Kenyan policemen and Red Cross workers carried the body of George Saitoti from the scene where a police helicopter crashed in the forest west of Nairobi on Sunday.
LIBREVILLE, Gabon — A top Kenyan official, who grew up chasing cows in the Great Rift Valley and went on to become one of the most powerful men in the country, was killed Sunday morning when the police helicopter he was riding in plunged into a forest west of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.
Kenyan officials said they did not know the cause of the crash, though there was no evidence that it was the result of a terrorist attack or foul play. Witnesses reported seeing the helicopter engulfed in smoke and swaying violently before it dived from the sky.
“The chopper crashed and exploded on impact, scattering money and books,” Leonard Njoroge, a witness, told The Sunday Nation, a Kenyan newspaper.
Mr. Saitoti, 66, was born in a Masai village and rose from cowherd to math professor before jumping into politics in the early 1980s. Commonly known as Professor Saitoti, he had held a number of powerful posts in the Kenyan government — finance minister, education minister, acting foreign minister, even vice president.
In the early 1990s, he was implicated in a huge financial scandal involving fictitious gold exports that cost the Kenyan government hundreds of millions of dollars, but he was eventually cleared and his political fortunes bounced back. Mr. Saitoti had recently announced that he was running for president next year. Many Kenyans considered him a leading contender.
As minister for provincial administration and internal security, Mr. Saitoti took a tough line against the Shabab militant group in Somalia, whom he blamed for kidnapping foreigners in Kenya, though most analysts said that this was not true and that the foreigners had been kidnapped by opportunistic bandits.
“We are now going to pursue the enemy, who are the Al Shabab, to wherever they will be, even in their country,” Mr. Saitoti said in October, right before thousands of Kenyan troops crossed into Somalia, where they remain.
His death came four years to the day after two other senior Kenyan officials were killed in a plane crash in 2008.