Justin Muturi has his work cut out in the thawing Ruto relations with Judiciary

Chief Justice Martha Koome, President William Ruto and Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu during the Swearing in ceremony of Judges at Statehouse. [David Gichuru, Standard]

Although there was no expectation of favours within the Judiciary when former magistrate Justin Bedan Muturi was elected Speaker of the National Assembly, the cruel irony is that relations between the two institutions reached their nadir during his decade-long tenure.

A year before the end of its term, Chief Justice David Maraga wrote to the President asking him to dissolve Parliament for repeated failure to pass laws that would allow for the inclusion of at least one third of women in elective positions. Speaker Muturi challenged that advice in court, but the parliamentary term ended before judgment was delivered. As Speaker, Muturi has been a routine litigant in the courts, battling to clothe his decisions even as judges strip them bare. During the 10 years he presided over the National Assembly, the courts struck down at least 50 laws or amendments to laws because they were unconstitutional. Early in his tenure as Speaker, Muturi’s offhand treatment of the Senate and his refusal to engage that chamber’s Speaker in debating proposals for the allocation of revenue to the counties forced the Supreme Court to intervene though an Advisory Opinion in 2013. It is a dispute that has reared its head at least once more.

There was no love lost between Muturi and the Judiciary, especially as he sought to bring the institution to heel while it fought for its independence. He openly declared that Chief Justices should attend summonses issued by parliamentarians. Despite a court order in November 2013, Muturi transmitted to the President a petition together with the resolution of the National Assembly, for the appointment of a tribunal to investigate the conduct of six members of the Judicial Service Commission -- with a view to their removal. 

Justin Bedan Muturi resigned as a magistrate in 1996 after his acquittal in a Sh1 million bribery case he insists was fabricated against him. Back in 1997, it was a rarity for the Attorney General to appeal against the acquittal of an accused person, but Muturi’s case was one such exception because the alleged bribe cheque had been presented in court. The appeal was not pursued as part of political deal making to give the ruling party Kanu a foothold in the newly created Mbeere District. When the opposition Democratic Party legislator for Siakago, Silas Ita, died, Muturi was elected in his place on a Kanu ticket.

He would be re-elected on the same ticket in 2002, but did not win favour with voters in the two subsequent elections. After his 2007 election loss, Muturi was chairman of the Centre for Multi-party Democracy, a political parties’ caucus, which helped him to build networks with critical political leaders.

It is from this perch, and on the basis of his deep friendship with Uhuru Kenyatta, that he was elected Speaker of the National Assembly. At the time, because Kenyatta was facing crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court, Muturi was believed to be a safe stand-in should the president be unavailable.

Muturi presided over the National Assembly during a decade of transition from the old constitutional order, a period remarkable mostly for the loss of parliamentary authority and influence. Parliament’s declining influence, owing to the constitutional separation of the Executive from the Legislature, was evident in the loss of public voice on critical oversight of external borrowing, which saw the debt ceiling rise to Sh10 trillion; and critical infrastructure development such as the construction of the Standard Gauge Railway rammed through without protest.

Supremacy wars

Although Muturi survived a censure motion in his first term and no-confidence motion in his second, his tenure, coming after the erudite rulings of Speaker Kenneth Marende , presented the National Assembly a pliant and ineffective institution struggling to assert its supremacy over the Senate and the Judiciary.

In the last months of his tenure, Muturi retreated to a cultural shrine for a week to be installed as a cultural elder and spokesperson of the communities living around Mt Kenya. It would mark the break with Kenyatta and his attempt to present his candidacy for the presidency. Ultimately, he folded and hitched his wagons with then Deputy President William Ruto. He was considered one of the candidate for Dr Ruto’s running mate, and did not contest for any seat in the 2022 election.

Muturi, 66, attended Kangaru High School before joining the University of Nairobi for his law degree in 1978, and later studied for his post-graduate diploma from the Kenya School of Law. He joined the Judiciary as a magistrate, where he served in various stations for 15 years.

At the height of student unrest protesting the barring of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga from contesting the 1979 elections, Muturi, his roommate Moses Wetang’ula and James Kolenyo as well as their three colleagues visited Nation newspaper offices to condemn their fellow students and call on the authorities to take appropriate action against the ringleaders.

According to Oduor Ong’wen’s recently released memoir, Stronger Than Faith, Muturi and his friends requested that their names be omitted from the report, which the newspaper honoured, but their picture was on the back page, thus attracting student anger.

Given his history, Muturi’s nomination for the position of Attorney General is perhaps the clearest indication of how the Ruto government intends to manage relations with the Judiciary. The Attorney General is a member of the Judicial Service Commission, which is responsible for the appointment and discipline of judicial officers and staff, but is also charged with responsibility of protecting and promoting the independence of the Judiciary.

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