CJ ought to be bold on human rights and a towering legal mind

Friday May 07 2021
Martha Koome.

Justice Martha Koome when she appeared before the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) at the Supreme Court buildings on April 14, 2021 to be interviewed for the position of Chief Justice. The JSC picked her for the position of chief justice. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NMG


First, congratulations to Lady Justice Martha Koome for being picked by the Judicial Service Commission to be the next Chief Justice of Kenya subject to confirmation by Parliament.

The appeals court judge has worked for many years as a judge and advocate. Importantly, she has been an indefatigable crusader for women’s and children’s rights. It was a bold and commendable move by the JSC to pick a woman to head this important arm of government.

With that said, the interviews for the Chief Justice were underwhelming. Previous interviews for the position featured intellectual heavyweights and world-renowned human-rights advocates like Willy Mutunga, Prof Makau Mutua or Justice Smokin Wanjala. One of these, Dr Willy Mutunga, went on to become the most transformative Chief Justice the country has ever had since Independence.

In previous interviews, one listened not only to gauge the competence of the interviewees but also to enjoy their erudite language, witticism and jurisprudential philosophy. It was intellectually stimulating to watch the intellectual duels between the interviewees and the interviewing panel.

Those exchanges recalled debates in Parliament with the likes of Koigi wa Wamwere, James Orengo, Martin Shikuku, Chelegat Mutai and others. They were eloquent and principled defenders of human rights. They debated from ideological conviction and belief in the idea of constitutional democracy.

Some of these men and women, derided by Sir Charles Njonjo, a key architect of the Kanu dictatorship, as “the seven bearded sisters’ would later, after stints at the torture chambers at Nyayo House and years in jail, form the vanguard of the movement to re-establish democracy in Kenya in the early 1990s.


These days, listening to parliamentary debate is to subject one’s intellect and spirit to violence.

Back to the interviews for Chief Justice. Many of the interviewees struggled to express their ideas. Few expounded on their jurisprudential philosophy, assuming they had any. One of them claimed pride for having ruthlessly prosecuted human rights campaigners during the Kanu regime. Another, when asked about how she would resolve a longstanding dispute between the Judiciary and the Executive, said that she would call the First Lady and ask her to arrange a meeting with “mzee”.

Yes, the informal and shadowy networks that people use to negotiate their way around government bureaucracy has gone mainstream! Few, if any of the interviewees, made reference to legal scholars or judgments in other jurisdictions.

In summary, the interviews were pedantic, banal and, like our current parliamentary debates, almost anti-intellectual. In my view, a Chief Justice should be a towering legal mind as well as an activist for human rights. We can only hope Martha Koome, given her background in human-rights advocacy, will rise to the occasion.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator