Lessons from former AG who continues to influence in death as in life

Kenya’s second attorney general James Boro Karugu. [File, Standard]

Some heroes are larger-than-life characters. Others are quiet and unassuming.

Kenya’s second attorney general James Boro Karugu was the latter type. Yet his impact on society at home and abroad is no less than that of the most visible sort.

Karugu’s story is the quintessential rags-to-riches one. His first interaction with law was as a barefoot boy where he sat in the public gallery of the High Court of Kenya. So profound was that encounter that he later wrote of it saying, “Just like few of us will experience love at first sight, few will experience passion and meaning at first experience.”

There are salient lessons that can be crystallised from Karugu’s life. The first is that education is, in his own words quoted in a moving tribute by his daughter Victoria Karugu, “the greatest equaliser enabling people to escape poverty and reach for grandeur.”

Karugu’s thirst for education led him to Bowling Green State University (BGSU) in the US. He was BGSU’s first African student and paved the way for others after him. He was a true reflection of the zeitgeist of
the 60s and 70s when nothing more than education and the will to succeed were the prerequisites for success.

Second, meritocracy was the defining trait of Karugu’s career. After the US, he went to Lincoln’s Inn in Central London for law school. He came back to Kenya and was appointed Crown Counsel.

He rose through the ranks by dint of sheer hard work and was eventually appointed attorney general (AG) in 1980. Among his notable achievements were the reintroduction of the Kenya Law reports, the introduction of the Land Control Act and the Civil Procedure Acts for the rehearing of civil appeals.

President Moi

Third, it is possible to differ on matters of principle and still remain friends with others. Karugu resigned on his own volition after a short stint as AG. But he retained a lifelong friendship with former president Daniel arap Moi, the appointing authority then. So close were they that when he was taken ill, Moi visited him in his retirement home.

Fourth, there is still life to be lived after public service. Karugu went into farming and made a huge success of his Kiamara Coffee Estate. Engagement in other ventures also proved that his resignation from public life had not abstracted from his intellectual heft.

If anything, it brought to the fore his ability to thrive in different circumstances, first evident when he shovelled snow, babysat and
worked as a telephone operator in the US to augment his meagre allowance as a student.

Last, Karugu was a man of both ethical and moral probity. He left public life without a single scandal attributed to him. In private life, he was a devoted family man, husband to Margaret Waithira and father to their four children. The family enterprise Mathara Holdings is a play on his wife’s name.

James Boro Karugu was named BGSU Alumni of the Century in 2010. Last month, he was awarded a posthumous doctorate degree in public service by BGSU. His daughter Victoria received it on his behalf.  His legacy will live on through a scholarship fund that is being established in his name.

-Mr Khafafa is a public policy analyst