On 25th Dec 1972, Ronald Ngala died at Kenyatta National Hospital of injuries from a car accident he had been involved in on Jamhuri day of the same year.
His death set off a flury of whispers and rumours about the supposed mysteries of the accident. Some of his associates and supporters demanded a government inquest into his death.
Angry about the whispers and rumours, government officials held the inquest. The inquest had great political significance in Kenya for it reflected a growing uneasiness and suspicion within the political system.
Ever since the assassination of Tom Mboya in 1969, many Kenyans believed that there were certain people who would stop at nothing to eliminate their rivals.
Opening the Ngala inquest on Feb 19 , 1973, Deputy Public Prosecutor James Karugu, said, a little testily:
” We are getting to the stage in this country where a person cannot die of an accident or of natural causes without some speculation creating mystery as to the cause of death.”
According to the evidence at the inquest , on Dec 12th, 1972, Ngala in a change of plan decided to drive from Nairobi to his home at the Coast .He had been expected at Jamhuri day celebrations in Nairobi on that day.
It was not clear why he decided to go to the coast instead. But the inquest was told that he might have been annoyed by his second wife, a 22 year old woman, who had failed to fly to Nairobi as it was scheduled the day before.
About 35 miles out of Nairobi that morning, his driver lost control. The driver testified that he had swerved because bees flew into the car.
The car left the road and overturned three times. One man who realised that the victim was Ngala, drove him to the nearest hospital in Machakos. There an Israeli Doctor decided that Ngala had a head injury and ordered him taken to Nairobi where better care was available.
In Nairobi, Ngala who had diabetes, lapsed into a diabetic coma but came out of it under treatment. In the next 2 weeks, 17 doctors including a Canadian brain specialist, Dr. William Frindel who was flown in by the Government were in charge.
Ngala had a concussion that was causing bleeding from his brain. Though he had several periods of apparent recovery, doctors could not stop bleeding from the brain, which would send him back into coma. The bleeding from the brain gradually damaged his heart, Kidneys and liver and he died on Christmas day.
Dr Eric Njumwa Mngola, the head of Kenyatta Hospital team, told the inquest: ” Everything under the sun was done to save the minister’s life, and no stone was left un-turned.”
On the second day of the inquest Dep Public Prosecutor Karugu arose in court to protest the coverage in the East African Standard , of the first day’s testimony.
The Pathologist in charge of the autopsy had testified that an Injury on Ngala’s chest wall might have been caused by a blunt instrument. The Standard, however, had misquoted him to say a “blunt weapon.”
“The word weapon,” Karugu said, “can give very wrong ideas.” Magistrate Sachdeva agreed and scolded the press.
For three full days the inquest spent most of its time discussing an error made by the Ministry of Information in its first announcement of the accident.
In the first broadcasts of the Voice of Kenya and the first dispatches of the Kenya News Agency, Ngala was described as travelling from the coast to Nairobi when the accident took place, instead of the other way round.
The error was not corrected by the two agencies until Ngala died. To confuse matters more, the ministry, in its correction put the blame on the wrong officer.
But according to the evidence, the error was caused by typical sloppy journalism in the Ministry of Information. An editor of the Kenya News Agency, without thinking out the logistics, simply assumed that the minister must have been rushing to Nairobi to attend the Independence day celebrations. So he pencilled that into the story.
Once the error was made the ministry was reluctant to admit that it had made a mistake. A correction was not put out until the government realised how damaging the error had been.
During the inquest Karugu, questioned James Ithau, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Information sharply. Ithau was forced to admit that he and his colleagues had done a miserable job.
Near the end of his testimony Ithau was shaking and almost stuttering in discomfort. Some of his replies had become so confused that the magistrate told him: “Don’t beat around the bush Mr Ithau.”
It was a rare scene in Kenya to see Karugu the Deputy Public Prosecutor mercilessly berate Ithau the Permanent Secretary.
In an odd turn to the hearings, Karugu called three labor union leaders to the witness box. The labor leaders two of whom were also members of Parliament, were forced to explain why they had called for a public inquest into the death of Ngala.
Karugu, through his questioning tried to show that the three had caused suspicion and trouble by expressing doubts about the accident and calling for an investigation.
He also asked the three whether they knew that inquests were a normal part of the legal process in Kenya. By this, he implied that the government would have held an inquest even without their public appeals.
Magistrate Sachdeva agreed. “In the future,” he said, “when such a thing happens, God forbid, people should wait before rushing to the press.”
The inquest was an extraordinary exercise. Karugu on behalf of the government introduced overwhelming evidence to try and prove that Ngala did not, in fact die in a mysterious way.
Senior Magistrate S.K Sachdeva concluded that the death was accidental.
The belief that Ngala was assassinated was so strong that some Kenyans refused to drop it despite the inquest.