Charles Njonjo, the first Attorney-General of independent Kenya, was loyal to the appointing authority, talented, forgave easily, and held no grudges, veteran advocates have said.
Advocates Dr John Khaminwa, Paul Muite and Prof Githu Muigai said Mr Njonjo was also a hardworking civil servant who understood his job during his 17-year stretch at Sheria House as the government's head legal officer.
"He was a man of his type and a lawyer of his own type. He understood his job as being to protect the State by ensuring that there was political order and stability,” said Prof Muigai, also a former AG.
“He was very suspicious of any person who challenged the status quo and he considered such a person an enemy of the State."
He described Mr Njonjo as a pragmatic lawyer who "worked hard to ensure that the independence Constitution, which had complicated provisions, was aligned with the political aspirations of the administration that he served without too much violence to it".
For instance, he said, Mr Njonjo managed to remove the majimbo system of governance and the Senate and initiated one that was more centralised immediately after independence.
"He will be remembered as a man who shaped the legal order without a doubt. He could have done more and earlier to Africanise the legal profession but that was not to be. He brought professionalism to the legal public service and made Sheria House a centre of excellence," Prof Muigai said.
Although Mr Njonjo's contribution to Kenya's jurisprudence will remain tainted because of atrocities such as the violations of human rights committed by the government of the time, Dr Khaminwa said, he managed to work as AG without sufficient experience in the law practice.
He said Mr Njonjo oversaw the setting up of the Kenya School of Law, which was established in 1963 and 11 students were admitted that year. He observed that Mr Njonjo played a key role in ensuring the school realised its mandate and produced post-colonial lawyers trained locally.
On the administration of justice, Dr Khaminwa said that during Mr Njonjo's tenure there was immense interference from the Executive and decisions made by the Judiciary and judges were not independent on cases that touched on politicians.
Atrocities meted out by the government
Many people, he said, suffered during Mr Njonjo’s tenure as a result of political persecutions, detention without trial and political assassinations.
"During his time as AG a number of people were detained without trial. It is difficult to know to what extent he may have contributed himself as the Attorney-General. Were they detained by the President or he himself contributed to the detentions?" Dr Khaminwa said.
"There were also suspicious deaths and assassinations. People died under mysterious and suspicious circumstances. Again it is difficult to know whether Njonjo knew what happened and what was his role in the atrocities meted out by the government on its people. These are things that may be looked into by historians and academicians.”
Lawyers representing perceived political offenders such as George Anyona also worked in fear, said Dr Khaminwa.
He added that Mr Njonjo is credited with helping beat pressure that White settlers with huge tracts of land be evicted without any compensation.
"He made a contribution that saw White people get properly compensated and there was no eviction without pay,” he said. Only in political cases, he said, did judges perform poorly.
Mr Muite, another veteran advocate and a senior counsel, said Mr Njonjo was loyal to both Presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Moi and did not hold grudges.
One of Mr Njonjo's achievements, he said, was overseeing a peaceful transition and transfer of power in the Jomo Kenyatta succession to President Moi.
"In my view, the succession and the transfer of power was a major achievement for Mr Njonjo in the continent of Africa and it was not a popular move in Central Kenya,” he said.
“He did not want power himself and was content to continue serving as AG. The decision to join politics (in 1980) was not his but Moi's in the political scheme of removing Njonjo from office."
One of the things that troubled Mr Njonjo, he said, was the allegation that he had plotted to topple President Moi and take power by force.
Members of the Black Bar
Mr Muite was one of the advocates who represented Mr Njonjo when a judicial commission of inquiry in 1983 investigated charges that he tried to overthrow the government. His other advocate was a white lawyer, Mr W.S. Deverell.
"There was no grain of truth in that allegation. If there is anything that pained Njonjo, it was the thought that Moi could have possibly believed that lie,” he said.
“Njonjo was totally loyal to the first President as well as the second. At the commission, the issue of Njonjo being a traitor was fabricated and hatched."
Chief Justice Martha Koome, in her tribute, said Njonjo “distinguished himself as a lawyer and was a great encouragement to other members of the Black Bar”.
“Hon. Charles Njonjo played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Kenyan Bar imparting an exceptional lawyering approach, which centred on the ethos of practice and dedicated statecraft. Hon. Njonjo’s role in the making of the Kenyan republic will stand as (a) testament to the centrality of the legal profession in the establishment of a just state and society,” she posted.
She added: “His legacy will also serve as an inspiring reference for Judges, Judicial Officers and Advocates on the fundamental considerations of trial preparation to expedite access to justice.”
But lawyers Ahmednasir Abdullahi and Prof Makau Mutua bashed the CJ and asked her not to rewrite history.
Mr Abdullahi, reacting on Twitter to the CJ's statement, said: “It is very important for the Hon CJ to be truthful about history...always! To state on record that Charles Njonjo ...was a great encouragement to other members of the Black Bar" is a lie...and a cheap one at that!".
For his part Mr Mutua wrote on Twitter that Mr Njonjo was “a key architect of a corrupt, fascist state”.
“I can’t — cannot — believe CJ Koome has written such blatant lies about the late AG Charles Njonjo. He will go down in history as one of the most malignant, anti-black, vindictive, and anti-democratic officials in Kenya,” he said.