Dr. Zachary Onyonka: The First Kisii To Earn A PhD

By Prudence Minayo

Dr. Zachary Onyonka was a political titan whose influence among the Kisii community was only rivalled by the late Nyaribare Chache MP Simeon Nyachae. He served the people of Kitutu Chache as their member of parliament for over twenty years. The politician goes down in the history books as the first Kisii man to earn a PhD. He was also the first MP to win a political seat in absentia. 

Here is his story as told by WoK


Dr. Zachary was among the students who benefitted from the airlifts program. The program that was initiated by the late Tom Mboya sought to identify and help promising Kenyans get a scholarship to study in the US. Apart from the legislators, others who benefitted from it include: Nobel Prize winner the late Wangari Maathai, former vice president and cabinet minister George Saitoti, Kenya’s first female physician Ng’endo Mwangi and Professor Leah Marangu. Dr. Zachary got his BA in the US then proceeded to Syracuse University for an MA. The Rockefeller Foundation awarded him a scholarship and he pursued his PhD.


During the 1969 elections, Dr. Onyonka gained a lot of notoriety. He trounced the incumbent Member of Parliament Lawrence Sagini Ndemo. Ndemo was the first cabinet minister from the Gusii region. 

After his election to parliament, the then president Moi appointed him to the cabinet where he would go on to serve in various dockets including: Foreign Affairs, Education and Trade, Economic, Planning and Development, Science and Technology, Health and Research, and Information and Broadcasting. 

Jail Term 

The member of parliament ended up in jail during his re-election campaigns. It was reported that one of his bodyguards shot a voter in Kitutu West Constituency. Some alleged that the voter had tried to attack the MP with a knife and the bodyguard had reacted to save his life. They were saved from the rowdy crowd by a matatu driver named Joseph Nyambariga who took them to the safety of the chief’s home in Suneka. 

Later, the police arrived and he was charged with murder and remanded in Kodiaga prison in Kisumu. While in prison, the legislator continued to rally supporters who continued to campaign for him. Dr. Zachary Onyonka successfully defended his seat while sitting in a jail in Kisumu, becoming the first MP to win a seat while in jail. Due to lack of evidence by the prosecution, he was set free and later appointed the Minister of Foreign Affairs by the president. 

Campaign against Nyachae 

Leading up to the 1988 campaigns, he started a campaign against the late Simeon Nyachae who he labelled a very mean person. He was the architect and leader of a group of four legislator, known as the Four Os comprising of Onyancha, Obure, Omanga and Onyonka, who were bitterly opposed to Nyachae. They launched the Kebirigo declaration where Nyachae was denounced. This declaration was meant to stand for the independence of each constituency in Kisii against Nyachae’s manipulations. 

By  the year 1988, he was among the longest serving Members of Parliament alongside the likes of Mwai Kibaki, Martin Shikuku, Jeremiah Nyagah and Robert Ouko. 

Death and Succession 

By the time of his death, the politician, who was married to Beatrice, was also a wealthy man. Among his properties was the Mosac Mall and the Monarch Hotel. 

Dr. Zachary Onyonka passed away in 1996 in a hospital in London where he was undergoing treatment. He was succeeded by Jimmy Nduru Angwenyi as the MP of Kitutu Chache. His son, Richard Momoima Onyonka overthrew Angwenyi to win the parliamentary seat in 2007. He is the current Kisii Senator.