Kiraitu Murungi – Kibaki’s judicial surgeon

Murungi’s biggest selling point as Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs was most certainly his illustrious legal career and specialisation in constitutional law. In addition, he was a man of the people who had endeared himself to the masses through his legal practice and initiation of a number of pro-people development projects.

A key pillar of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) campaign platform was delivering a new Constitution within 100 days of coming into office. This meant that whoever became Kibaki’s law minister already had his or her work cut out. Further, the President was inheriting a Judiciary reeling under the weight of corruption – the phrase “why hire a lawyer when you can buy a judge?” had become widely used in reference to how low the Judiciary’s reputation had sunk.

To complete the sorry state of affairs, the Kenya Police was routinely perched at the top of the Kenya Corruption Index and the Kenya Prisons system was notorious for dehumanising its staff and inmates. In its most fundamental sense, the contract between the State and its citizens guarantees fair, just and expedient treatment before the law in exchange for obeying that law. But when NARC assumed the reins of government in 2003, that contract was in tatters and many people had resorted to self-help means in pursuit of their rights. This was an untenable situation that the President had to quickly arrest to avert a slide into total anarchy.

And so in his wisdom, Kibaki turned to Murungi to help him deliver the NARC promise on justice for all. Few could fault the choice of one of Meru District’s most prominent sons; certainly for many, he had earned his stripes. He had been a star member of the famous group of activists and politicians known as the Young Turks who had driven the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party to loosen its hold on Kenya’s politics through the repealing of Section 2A of the old Constitution that had for years bound Kenya as a one-party State.

Murungi had also long been involved in various grassroots development initiatives in the country before entering Parliament in 1992. He used his stint as a legislator to build on this work. In 1994, he founded the Centre for Governance and Development and in 1995 he founded the Coffee and Tea Parliamentary Association, which played a key role in introducing major reforms in those sectors for the benefit of farmers.

As South Imenti MP, he formed the South Imenti Development Association, the South Imenti People’s Bank, South Imenti Women Development Association, South Imenti Youth Development Programme and the South Imenti Education Fund. These were grassroots initiatives committed to empowering the people and turning around the economic fortunes of the constituents.

The critical role Murungi would play in Kibaki’s campaign for the 2005 proposed Constitution and 2007 re-election went to show how right the President had been to appoint him to his Cabinet. And like others in the new government, he hit the ground running. In no time he had spearheaded sector-wide reforms through the Governance, Justice, Law and Order Sector programme.

Murungi was instrumental in carrying out radical surgery in the Judiciary. There was no escaping the public clamour for this. The high-profile process involved identifying and purging corrupt judges and magistrates; by the time it ended, more than 80 magistrates and 23 judges had been struck off the bench on account of corruption-related accusations. Next, he oversaw the re-establishment of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Authority.

But the elephant in the room remained the Constitution. It was Kenya’s perennial problem, the one at the centre of every political and administrative conflict. After 100 years of colonial rule and nearly 40 years of a stifling one-party regime, the people had had enough. The country’s entire political architecture had to be redrawn and renegotiated. As the man tasked with keeping NARC’s promise, Murungi convened the Bomas (of Kenya) Constitutional Conference, where the tortuous journey to Kenya’s 2010 Constitution began.

Murungi was born on 1 January 1952 in Kionyo Village in the then Abogeta Division of Meru District. His parents, Daniel M’Mwarania and Anjelika Kiajia, raised him in a colonial concentration camp, an experience that doubtless shaped his political philosophy in his later years. He attended Kairiene and Kionyo primary schools before joining Chuka High School where he bagged the 1971 Best Student award.

Murungi transitioned to Alliance High School for his A’ levels in 1973 and joined the University of Nairobi’s Faculty of Law, graduating in 1977 with an upper class honours degree. He was top of his class and won the Best Law Student Prize and the Law Society of Kenya Prize for the overall best law student in the class of 1978.

Between 1978 and 1980, Murungi taught at the Kenya School of Law. In 1979 he took the Commonwealth Legal Drafting Course and between 1980 and 1982, he studied for a Master of Laws at the University of Nairobi. He attained his second Master of Laws degree from Harvard Law School in 1991. He was in Harvard thanks to his exile for opposing KANU.

With constitutional law, human rights law and democracy forming his professional foundation, he co-founded Kamau Kuria, Kiraitu & Ringera Advocates in Nairobi in 1980. In the course of the decade he represented a number of KANU’s political prisoners, among them Wanyiri Kihoro and Raila Odinga. It was the litigation of Kihoro’s case that, aside from leading to Kuria’s detention, pushed both Murungi and Kuria into exile in various Western countries. Kihoro immortalised the memories of his case in his book, Never Say Die: The Chronicle of a Political Prisoner.

When he returned from exile, Murungi joined the struggle for the restoration of political pluralism in 1990 as one of Kenya’s ‘Young Turks’, a team of young professionals, mostly lawyers, political scientists and university lecturers, who in the late 1980s and early 1990s pushed for Kenya’s ‘second liberation.’

