Kitili Mwendwa: First Kenyan Chief Justice at 39

Chief Justice Kitili Mwendwa [left] being sworn in by President Kenyatta as AG Charles Njonjo looks on in July 1968 [Courtesy]

An idea whose time has come is unstoppable.

A few weeks before July 1968, when this picture was taken, nobody would have thought that Kitili Maluki Mwendwa, 39, would be the first African Chief Justice.

This became a reality after the acting Chief Justice Arthur Denis Farrel, rubbed President Jomo Kenyatta the wrong way. His crime was reducing the one-year jail term handed over to bearded Bildad Kaggia to six months. Kaggia, who was the MP for Kandara, had earned his ticket to hell for contradicting Kenyatta’s policies and joining forces with then Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. Once Farell was out of the way, Kitili took over as the Chief Justice after a solemn ceremony attended by Kenyatta himself and then-Attorney General Charles Njonjo.

Ironically, Kitili later stepped on the same high voltage political wires by sympathising with forces allegedly strategising to get rid of Kenyatta’s administration. His downfall was preceded by a military coup.

The coup was to be executed on April 8, 1971, as Kenyatta flagged off the East African Safari Rally outside KICC. This plan was thwarted by a drunk military officer who blurted out the secret to British officers during a drinking binge.

Investigations later identified Major-General Joseph Ndolo, who was the Chief of General Staff, as the ringleader and was relieved of his duties while vocal Yatta MP Gideon Mutiso, spent the next nine years in jail after he pleaded guilty to sedition.

Talks of Jaramogi’s hand in the plot were somehow given credence when one of his allies, Prof Ouma Muga was arrested in Tanzania. Prof Muga, who was teaching at Makere, had been dispatched by the plotters to seek President Julius Nyerere’s support. He was accompanied by a rebel military officer, Daniel Owino. However, once Nyerere learnt about their mission, he had them arrested and deported to Kenya where Kenyatta’s men were eagerly waiting for them.

Kenya has been served by 22 Chief Justices and is now in the process of looking for the 23rd head of the Judiciary. The first occupant of the post, when the colonialists established East Africa Protectorate, was Sir Robert Hamilton, who served between 1906 and 1920 when again the status changed to Kenya a colony.

Joseph Sheridan also deserves special mention for he occupied the post for 10 years at a time the world was embroiled in World War II, but James Wicks served longer for he spent 11 years deciding how justice would be dispensed in Kenya. He exited in 1982 when Kenya was in the throes of another coup.

Willy Mutunga served for six years and he is remembered for being the first Chief Justice to serve under the current Constitution