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Updated Jan 18, 2024, 12:51pm EST
africa

Kenyan president’s war with judges emboldens his allies to defy courts

Donwilson Odhiambo/Getty Images
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The News

NAIROBI — An onslaught on Kenya’s judiciary led by the country’s president and his allies has prompted fears that it could trigger constitutional crises and erode public trust in the legal system.

Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua had been expected to file a petition on Thursday seeking the removal of a high court judge who ordered the forfeiture of his funds amounting to $1.2 million in a graft case before his election. But he announced on the day that he would put the petition on hold to enter talks over the dispute. Gachagua has urged Kenyans who have had bad experiences with judges to file official complaints.

In January, Ruto vowed to defy court orders he claimed were imposed by corrupt judges who had accepted bribes to sabotage his administration. Kenya’s courts have prevented the implementation of some of Ruto’s most important policy decisions, including an affordable housing levy and the deployment of Kenyan police officers to Haiti.

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Timothy Thondu, an advocate of the High Court of Kenya, said the ongoing disputes with the judiciary would embolden regular citizens to disregard the rule of law. “Had the president restrained himself from attacking the judiciary, then he as a symbol of authority would also be able to prevail on his cronies to respect the rule of law,” he told Semafor Africa, asserting that the president had set a dangerous precedent.

Chief Justice Martha Koome in January said Ruto was “setting up the country for chaos and anarchy.”

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Gachagua’s case is just the latest flashpoint. Oscar Sudi, a parliamentarian and ally of President William Ruto, on Wednesday led a demolition and eviction exercise in defiance of a court order protecting the occupants of a 20-acre piece of land. The politician, accompanied by youth carrying crude weapons, repeated allegations of judicial corruption that have been made by the president and members of his inner circle.

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Martin’s view

Kenya’s judiciary has a record of strong decisions demonstrating its independence and ability to go against the executive’s wishes. Kenya’s Supreme Court in 2017 became the first in Africa to nullify the results of a presidential election, for instance. Court rulings that have been a roadblock in the implementation of Ruto’s flagship programmes since he took office in September 2022 have driven the frustration within his administration that we’ve seen in recent days.

At the same time, the judiciary has faced its fair share of corruption allegations against judges and other officials. In one high profile case, a tribunal formed to investigate a high court judge accused of bribery last year found that he had breached the constitution. Such cases, combined with constant criticism from Ruto and his allies, have tarnished the judiciary’s reputation.

Many Kenyans share concerns on judicial corruption, according to a survey published in 2021 by polling company Afrobarometer. It found that 51% of Kenyans think at least some of the judges and magistrates in Kenya are corrupt, while 35% believe most or all of them are corrupt. The survey found that trust in the courts was weaker among “better-educated citizens and urban residents.”

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Kenya’s judiciary faces an uphill task to strengthen public trust in Kenya’s court system. And opposition from political leaders looks likely to aggravate the situation. Ruto’s lieutenants will naturally take their cue from him when it comes to defying court orders. Many fear that his statements could fuel a sense of impunity among powerful individuals close to the current administration.

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Room for Disagreement

Ruto’s declaration sparked nationwide protests led by lawyers’ body the Law Society of Kenya (LSK). Opposition leader Raila Odinga has also threatened to lead a million-man march against Ruto over his assault on the judiciary.

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