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Chief Justice Nominee Hopes to Repair Kenya’s Relationships With Courts

  • Michael Onyiego

In an historic session in Kenya’s parliament, chief justice nominee Dr. Willy Mutungu has promised to change Kenya’s relationship to its notoriously corrupt courts.

On Tuesday in Nairobi’s County Hall, Mutunga, did something no Kenyan judge has ever had to do: publically defend his credentials and nomination to a Kenyan bench.

On live television, parliament’s Constitution Implementation Oversight Committee (CIOC), lead by MP Abdikadir Mohammed, grilled Mutunga, questioning his record and demanding to know how he intends to lead Kenya’s embattled Judiciary.

“We are looking for somebody who would lead serious reforms in the court," he said. "What assurances will you give to the committee that that institution - that requires so much reform to be done - we will have the leader.”

Much of the questions revolved around Mutunga’s history and beliefs, and many of the parliamentarians wanted to know exactly how he would handle many of Kenya’s difficult issues. Mutunga avoided such questions, arguing he couldn’t prejudge cases. But the Kenyan lawyer expressed his belief that it was the responsibility of the Kenyan people to spearhead critical reforms, when asked how he would promote women’s rights.

“I can’t promise anything to the women, because I think it is the women and all Kenyans that actually have to breathe life into the constitution," said Mutunga. "The Kambas say ‘if you go for circumcision you go naked.’ The Kenyan people should keep us naked throughout.”

Mutunga’s appearance before the CIOC was the result of months of political infighting over the constitutional reform process. In late January President Mwai Kibaki made several unilateral judicial appointments, including that of chief justice. The move was immediately blasted by Prime Minister Raila Odinga, whose consent was required by Kenyan law. After consideration by Kenya’s parliamentary speaker, the nominations were rescinded and put into the hands of the Judicial Service Committee, who selected Mutunga and other candidates for the judiciary’s top offices.

In stark contrast to President Kibaki’s initial nominations, Mutunga has received high praise from Kenya’s legal groups and civil society. But the nomination has also garnered controversy. Mutunga has been blasted for wearing an earring by more traditional members of Kenya’s parliament, and church groups claim he supports abortion and same-sex marriage.

Despite such criticisms, the judicial nominee told the panel that he hoped he could use the bench to repair the damaged trust between the corrupt courts and the Kenyan people.

“I would want my legacy to be putting the judiciary in the public domain so that it has credibility with the people of Kenya," he said. "Making sure that this judiciary is for all Kenyans.”

The CIOC have also vetted Keriako Tobiko as director of public prosecutions and Nancy Baraza the deputy chief Justice. If approved, the three candidates will be submitted Wednesday to parliament for final approval.