The problem with Kenya President Ruto attacks on Judiciary

Monday January 08 2024
President William Ruto

Kenyan President William Ruto. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NMG


Opposition to Kenyan President William Ruto’s public attacks on the courts is growing after more influential lobbies and civil society organisations came out this week to rally behind the Judiciary.

The law society and associations representing judges, magistrates and senior counsel joined the voices calling on the President to back off, warning that the media reports of him vowing to defy the courts could set the country on a dangerous path to anarchy.

The Kenyan Judiciary has enjoyed considerable public trust since the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution, which strengthened its independence. The Supreme Court has settled disputes arising from the outcome of the past three presidential elections, defusing tensions and averting full-blown election-related violence similar to the one that left more than 1,100 dead and displaced about 650,000 from their homes in 2007.

Read: Tough year as Ruto battled trust deficit

The emphasis placed on public participation as one of the governance values in the 2010 Constitution has also seen a culture of public interest litigation take root, with public-spirited individuals and organisations regularly moving to challenge government policies and decisions in court.

Ruto, himself a prominent beneficiary of the country’s justice system after the Supreme Court upheld his contested victory in the 2022 presidential election, swore to uphold the rule of law and respect the independence of the Judiciary at his inauguration.


Renegade DP

He dramatically appointed six judges rejected by his predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta, on allegations of corruption and directed the annual Judiciary budget increased by Sh3 billion on his first day in office as a gesture of his support for that arm of the government.

While serving as a renegade Deputy President in the previous administration, he regularly defended the courts and celebrated the politically consequential judgments that blocked a proposed constitutional referendum backed by Kenyatta.

But he has become increasingly angry with the Judiciary after some of his controversial tax policies were blocked by the courts. In November, High Court judges issued orders against the enforcement of new social housing and healthcare taxes, delivering a major blow to President’s quest to push through his bottom-up economic agenda.

The separate rulings made within days of each other temporarily halted the deduction of a 1.5 percent housing levy from workers’ gross monthly salaries, which is matched by employers, and another 2.57 percent towards social healthcare insurance.

Court hearing in the housing tax case is scheduled to resume next week while the petition challenging the healthcare tax is due back in February.

Critics see the escalation of verbal attacks on the Judiciary by the President in recent days, starting with his New Year speech in which he accused the courts of being part of a scheme to sabotage his government’s agenda, as an attempt to intimidate judges.

On Wednesday, he sensationally claimed at a funeral in central Kenya that some judges were receiving bribes to issue adverse rulings against his administration’s policies and vowed to disobey orders issued by “corrupt courts”.

Some of his more hawkish political allies are advocating more radical measures, including mass sacking of judges like what happened under the Mwai Kibaki administration in 2003.

The problem for the Ruto administration is that such a move would require the kind of public support it doesn’t have.