Kenya’s new chief justice vowed to fight corruption and impunity, although analysts said he would have to stand up to powerful politicians and businessmen to succeed in turning the courts around.
Willy Mutunga, a former law school lecturer with a track record of pushing for legal reform who has never served as a judge, has been tasked by Kenya’s president with transforming a judiciary widely seen as inefficient and corrupt.
In a speech from the steps of the High Court after his swearing-in on Monday, Mutunga, who will also preside over a supreme court established under a new constitution passed in August, said his task was difficult but achievable, Reuters reports.
“We expect to put tyranny, oppression and exploitation, opacity and impunity on the back-foot, while making strides towards freedom, opportunity, and transparency and liberty,” Mutunga said.
“It should no longer be possible to speak about corruption and the judiciary in one breath,” he said.
Mutunga’s appointment has been overshadowed by public debate about his sexuality because he wears an ear stud. During interviews for the position broadcast live on television, he denied that he was gay. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya.
President Mwai Kibaki said at Mutunga’s swearing-in that a backlog of cases, unethical conduct by some judicial officers and weak administrative structures had undermined the courts.
“Today’s ceremony marks a turning point in our judiciary. Over the past years Kenyans have called for the overhaul of our judicial system,” said Kibaki, who came to power in 2002 on an anti-graft and constitutional reform platform.
Kenyan media have exposed corruption in his government, but no minister has been convicted of graft during Kibaki’s tenure.
Analysts said the country’s post-election violence in 2007-2008 might have been avoided if Kenya had a credible legal mechanism for settling disputes, and Mutunga’s appointment could help restore confidence in the courts.
“You can expect an initial period of resistance to the changes he is trying to do. I think he has to strike a balance — he should promise little and deliver a lot,” said political commentator Kwamchetsi Makokha.
Mutunga’s appointment ended a row between Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga over senior judicial appointments that had threatened to split their brittle coalition government formed to end the post-election fighting.
Mutunga would also determine how cases arising from the post-election violence would be tried if Kenya succeeds in its appeal lodged with the International Criminal Court to have the six main suspects tried locally.
“If somebody has got a good chance of reforming the judiciary, it’s him,” said John Githongo, a former anti-graft tsar in Kibaki’s first government who became a whistleblower and fled the country after uncovering major graft scandals within the president’s inner circle.
“People are looking for the expeditious handling of cases against high-profile Kenyans. His appointment is positive, but we should be measured in our expectations — history has shown the anti-reform elements are very strong.”
Sleaze has spread from politicians, civil servants, private business to ordinary Kenyans who part with small sums of money for favours, especially in government offices and the courts.
Mutunga will oversee the process of vetting of judges and magistrates to weed out those who may be corrupt or inefficient.