LSK’s lost clout and a look at the days when lawyers led from the front

From left: Dr John Kaminwa, Martha Karua and GBM Kariuki at a function. Mr Kariuki was one of the firebrand leaders of LSK in its heyday. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Only a handful of the candidates had recognisable names, while, as in the past few years, there was little public enthusiasm
  • The lawyers’ body, together with the national Council of Churches of Kenya and the Catholic Church constituted the functional opposition to the excesses of the single-party regime.

Two weeks ago, I surprised a friend when I firmly declined his offer of a drink because I wanted to be at home in time to watch a televised debate by candidates for the post of president of the Law Society of Kenya. As I made to go, my friend asked with a tinge of contempt, “LSK elections? What is the big deal about them? Who cares?’

As I watched the debate later, I felt my friend could have had a point — though I didn’t approve of his dismissive language. The debate wasn’t particularly inspiring. And, except for Nelson Havi, whom we got to know during the 2017 presidential election petition, and Charles Kanjama, no other name in the line-up rang a bell.

This was a far cry from the LSK in the last years of the single-party rule when it was led by firebrands. The lawyers’ body, together with the national Council of Churches of Kenya and the Catholic Church constituted the functional opposition to the excesses of the single-party regime.


I recall the moment in 1986 when the ruling party bullied Parliament into passing, in a matter of minutes, a constitutional amendment to remove the security of tenure for the Attorney-General and commissioners in the Public Service Commission. LSK, through chairman GBM Kariuki, promptly fired a strongly worded protest note.

From the reaction by the political class, you would have thought LSK and its leadership had released bees in a crowded stadium. One deranged city Kanu official even threatened to lead party youths in razing LSK offices!

The same happened two years later when the Kanu government had the castrated Parliament pass a constitutional amendment to remove the security of tenure for judges and the Auditor-General. Once again, LSK came out guns blazing.

This time round, it was Vice-President Josephat Karanja who led the chorus of condemnation. He dismissed LSK as an “anachronistic” institution and “an irritating irrelevance”.

Ironically, the following year, when the Vice-President was hounded out of office, mob-lynching style, only LSK had the guts to come to his defence, with a statement that he ought to have been given a chance to defend himself against the “treasonable” but fictitious allegations levelled against him.

Come the multiparty crusade in the 1989/1990 period, the government hatched a plot to cripple LSK in a two-pronged strategy that entailed both stick and carrot.

Speaking during Jamhuri Day celebrations, President Daniel Moi challenged LSK leadership to a physical duel. Speaking off-the cuff, he threatened: “Should LSK continue in the same trend of attacking my government, I will demand they come here, I put women and children at one corner, then have us men physically square it out in the middle of the field!”

Even as he talked tough, Moi was working on plan B, which was to rig LSK elections and install a leadership he could do “business” with.

To test the waters, he had a Kanu-friendly lawyer, Stephen Mwenesi, issue a statement to the effect that it was high time LSK was made an affiliate of the ruling party. The radical wing in LSK angrily replied that it could only happen over their dead bodies.

Meanwhile, behind the scene, State agents went into overdrive to ensure LSK elections that year — 1989 — were conducted according to the Kanu rule book, in which the ballots “cast” outnumbered the voters.

Kanu-friendly lawyer Fred Ojiambo was installed as the society’s chairman against loud protests that the real winner was the hot-headed government critic Paul Muite. The radical wing of the society vowed to never recognise Ojiambo’s leadership, and looked for every opportunity to oust him.

A highly acrimonious annual general meeting was held on March 10, 1990 — and I attended by accident. As a newly employed features writer, I got to the office that Saturday morning to find I hadn’t been assigned any job for the day. Instead of sitting idle, I accompanied the senior reporter assigned to cover the meeting.

When we got to the venue, the Professional Centre on Parliament Road, it was jam-packed. Those who couldn’t find seats were leaning on the walls, while others stood at the entrance and along the corridor. The atmosphere was tense. Everyone had come prepared for war.

Though usually cool-tempered, on that day you could tell the “born-again” church elder Fred Ojiambo was deserted of the Holy Spirit as he left his house that morning. He was in a foul mood, and looked well briefed that he would be presiding over a meeting where Lucifer was the lead gate-crasher.

His nemesis, Paul Muite, had not yet developed the full girth he has today, but had the same dark face and hair. Githu Muigai had boyish cheeks but wore oversized glasses that gave him an owlish look. His partner Mohamed Nyaoga looked taller than he is today, and was dressed in a Kaunda safari suit that gave him a game warden look.

