The Activist-Scholar Chief Justice

Willy Munyowki Mutunga, 65, brings to the office of Chief Justice an activist’s passion fused with a scholar’s need for reflection and reason. A law lecturer at the University of Nairobi between 1974 and 1982, he has taught some of Kenya’s most prominent lawyers: the current Speaker of the National Assembly, Kenneth Marende; the Energy and Lands Ministers, Kiraitu Murungi and James Orengo respectively; President Mwai Kibaki’s constitutional affairs adviser, Professor Kivutha Kibwana; and former Justice Minister Martha Karua. And these are just those who operate in the political sphere.

In June 1982, Mutunga was detained without trial together with five other lecturers of the University of Nairobi. Ostensibly, President Daniel arap Moi was not happy with their agitating for the reinstatement of Kenya’s best known writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, to his post as head of the Department of Literature at the university. Moi was also concerned about an underground group called the December 12th Movement that campaigned for a return to the ideals of independence (Kenya gained its freedom from colonial rule on December 12th, 1963) and advocated an armed struggle. He suspected the lecturers had something to do with the group. Ngugi, who had taught at the University of Nairobi on and off since 1967 had been detained in December 1977 and was released by Moi the following year, but university authorities were reluctant to re-instate the radical academic.

Mutunga was released some years later and went into private practice, first with lawyer Joe Nzioka, then he set up his own firm in 1989. While in private practice he pursued a Doctor of Jurisprudence from the Osgoode Hall School of Law, Toronto, which he was awarded in 1992. The following year, he was elected unopposed as the chairman of the Law Society of Kenya. Mutunga, who was born on June 16, 1946, served for one term, leaving the post in 1995.

It was during the early 1990s that Mutunga got involved in campaigns for a new constitution. Politicians and activists realised the return to multi-party politics in November 1991 after 22 years of single party rule did not equal democratic change. They concluded the constitution needed to change to remove the stifling holding of the president over all things and people. These different campaigns culminated in Mutunga being a co-leader of a coalition of opposition politicians, clerics, students and activists that saw Moi relenting to the idea of a commission talking to the public and from those conversations coming up with a complete overhaul of Kenya’s constitutional order. The work of that commission (from 2000-2002) was presented for debate at constitutional conference, whose draft was further amended by parliament in 2005. That proposed constitution was rejected at a November 2005 referendum.

Another attempt was made at drawing up a people’s constitution when a Committee of Experts drew heavily upon the work of the earlier commission and crafted another draft that was closer to ordinary Kenyans’ aspirations. That draft was put to referendum in August last year and passed with a two-thirds majority. It is under this constitution that Mutunga has now been appointed Kenya’s 14th Chief Justice. Baring an unexpected scandal that sees an independent tribunal remove him from office, Mutunga will serve as Chief Justice until 2016 when he reaches the retirement age of 70. Before his appointment, Mutunga was the Eastern Africa regional representative for Ford Foundation.



  1. While we made a good replacement of the Chief Justice, it is poignant to note that cases only reach Judges (courts) through the Office of the Prosecutor (DPP) and an investigative Police Force. Without a reformist DPP, and a reformed Police, this great appointment of the Chief Justice may mean little!

    Let’s not keep our eyes off the ball – Kenya’s Judicial system is NOT YET reformed! As at end of June 2011, Kenya has a terrible DPP (of highly questionable integrity) called Keriako Tobiko; a very rotten Police Force ( ‘the’ investigating system); and still maintain unvetted Judges, period!


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