Sniper's bullet: Who wanted her dead? The riddle of a murder

Mary Lilian Waithera Gathenya

Mary Lilian Waithera Gathenya, 46, left her workplace at the National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF) offices in Upper Hill, Nairobi, with a colleague at 5pm on Monday. She was dead within an hour in the city centre.

Waithera, who had worked at NHIF for 15 years, and whom colleagues yesterday described as the go-to person because she was well-versed with the government agency’s operations, was walking with Ms Damaris Achieng’ when she complained of chest pain.

That was at 5.30pm, when she asked Ms Achieng’ to call an ambulance, moments before she collapsed on the pavement outside an Optica outlet on Kaunda Street. She was bleeding from the nose and mouth, according to Ms Achieng’ and other witnesses who flocked the scene. They said she held her chest before collapsing.

“We were walking side by side. She just stopped and asked me to call for her an ambulance then fell down,” Ms Achieng said. The ambulance arrived at 5:58pm but it was too late. Medics pronounced her dead at the scene.

Police initially classified the fatality a “sudden death”, probably a heart attack, as they moved the body to the Nairobi Hospital mortuary. 

It was not until the following day, when the family transferred her body to the Kenyatta University hospital mortuary, that a horror discovery that would change the course of the investigation was made.

The post-mortem revealed a bullet lodged in her lungs. The cause of death was determined as a shooting. The police had to change their statement.

“The female NHIF staff who collapsed and died [on] Kaunda Street on Monday evening had been shot from an elevated angle. [The] autopsy revealed [that] the bullet was lodged in her lungs,” a follow-up police report stated on Tuesday.

Kaunda Street in Nairobi where National Health Insurance Fund worker Lilian Waithera died.

A man walks yesterday past the spot on Kaunda Street in Nairobi where National Health Insurance Fund worker Lilian Waithera, 46, collapsed and died on February 13, 2023. 

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

“The bullet entered through the collar bone, having been fired from an elevated angle,” it added.

Unanswered questions

That development shifted the focus back to the scene. From which of the high-rise buildings would the shot have come? Who was the shooter? Was she the target? What was the motive?

Nairobi Regional Police Commander Adamson Bungei explained that the bullet that hit Ms Waithera was fired by someone who was on top of one of the buildings. There are two high-rise buildings at the scene.

Hamilton House, which houses two restaurants, Almandi Yemeni House and Dream Bean House, and several offices. Adjacent to it to the left is Eco Bank Towers.

Based on the spot with blood stains, the detailed trajectory of the bullet as captured in the post-mortem report can point from which building the shot came from.

Yesterday, Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) detectives sealed off a section of Kaunda Street to triangulate probable sniper locations. Police sources and family members told Nation no arrests have been made so far. Police said they were liaising with building owners on Kaunda Street to retrieve CCTV camera footage and hopefully shed more light on the incident.

“We heard some say that she had been hit and that her colleague should call an ambulance for her. That was around 5.30pm. I remember we were about to close the shop. When I went to check, I saw her bleeding,” said a witness who works at Optica.

She added that the ambulance took its time and “arrived at the scene at around 5.58 pm as we had closed our door.”

Mr Joseph Katua, a newspaper vendor, remembered hearing a commotion. He went to check and saw a woman lying down bleeding. The witnesses said they heard no gunshot, raising questions about whether a gun with a silencer was used. 

“I did not hear any gunshots,” said Ms Achieng’ before she declined further interviews. She has since recorded a statement with the police.

It emerged yesterday that police are pursuing two theories into the killing. Detectives told Nation yesterday that they are pursuing a possible murder or an accidental discharge of a gun.

“Two theories that we are pursuing are either a possible murder or where a gun holder recklessly dislodges a bullet from an elevated angle and [it] accidentally lands on an innocent person,’’ a senior detective told Nation.

Unravelling the identity of the shooter is key to resolving the killing. That, and whether Waithera had reported any threats to her life. Yesterday, her husband, Mr Paul Mbogo, told Nation his wife had not expressed any fears or threats to her life. They have two children.

Earlier, Mr Mbogo had agreed to an interview at his Buru Buru  home in Nairobi but later changed his mind.

Waithera has worked at the NHIF’s registry for more than 15 years and was attached to the Operations Department’s Registration and Compliance.

NHIF on Wednesday issued a statement urging the public to stop speculating on the circumstances surrounding Waithera’s death “and to allow relevant investigative authorities to conclusively handle the matter”. 

It was in apparent response to circulating posts on social media that she was a whistle-blower and her death had something to do with a Sh1 billion corruption case at the agency.

Waithera’s body is lying at Kenyatta University Funeral Home ahead of the burial in Embu County on Thursday next week.