Akiliano Akiwumi: Elite judge served with dignity, admired by lawyers

Justice Akilano Akiwumi. [File, Standard]

Justice Akilano Akiwumi’s piercing eyes gave him an appearance of a no no-nonsense judge. That searching stare made both journalists and litigants get uncomfortable when he looked straight at them without blinking.

From the sharp gaze behind his lenses, one could only guess if he was either deeply scrutinising something or was just about to reprimand the target for some transgression at his hearings or in court.

Always wearing his trademark wig, it also appeared he was rather uncomfortable with camera flash lights from the stern looks he focused on photographers as they got his close up shots although he never complained.

He was admired by many lawyers in the country, among them, the Executive Director Kenya  Human Rights Commission George Kegoro who was among the first to eulogise him following his death this week.

“Saddened to learn about the passing of Hon. Justice Akilano Akiwumi. When in 1994 he read my newspaper critique of Kenya’s then-new Narcotics Act, he visited me at my office where he arrived unannounced, even though I was only a junior lawyer, to discuss my views,” wrote Kegoro.

As team leader at tribunals he chaired and other proceedings, Akiwumi was always punctual and patient, always preferring to wait for quorum if he wanted more people to participate or contribute.

Such was the case in March 2009 when he chaired the tribunal to review salaries of MPs and National Assembly staff when on the second day of public proceedings, only one member of the public turned up for the morning session.

Justice Akiwumi called for patience before the tribunal began the proceedings 30 minutes late because he was waiting to raise a quorum at Kenyatta International Conference Centre.

Despite many Kenyans telling the tribunal that they wanted the salaries for MPs reduced, it, in 2009, surprised Kenyans by recommending a significant increase.

Reports indicated Akiwumi’s team recommended the taxable basic salary be increased from Sh200,000 to Sh350,000, but other allowances totaling to Sh546,000 remained untaxed.

The tribunal was established in January 2008, after MPs refused to allow taxation on their allowances as was proposed by Treasury because at the time only their basic salary of Sh200,000 was being taxed.

The move elicited public outcry, prompting the Speaker to constitute the tribunal.

When the tribunal sittings began, deputy government whip Johnstone Muthama said it was wrong for MPs not to pay tax and urged the tribunal to raise the salaries to Sh1.5 million and in the process cushion its report from being shot down by Parliament. A Sh1.5 million monthly pay was proposed.

 Ironically, she would later upon her resignation from Cabinet request on the floor of the House in her capacity as MP for Gichugu that five reports on inquiries commissioned by the Executive among them the Akiwumi report be released.

The most sensitive commission of inquiry that Akiwumi chaired, however, was the Commission of Inquiry into Tribal Clashes appointed on 1 July 1998 to investigate politically instigated chaos in Rift Valley, parts of Western, Nyanza and Coast regions which led to hundreds of deaths.

The government extended its work several times until July 1999 when the Akiwumi Commission completed its work and submitted the report to then President Daniel arap Moi on August 19, 1999.

The report was however never released until many years later after President Moi had exited office because of the explosive recommendations made by Akiwumi and his 11-member team.

Lawyers, human rights activists, religious leaders, political leaders and common people thronged to those hearings where many victims testified the horrors they were subjected to.

Akiwumi listened patiently as women recounted how they were either raped and maimed while many more broke down explaining the painful death subjected to their children, husbands and neighbours.

Father John Anthony Kaiser, whose lifeless body was discovered lying next along the Nakuru-Nairobi highway in 1999, was found with documents he was to present to the Commission

The report remained secret even after President Mwai Kibaki took power and made human rights crusader and Narc Kenya leader Martha Karua Minister for Justice.

The report just fell short of declaring that those tribal clashes were instigated and facilitated by the government at the time.

Many Kenyans turned out at the inquiry meetings across the country where Akiwumi’s authoritative demeanor gave them hope of getting justice for those who lost lives and property but ended up with a big disappointment, because no culprits have ever been prosecuted.

In places like Mt Elgon in Bungoma and parts of Trans Nzoia, the Commission heard that a District Commissioner visited the area and held meetings with one community weeks before victims were brutally evicted from their farms with still not yet resettled todate.

After Akiwumi’s death this week, CNN Correspondents wrote: “The findings of the Akiwumi Commission shook the nation to its core, laying bare the complicity of those in power in fueling the tribal clashes.”

 They correctly pointed out that the aftermath was a tale of unfulfilled promises, because despite the commission's extensive efforts and the damning evidence it presented, no one has been held accountable for their roles in the violence.

“This stark reality casts a long shadow over Akiwumi's legacy, revealing the limits of judicial power in the face of political inertia and the challenges of implementing justice in a landscape marred by corruption and impunity,” they said.