The Moses Wetangula of those days looked a bit malnourished. Martha Karua, then called Martha Njoka, was the original minji, minji before Governor Anne Waiguru snatched the crown from her.
The Gibson Kamau Kuria of those days looked somewhat dishevelled and carried his court paraphernalia in an oversized old bag.

The leading Kanu hawks at the meeting were lawyers Mutula Kilonzo, who also was President Moi’s private attorney, Kokokonya Mukolongola, and Stephen Mwenesi. To rub it in their colleagues’ faces, the trio came dressed in Kanu redshirts, and catwalked the hall with the cockiness of overexcited spoilt boys.

Firing on all cylinders on the opposite side were Muite, Kamau Kuria, and Japheth Shamalla.
Fireworks began immediately after the meeting was called to order. As the chairman made to read out agenda item No. 1, which was the approval of minutes of the previous AGM, Kamau Kuria rose on a point of order to point out that the agenda was incomplete as a motion by Japheth Shamalla to have the meeting pass a vote of no confidence in chairman Ojiambo had been omitted.

He further demanded Ojiambo vacate the chairman’s seat as he was a subject of discussion. The latter refused to do so, leading to shouts of “shame! shame!” from some members.

Vice-chairman Lawrence Gitau, a Kanu sympathiser, sought to explain that the Shamalla item was left out because at the time he sent a notice of motion, he was “a stranger” in LSK as he had not renewed his membership. He was shouted down as Muite stated the legal position.

A heckling match ensued between the hawks and the radicals, threatening to bring the meeting to an abrupt end. Calm prevailed when Shamalla cited a regulation in the LSK rules that allowed for a member to seek leave of the AGM for inclusion of an item not in the agenda. The meeting overwhelmingly voted to have Shamalla’s motion included.

Pandemonium broke out again when lawyer Paul Wamae demanded to know why a scheduled lawyers’ biennial conference had abruptly been cancelled on unilateral orders from the chairman.

The chairman said the conference “had been cancelled by the council of the LSK when it came out not all arrangements were in place on the eve of the start of the conference.”

Throwing all caution to the wind, Kamau Kuria rose to declare that “it was a very sad day for LSK as its chairman was telling blatant lies in broad daylight!”

He disclosed that it was the chairman who had single-handedly, and without notifying the LSK council, cancelled the conference after meeting with two State House emissaries, who informed him the State didn’t approve the list of would-be speakers at the conference — because they were “well known dissidents”. Otherwise, revealed Kamau Kuria, contrary to the chairman’s “lies”, all preparations for the conference were ready at the time of cancellation.

At that point, the meeting degenerated into a free-for-all — a curse word shouted here, an obscenity thrown there — that only fell slightly short of blows being exchanged and chairs flying.

Amid the chaos, members demanded the Japheth Shamalla motion of no confidence in the chairman be tabled, but that the chairman first vacate and the person to preside over debate on the motion be decided through a vote.

The chairman declined to quit, insisting — strangely — that he would preside over debate where he was the subject of discussion.

At that point, lawyer Mohamed Ibrahim, a former detainee and now judge of the Supreme Court, demanded that the chairman resign on his own volition since a majority of members did not have confidence in him.
By now, it was clear the chairman only had his eyes open to the pro-Kanu faction, whose members he allowed to talk as many times and as long as they wished, while having a cataract eye on the opposing side.
Then he abruptly declared the meeting had come to an end. All the media — including the Kanu-owned Kenya Times newspaper where I worked — reported the meeting had ended on an acrimonious note. Amazingly, Ojiambo denied it. He was the only one who didn’t see that the king was naked.

Years later, I had personal experience of what it was like to associate with a “marked” lawyer when Kanu was in power.

I was working on a certain project with Muite and would leave his offices, then at Bishops Garden Towers, off Valley Road, late in the evening and head to a rented farmhouse in Waithaka on Kikuyu Road.

One day, a neighbour told me that on the evenings I arrived late from Muite’s office, there had been two cars following me and which turned back and disappeared immediately after I entered my gate.

I shared the information with Muite. He advised me on how to lay a trap to ascertain whether it was true. I did what he told me and, lo and behold, it was true I was being followed.

Mercifully, it stopped the moment I was done with the fire-eating lawyer.

But, come to think of it, wasn’t it nice and a “privilege” that for some time I “enjoyed” an unsolicited two-car escort home paid for by the Government of Kenya?