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Defending rule of law

By PETER MUIRURI | June 10th 2012
Eric Kyalo Mutua

Growing up, ERIC KYALO MUTUA, the chairperson of the Law Society of Kenya, wanted to be a pilot just like his father. But an incident triggered a radical change of mind. He shares his inspiring story with PETER MUIRURI

Every time young Eric Kyalo Mutua heard the booming sounds of planes  at Eastleigh Airbase, Nairobi,  he desired to one day become a pilot. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father who worked as an air traffic controller at the military base.

However, for Eric, that ambition was cut short when his father was sacked following the 1971 coup attempt on president Kenyatta’s government.

Born in Nairobi’s Pumwani Hospital, Eric, 42, the chairperson of the Law Society of Kenya as well as the proprietor and managing partner of EK Mutua and Company Advocates, followed his father to Kitui where he (the father) had secured a job as the deputy head teacher at Kitui High School.

No regrets

Eric was enrolled at the Central Primary School for the first five years before moving to Mui, Mwingi, where he completed his primary schooling.

For a boy who spent part of his early childhood in the city, schooling in the rural area presented some challenges.

“It was customary for children in rural areas to use their mother tongues to study. This was a challenge since I was not conversant with Kikamba then and relied greatly on my cousin’s  help,” recalls Eric.

He, however, does not regret having gone to his rural home during his primary education. He says it is his experience with the local chief’s corrupt practices and injustice that led him to resolve to be a lawyer.

The then local chief, says Eric, acted like a rogue court  when settling community disputes. For example, Eric recalls  a time when this particular chief ‘arbitrated’ on a dispute where he (the chief) was the respondent after Eric’s clan had accused him of taking their land. The chief went on to rule in his own favour before an appeal was lodged to the district officer.  The clan still lost.

After completing Class Seven, Eric enrolled at Mwingi Secondary School where he hoped to hone his academic talent, but, his schooling was cut short after only a year due to school riots.

Although Eric says he never participated in the fracas, his father transferred him to Mutitu Secondary School where he did his O-levels, passing with Division Two. He then proceeded to St Charles Lwanga High School in Kitui for his A-Levels. Eric did well in the 1988 final exams managing to score 15 out of a possible 17 points.

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“The school was such an academic giant that my Law class at the University of Nairobi had seven students from it  while the ‘big boys’ such as Alliance could only manage about six,” recalls Eric.

It was during his stint at the then mandatory pre-university military-like training at the National Youth Service camp at Gilgil that Eric came to learn some valuable lessons, a few of which would come in handy in his law practice years later.

Even for a man who had some ‘military’ background, the rigorous drills were just too much to take. He recalls an incident that changed his outlook on authority.

Respect for authority

“One day, an officer instructed me to plant some flowers. I  prepared the ground, put some manure, planted the flowers and watered them. I was happy with what I had done,” he recalls.

“The following day, however, the same officer came to me with strange instructions. He told me to uproot the plants and transfer them to another location. I was baffled and questioned the rationale behind the ‘weird’ instructions. That was my mistake for I had to spend the whole night in a detention cell with no food, water or a bed. The lesson? Never question authority!” says Eric.

But did he learn from the incident?

“I still do not think that this was the best way to teach young minds obedience. How do you explain the non-use of logic at the camp when universities  rely heavily on it to teach? I think Moi (retired president) had good motives of initiating the programme but the implementation was poor,” says Eric.

According to Eric, the National Youth Service programme only managed to produce para-militant university students who had the vigour and know-how to engage the police in running battles.

“The students were so organised during riots that they  easily overpowered the police,” he remembers.

The programme was later scrapped.

After the Gigil ‘orientation’, Eric was admitted to the University of Nairobi’s Faculty of Law where he joined other brilliant minds that would later shape the country’s legal system.

They include the Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Eugene Wamalwa, chairman of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, Isaack Hassan, Justice Mabeya and former minister Ochillo Ayacko.

Among his lecturers were Law Professor Kivutha Kibwana while the current Attorney General, Professor Githu Muigai, former KACC Director PLO Lumumba and Supreme Court Judge Smokin Wanjala held some briefs in his class.

At the university, he was active in politics.

He says: “For reasons that are still a mystery to me, I came to be the Secretary General of a splinter group of the student body, Students’ Organisation of Nairobi University. I can only guess that the authorities felt intimidated by a strong students’ organisation.”

He graduated in 1992 and joined the Kenya School of Law in 1995, the same year he was admitted to the bar.

Eric later opened his own law firm in 1998 at the age of 28. 

Fast forward and Eric was elected chair of the Law Society of Kenya in February this year, a position he hopes will help restore the rule of law in line with the new Constitution. As Eric puts it, Kenya has already made great strides with regard to institutional reforms since the promulgation of the new Constitution, making the country an example to be emulated by other countries in the region.

Power of reforms

The import of this was brought home during a meeting he attended in Kampala in his capacity as Treasurer of East Africa Law Society. Some of his fellow advocates were ‘shocked’ to hear that Kenyans had forced the president to withdraw names of his then appointees to constitutional offices, something they said “does not happen in Africa”.

“They could not believe that a sitting African president can be told off not only by other politicians but by the common man as well. I was happy that they recognised my country as a place where the rule of law is slowly getting respected,” he says.

Eric would like to see Kenyans benefit from the many economic opportunities opening up in Kenya and is ready to offer legal advice to that end.

Eric is a Christian and is married to Mercy Ndanu Kyalo, also a lawyer. The couple has two children, a boy aged eight and girl, ten.

Finding time for family

Due to our nature of work, lawyers hardly have enough time with their families. However, I have tried to find some time to be with my wife Mercy, ten year-old daughter Natasha and eight year-old son Jason.

Mercy was in a secondary school neighbouring mine in Kitui and both of us used to play table tennis for our respective schools. One day she came along with some schoolmates to follow the local schools’ games competition when I spotted her.

I was struck by her looks and wanted to know her more. But there was a problem. I was a bit shy and lacked the courage to approach her. Thankfully, a friend called Ndegwa came to my rescue.

Ndegwa approached Mercy and chatted her up paving the way for me. Mercy and I lost contact thereafter until we met again in Kitui town where I was on some university attachment while she awaited her chance to join the university for a Law degree. Technically I met my wife twice.

We got married in 2000 and have enjoyed doing things together as a family. Since I never made it as a pilot, I compensate for that by taking my family on memorable vacations outside the country in diverse places such as Cape Town, Dubai and Phuket, a beautiful island off the south-west coast of Thailand.

Such excursions are timely for family bonding at a time when the traditional family unit is being threatened by the so called realities of the modern world.

Divorces were rare in the 1970 to the 1990s. Currently, the Family Division of the High Court is receiving almost a 100 divorce cases a month.

It is sad that people do not want to work to save their marriages while others are afraid of commitment yet want the benefits that come from marriage.

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