In a few short months, Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) Noordin Haji has found himself playing a starring role in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s anti-corruption drive.
To navigate it, the spymaster with a legal background may need all the covert skills possible to successfully lead a fight that has a history of being unforgiving, one that respects neither reputation nor profession.
Six months after occupying his new position, Haji has been consistent in saying the war he is fighting is winnable, with the list of possible casualties growing every day.
One of the things that may work for him in the long run is his background. While previous office holders have been straight jacketed lawyers, he is the first to bring in something different.
“I do not know if this is the right time to speak. You know my background, so I find it difficult to just speak to anyone,” he says, at the seventh attempt by this writer to get him to commit to a wide ranging interview on his job. “Let us talk next Thursday and see if we can agree on a time.”
The following week though, he was out of the country. And when he flew back, he found himself in the middle of another high voltage anti-corruption crusade. Suddenly, the DPP’s office looks like it has got its act together. But are the publicised arrests and court arraignments just meant to appease the public before fizzling out?
“This is a reasonable attitude on the part of Kenyans given the fate of anti corruption campaigns in the past. There is no precedent from our history as Kenyans for this being sustained,” former anti-graft czar John Githongo says.
Githongo, a former journalist, investigated and exposed bribery and fraud in government while serving in President Kibaki’s administration.
During conversation with Haji, one has the distinct feeling that the voice on the other end knows a bit too much about you. The little details about your life. Like where you are calling from and what handset you are using, and like a typical old school spy, taking down copious amounts of information on you.
Those who have known him for years say he is however not this sort of man, at least not in public. That he has an amiable personality. That he doesn’t walk around with the gruff face of a man on whose shoulders the hopes of a nation rest.
Although he comes from it, he does not rub privilege on the faces of those he interacts with. They say he does not wear his second name like a badge of honour.
His father Yusuf Haji is synonymous to the Kenyan public service. His younger brother Abdul burst into the limelight in 2013, during one of Kenya’s darkest hours - the Westgate attack that left scores dead.
But name recognition comes with its own challenges. First, the ever present historical baggage associated with the bearers of the name cannot be escaped.
In the long run, this might work against him. And when this happens, the Wales College educated lawyer-turned-spymaster who rose to the position of Deputy Director in charge of Counter Organised Crime at the National Intelligence Service (NIS), may just exit the scene as uneventfully as his predecessors.
“Political interference is guaranteed. That’s the nature of taking on corruption from within a systematically corrupt regime,” Githongo says.
Githongo says Haji, the Attorney General and the Director of Criminal Investigations have demonstrated refreshing energy in the fight against corruption.
“If the President is serious, this could hold,” he says.
For now though, the DPP, a strict time keeper who will always beat you to a meeting venue, keeps walking. His walk might lead him to a path of immortality like that of his father and younger brother in certain eyes or a path as colourless as that walked by those who have sat in the same office he now occupies.
As he does this, he is well aware of the odds stacked against him, the biggest being a perceived weak link between his office and the successful prosecution of graft suspects.
“If compromised judicial officers rule against you, the argument will be the case was weak,” he told Reuters in a July interview. Weeks before, a prosecutor from his own office had been arrested on bribery allegations.
Hidden under this layer of public bravado is the slow but certain emergence of early cracks from the stress of the tasks at hand.
Predictably, Haji has quickly realised the law alone will not and has never been enough to win any war.
“The DPP has instructed us to convey to the court that he is not attacking the Judiciary and that the decision to charge the Deputy Chief Justice (Philomena Mwilu) should not be taken to mean he is undermining the Judiciary as an institution,” officers representing him told the court. Githongo says the case against Mwilu might be Haji’s first misstep.
“The manner, timing and propaganda surrounding the prosecution of the DCJ is the first chink in the amour. It is always curious when the referee ignores a huge mass brawl by players on one side and races across the field to dish out a red card to one player,” he says.
Conflicts of interest
Haji’s case against Mwilu is already bringing heat to an office that could do with some cool winds. In the absence of these winds, the 45-year-oldhas a veritable puzzle in front of him.
If he stays the course, he will need the courage to defy some of his father’s long-time friends when they come to collect on favours owed from lifetimes ago. That when the pied piper demands that he eventually dances to his tune, he will stubbornly ignore the melodies, no matter how enthralling the beat might sound. “If he prosecutes his mandate honestly, it is possible for him to recuse himself from situations where he is confronted with potential conflicts of interest. Kenyans are watching,” Githongo says.