Of students’ judgement, Mazrui and our heroic chiefs of justice

David Maraga

Former Chief Justice David Maraga displays the State of the Judiciary report at the Supreme Court of Kenya, Nairobi, during his retirement ceremony.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

The Mazrui of my title is my friend and long-time colleague, Professor Elizabeth Orchardson-Mazrui of the Department of Art and Design at the School of Visual and Performing Arts of Kenyatta University. “Liz Mazrui”, as her friends call her, is a multi-talented scholar and all-round artist who, apart from her visual creations, also writes verse, drama and fiction, often grounded in Kenyan history.

Liz Mazrui set me thinking about lawyers and their profession with her recently self-published book, Willy Munywoki Mutunga: Our Hero of Justice, which I found “unputdownable”. I know that is not a correct term for a professional critic to use in objectively reviewing a piece of writing. But, for reasons that I will confess presently, this is neither a professional nor an objective review.

It is, rather, a personal and startled response to Prof Mazrui’s fictionalised narrative, which I discovered to be a tellingly close story about my contemporaries and me. Patently, as you have noted, the book is about our former (or shall we say previous former) Chief Justice, Dr Willy Mutunga.

It traces Mutunga’s torturous rise from his remote rural origins in Kitui County through a brilliant scholarly and academic career and the trials of detention at the hands of oppressive regimes to the highest offices in the country’s justice system. Little wonder then that it made me think about my lawyer acquaintances and their learned calling.

So, judgments, lawyers and even the top guardians of the law, the Chief Justices, have been very much on my mind over the past few days. The matter was already in my sights even before the emphatic differences inside our learned counsels’ Society leapt to public attention earlier this week.

Like most of you, I had been mulling over the career of the Right Honourable David Maraga, our Chief Justice for the past few years, as he finally retired. Saying that some of the judgements he delivered remain unforgettable would be an obvious understatement.

Judicious advice

I, however, will best remember him for his judicial and judicious advice about the “two-thirds rule”. Whatever its fate before 2022, I am sure gender representation relations in Kenya will never be the same in its aftermath. But those familiar with my feminist inclinations will understand that I am not an impartial judge in these matters.

But even before all this, I had thought of telling you about “judgement” in general, in line with our earlier agreement that we would have a learning point in each of our weekly conversations. This also arose from a rather amusing story about lawyers. This involved some eight young law graduates taking their bar courses at Uganda’s Law Development Centre, just across the road from Makerere’s Law School.

The students were doing their internship, or clerkship, at Uganda’s Commercial Court before they could qualify as advocates of the High Court. During a break in their proceedings, they decided to entertain themselves with a brief caper or dance, to the hugely popular but controversial Ugandan pop hit, “Tumbiiza (turn up the) sound”. They even videoed themselves in the vigorous and uninhibited act.

Unfortunately, for the students, the jig did not go down well with the people around the court, including the Head of the Commercial Division of the High Court, who reprimanded the students and demanded an immediate and unconditional apology. When I last heard, the Head of the Bar Course at the Law Development Centre had also summoned the students to account for their behaviour at the Court.

The moral of the tale is that you should be careful about where, when, what and how you dance, especially if you are a lawyer. This, however, is true for all of us, and it is what “judgement” means. There are expected standards of behaviour for all of us, and good judgement means consistently adhering to these in every situation.

Literature and Linguistics

Back to my personal response to Liz Mazrui’s book about Willy Mutunga, you probably know that His Lordship is a fellow Dar alumnus or old boy. Prof Liz Mazrui was my colleague and neighbour for nearly all of the 20 years that I taught at KU. Dr Mutunga, then of UoN, was our colleague and Secretary General of UASU, the University Academic Staff Union, when we were all part of the University of Nairobi. Liz’s partner, Alamin Mazrui (the “younger Mazrui”, as we called him with reference to his famous uncle, the late Ali Mazrui), was also our colleague in the Language, Literature and Linguistics section at KU.

Willy Mutunga, Alamin Mazrui, Maina wa Kinyatti and Edward Oyugi were among the crop of university dons detained in the first crackdown on perceived academic dissent in the wake of the attempted coup of 1982.

Liz Mazrui’s narrative of Willy Mutunga’s detention is thus not only an account of the sorrows and tribulations of this illustrious man but also an insider’s intimate reflection of the cloud of terror that blanketed all of us in the academic community in those strange and unfortunate times.

Indeed, the book is both a reminder, to those of us who were there, of the helpless fragility and vulnerability that many of us felt in the face of an indefinable state threat. It is also a brilliant instructional tale about what it takes to be or to become a true hero: a respectful acknowledgement of one’s roots, a dogged adherence to the pursuit of excellence and a fearless advocacy of truth and justice.

An amusing twist explaining my belated response to Prof Mazrui’s book is that it took well over three months to travel between Nairobi and Kampala! My copy was mailed to me in September last year, and here it was, arriving in Uganda in mid-January 2021! Glad as I was to receive my parcel, I could not keep the concept of “snail mail” out of my mind.

Anyway, in the wake of a recent first-had experience of a total eclipse of the Internet, which, as you noticed, affected our palaver last week, I should only be counting my blessings.


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