Monday, September 14, 2009



Mutula in eye of storm at Justice ministry

Cabinet minister Kiraitu Murungi took to his job as Justice minister in 2003 like a duck takes to water. The veteran of anti-Moi campaigns of the 1990s promised reforms and delivered.

Within months of President Kibaki taking office, he had shepherded through Parliament anti-corruption legislation which required public officials to declare their wealth and established the revamped Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission (KACC).

But after just three years on the job, Mr Murungi fell victim to the jinx that seems attached to the ministry of Justice, one of the most powerful – and controversial – ministries in Kenyan history.

President Kibaki announced he had accepted Mr Murungi’s resignation in the wake of revelations about the Anglo Leasing scandal. (Mr Murungi was eventually cleared of allegations levelled against him and returned to Cabinet).

The zeal with which Justice minister Mutula Kilonzo started his term in May, this year, at the Cooperative House-based office carried echoes of the enthusiasm Mr Murungi brought to the job in 2003.

Kenya would have a new constitution by the end of 2009, he assured. And a special tribunal to try the suspected masterminds of post-election violence would also be established soon, he said.

Four months down the line, Mr Kilonzo does not appear much closer to delivering on the targets. Instead, he finds himself in the middle of a political storm over whether President Kibaki breached the law in re-appointing Mr Justice Aaron Ringera as KACC director.

Open secret

Whether Mr Kilonzo will survive the political fallout if Parliament rejects Mr Ringera’s re-appointment is an open secret.

Yet Mr Kilonzo, a veteran lawyer, will not be too shocked at the turbulence that has characterised his tenure so far.

Since independence, few ministries have attracted as much controversy as the ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs.

The first occupant of the office was Tom Mboya, who rapidly came to be seen as one of the most powerful ministers.

Mr Mboya, who was assassinated in 1969, is now commonly regarded as perhaps the most brilliant politician this nation has seen and the best President Kenya never had.
But in the 1960s, he earned notoriety for using the ministry of Justice to introduce laws which concentrated power in the presidency. A lot of the legislation which created what Mr Murungi would later dub the “imperial presidency” was authored by Mr Mboya, who at the time, was involved in a battle for political supremacy with Jaramogi Odinga.

The next occupant of the hot seat was Charles Njonjo. The former Attorney-General was known as much for his influence in the Kenyatta regime as for his impeccable pinstripe suits imported from the finest gentleman’s outfitters in London.

He would not last long at the ministry of Justice. In 1984, President Moi appointed a commission of inquiry to probe Mr Njonjo’s alleged role in a coup plot. He was hounded out of office and retreated into obscurity.

University of Nairobi political scientist Dr Joshua Kivuva says the controversies that are a near-constant fixture at Justice ministry are a result of its role as an arbiter of conflicts.

“The ministry of Justice is an extension of the Judiciary. And the Judiciary mostly comes into play when people disagree. That’s why the head of the ministry is seen as a divisive figure because he or she has to arbitrate between competing factions that have different interests,” he says.

Perhaps no recent Justice minister was as divisive a figure as Martha Karua. She replaced Mr Murungi at Sheria House at a critical time during President Kibaki’s first term.

Fresh from the defeat of the government side in the referendum over a new Constitution, Mrs Karua was tasked with steadying the ship as Mr Kibaki prepared his re-election bid.

Mrs Karua was credited with implementing a number of reforms and streamlining the management of the Governance, Justice and Law and Order programme, a donor-funded initiative which aimed at improving the justice system.

Politically, though, Mrs Karua was always in the middle of one fight or the other. It was during her tenure that President Kibaki decided to appoint commissioners to the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) without consulting rival political parties.

This action, which breached a gentleman’s agreement struck between political parties in 1997, has been cited by some as a fateful moment which raised tensions ahead of the last General Election.

Mrs Karua played a starring role in the team that vigorously defended President Kibaki following the disputed presidential election.

She was also a robust presence in the Party of National Unity’s team at the negotiations over the national accord brokered by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.
Yet President Kibaki overlooked her when he opted to hand Finance minister Uhuru Kenyatta the Deputy Prime Minister’s slot reserved for PNU after the accord was signed.

That appointment came to be viewed as a sign that although Mrs Karua was one of a number of politicians who hoped to succeed President Kibaki, Mr Kibaki had other ideas.

Her seeming isolation within the Cabinet was made clear when President Kibaki appointed new judges without consulting her. Consequently, Mrs Karua resigned in a huff.

From there, she has proved a formidable critic of the government. She will be one of those who Mr Kilonzo will be facing off with when the debate on reappointment of Mr Ringera returns to Parliament on Tuesday.

It will be a crucial battle for Mr Kilonzo. Victory will strengthen his hand while confounding skeptics who take the view that the odds are stacked against the government side.

Defeat, on the other hand, might mean that the minister for Justice could be on his way to the political wilderness, a fate which Mr Murungi memorably described in his collection of poetry when, after his exit from the government, noted he retreated to the peaceful village at the foot of Mt Kenya where “there is no Nation, Standard or KTN”.