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Why Mutunga's past, credentials fit for the job

By | Updated Mon, May 30th 2011 at 00:00 GMT +3

By Mutinda Mwanzia

Dr Willy Mutunga's firebrand activism did not peter off with the end of Kanu’s rule in 2002, but continued in the fight by civil society groups for a new Constitution and wider democratic space after the Narc government took over.

Not one to shy away from stating his beliefs, he even criticized the US and Britain for being two-faced in their push for Kenya to adopt harsh anti-terrorism laws.

In 2003, while commenting on the Suppression of Terrorism Bill in an opinion piece he delivered at a conference organised by the Carter Center, Mutunga denounced it thus: "The bill, in our opinion, and this has come out in the press, exposes the United States and Britain as hypocritical, perfidious, and duplicitous in their pronounced support for human rights at home and abroad."

At the time, Mutunga was the Executive Director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission and felt the approach taken by the Government in tackling terrorism was dangerous, drawing on his strong belief in protecting fundamental freedoms.

"I am convinced there is need to demystify Islamic fundamentalism as an intra-class conflict between the ruling classes in North Africa, the Middle East, and West Asia," wrote the civil rights activist.

"My conclusion is this: As human rights defenders, we are hearing the message that where there is terror, there are no human rights. That message, in my view, subverts world peace. The protection and the promotion of human rights remains a fundamental weapon to defeat terrorism," he said.

Mutunga attended Ithookwe Primary School, before proceeding to Kitui School for his ‘O’ level exams, then known as the Kenya Certificate of Education (KCE).

He was a brilliant pupil and set a record as the first student to score six points in the exams (a straight "A" in all subjects) earning him a place at the Strathmore College for his ‘A’ levels.

Mutunga attained a law degree from the University of Nairobi in the seventies and opened a law firm in Kitui town.

He later earned a Master of Law degree from the University of Dar-es-Salaam before joining the University of Nairobi’s Faculty of Law as a lecturer.

Mutunga would later became the General Secretary of the University Academic Staff Union in 1979 thrusting him into the limelight of varsity politics that would also suck in the likes of Ugenya MP James Orengo.

Rose Nduki Mbiti, the aunt to Dr Willy Mutunga and nephew Jackson Mutunga admire a picture of Mutunga at his library in Kilonzo village, Kitui County. The picture was taken during the struggle for multi-party by The Standard in Nairobi. Photo: Moses Omusula

As a result of his activisim, the police arrested Mutunga on June 10, 1980 and accused him of being a member of the underground insurgent group known as the December Twelve Movement, and participating in the production of the Movement’s publication, Pambana.

The police alleged they had found stamps used for mailing Pambana after searching his house and on June 12 1982, he was charged in court before the late senior Magistrate, Mr. P.N. Tank.

Seditious’ leaflet

Mutunga was accused of being in possession of a ‘seditious’ leaflet bearing the headings: "J.M. Solidarity Day"; Don’t Be Fooled: Reject these Nyayos."

On July 29, 1982, he was detained, just three days before the August 1, 1982 abortive coup by the Air Force. He was also dismissed from his University job.

His relatives say the detention greatly affected them; their home was constantly under surveillance by the dreaded Special Branch.

"We knew that the State would use its operatives to keep a close eye on our home after Mutunga’s arrest, but certainly we were made strong by the conviction that he stood for a just and democratic society," says Mwangangi.

After his release from detention on October 20, 1983, Mutunga went into exile in Canada where he furthered his legal studies at Osgoode Hall Law School in Canada, obtaining a doctorate degree.

Mutunga has also served as the Vice Chair and Chair of the Law Society of Kenya, and has taught countless young lawyers at law school. His nephew, Jackson Mutua, says Mutunga’s door has always been open to people from all walks of life, seeking his advice, assistance or support.

His peers in the civil society see Mutunga as the best broom to sweep out the alleged rot in the Judiciary in the new constitutional dispensation, but his critics, especially those from the corridors of justice, claim he is an outsider, with no judicial experience, and who would taint the institution with activism, as opposed to practical reforms.

A civil society activist Ann Njogu, who is also the chairperson of the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW), says the sentiments expressed by Mutunga’s relatives and friends validate her belief that he is the right choice for the CJ’s post.

"He has a lifelong commitment to reforming the broken governance system of the nation. He has been active in the reform movement, and was at the forefront of the second liberation that ended the single-party tyranny of the Moi regime," says Njogu.