an unmarried man unsuitable for leadership. With the aim of qualifying as a serious parliamentary candidate, and wanting to start a family, he married Beatrice Mughamba, an undergraduate Home Economics student from Moshi, Tanzania who was studying at the UoN.
Onyonka was self-assured, confident and authoritative. However, his distaste for hypocrisy as well as a tendency to be blunt sometimes courted controversy
Onyonka and Mughamba were married on 2 August 1969. They had six children: Elisabeth Kwamboka, Tolia Nakadori, Kiki Christopher Robert, David Wilfred, Timmy Eric and Naanjela Anna. This was his second marriage; before he left to study in the US, while still working with the Gusii County Council, he had been married to Teresia Nyakarita, with whom he had a son, Momoima Onyonka. Nyakarita remarried when Onyonka left the country.
Six months into his lecturing career at the UoN, Onyonka resigned to contest the Kitutu Chache Constituency seat against Lawrence Sagini, the Minister for Local Government. Onyonka’s popularity surged, largely thanks to Sagini, who went around the constituency inadvertently boasting that the work of a minister and MP 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 electorate and reminded them of what Sagini had repeatedly told them. And when the elections came round, the little-known Onyonka beat the veteran Sagini by 580 votes.
President Jomo Kenyatta appointed Onyonka, then aged 30, to the Cabinet as Minister for Economic Planning as the successor of Tom Mboya, who had just been shot dead in Nairobi. Onyonka headed several ministries over the years: Planning, Health, Housing and Social Services, Information and Broadcasting, Foreign Affairs, and Science and Technology.
Regardless of the circumstances, the minister would drive from Nairobi to meet his constituents every Friday. Even when he had travelled abroad, he would drive to Kisii immediately after arriving back in the country. The driving force behind his political activities was the public good; he was constantly involved in road and school projects in his constituency. He was known to work long hours, to relate well with colleagues in government and to be of sober mind in the Cabinet. He famously took the middle ground during the Kenyatta succession debate, the August 1982 coup attempt against President Daniel arap Moi and in seasons of infighting within the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party ranks.
During the 1983 General Election campaigns, Onyonka and his Kisii opponents, including Jimmy Angwenyi and Bosco Mboga, engaged youths in the search for votes. At one point, this resulted in violent confrontations in which a young man, Uhuru Ndege, was shot and killed at Daraja Mbili in Kisii town. In the highly charged situation, it became difficult to ascertain whether it was Onyonka or his bodyguard who had fired the gunshots. The police arrested and detained Onyonka in Kisumu for six months as the case went to trial. The court eventually acquitted him 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 before he was appointed to the high-profile Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he ably articulated Kenya’s position at international forums and defended the country’s image and interests abroad.
He was serving in the Foreign Affairs docket when the Cold War tensions began to thaw, with Western nations abandoning former allies allegedly for their non-democratic governance. Kenya was among the countries perceived by the West to have a poor human rights record. Onyonka used his oratory skills to respond to cynical questions from journalists and human rights groups. At times he even questioned the basis of Western-imposed requirements on developing countries. The often-querulous Western journalists had finally met their match. Although he headed Foreign Affairs for only two years, it was probably his best performance in government.
His other major achievement was posting staff to missions abroad. Onyonka discovered that postings had been based on tribe, a practice he considered unfair. He developed a process of identifying qualified individuals and stubbornly monitored its implementation.
Onyonka was also known as an avid reader and a lover of sports, especially football. He had a large library and carried around a suitcase full of books, whether he was in Kenya or abroad. He bought The Economist religiously and even re-read old copies of the magazine to keep abreast of contemporary events, especially economics.
As a minister, he wrote his own speeches. Staff in his office knew that no draft was complete until Onyonka himself had subjected it to radical surgery to ensure that it accurately reflected his thoughts. After that he would drastically reduce the length of the speech, then proceed to speak off the cuff.
Onyonka was self-assured, confident and authoritative. However, his distaste for hypocrisy as well as a tendency to be blunt sometimes 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 both teachers and parents that cheating would only undermine the credibility and standards of education in the area, and 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 the district plummeted.
Onyonka was hugely decorated in his academic and public life. President Kenyatta decorated him with one of the highest titles in the land, Elder of the Golden Heart (EGH), while 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 IGAD, the South Sudan Mediation Talks and the Board of Directors of the East African Development Bank. A housing estate in Nairobi was also named after him.
In 1988, Onyonka suffered a stroke that left him incapacitated. Despite this setback, he continued to be active until he had a second and fatal stroke on 22 October 1996, while serving as 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.