Notable members of this group included Anyang’ Nyong’o, Odinga, Mukhisa Kituyi, James Orengo, Paul Muite, Gitobu Imanyara, Kijana Wamalwa and Murungi himself. In December 1991, President Daniel arap Moi yielded to pressure and repealed Section 2A of the Constitution, thereby making Kenya a multi-party democracy. With this development, Murungi joined the newly-formed Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD).

In the 1992 multi-party elections, he was elected MP for South Imenti on a FORD-Kenya ticket. In the political realignments that were occasioned by FORD-Kenya chairman Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s demise in 1994, he decamped to Kibaki’s Democratic Party (DP). In the 1997 General Election, he retained his parliamentary seat on a DP ticket. As an Opposition MP between 1992 and 2002, he served as the shadow Attorney General and a member of the Anti-Corruption Parliamentary Select Committee.

In 1997, Murungi was the chairman of the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) Committee on Constitutional, Legal and Administrative reforms. The IPPG liberated Kenya from decades of draconian and oppressive colonial laws such as the Chiefs Authority Act, sedition and detention without trial.

Unfortunately, tensions arose between the victorious NARC partners – the National Alliance Party of Kenya (NAK) and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) – immediately after the elections. The fallout between the parties’ principals, Kibaki and Odinga, turned the new Constitution promise into an extreme obstacle that stalked Kibaki’s administration well into its second term.

The Kibaki-Raila political feud played out at the Bomas National Constitutional Conference. Delegates assumed postures that resonated with the interests of either faction. While the LDP faction of NARC supported the draft compiled by the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission, during plenary meetings their NAK counterparts were unhappy with many of the provisions, especially those that drastically reduced the powers of the Executive. They contested the creation of the Office of the Prime Minister, abolition of provincial administration, devolution of power to the regions and establishment of an Upper House of Parliament.

After debating for months, the 629 delegates failed to reach a consensus. They then decided to subject the draft document to a popular vote. The MPs allied to Odinga carried the day and this resulted in a protest walk-out by the Kibaki’s allies, led by the then Vice President Moody Awori. Appalled by the turn of events, Murungi warned that the government would withdraw its support for the Constitution review process altogether.

A Consensus Building Committee chaired by Bishop Philip Sulumeti was formed to look at the chapters on the Executive and devolution of power. The committee recommended a powerful President who was Head of State and Government, Head of the Cabinet, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and Chairman of the National Security Council, but a non-executive and weaker Prime Minister.

When the committee’s proposals were subjected to a vote, they were rejected by 75 per cent of the delegates. The majority voted to transfer powers to the Prime Minister. In 2010, Kenya eventually voted in favour of a new Constitution and subsequently promulgated it. The role Murungi played in laying ground for this monumental aspect of Kibaki’s legacy cannot be understated.

But there was yet another headache he had to contend with – the question of what Kibaki’s government would do with all those who had previously been involved in economic and political crimes. During campaigns, NARC had assured the electorate that there would be no sacred cows in their war against economic crimes. This resonated well with Kenyans’ perceptions of a new beginning and many waited to see how NARC would wriggle itself out of the pre-election promise.

But a few months into Kibaki’s first term, and contrary to expectations, Murungi declared that the NARC government did not intend to prosecute Moi due to the respect accorded to the position of the former President. He however clarified that the NARC government would continue pointing out the mistakes Moi’s administration made in the course of his 24-year rule.

To appease those who were disappointed by NARC’s decision, Murungi had an alternative plan. He informed the nation that the government would establish a South Africa-like Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) whose mandate would be to act as a platform for national healing from the atrocities committed by KANU.

Murungi instituted an 18-member task force, chaired by Prof. Makau Mutua, to interrogate Kenyans’ approval of the establishment of the TJRC. In its report, the task force said 90 per cent of Kenyans who submitted their views wanted Kibaki’s administration to establish an effective TJRC. The task force recommended that the TJRC look into all the historical abuses and crimes that had been committed in Kenya since independence.

Upon receipt of the task force report, Murungi assured the nation of the government’s commitment to implementing the recommendations. He agreed that Kenyans deserved to know where the nation had gone wrong, what atrocities were committed, who committed them and why they were committed. The TJRC would help the NARC government uncover what had been ailing the country since independence. In the end, the commission produced a report that is yet to be debated by the public.

On 15 November 2006, Kibaki appointed Murungi Minister for Energy. He radically transformed the energy sector, pioneering the Rural Electrification Programme that connected most urban centres, secondary schools, health centres and other public facilities to the national grid. During his tenure, electricity connectivity in rural areas grew from 6 per cent to 30 per cent and the number of customers countrywide grew from 800,000 to over two million.

The Rural Electrification Programme was domiciled at the Rural Electrification Authority. Hailed at inception as a highly ambitious project, it aimed at connecting a million new customers to the national grid within five years. Speaking at the launch of the programme, the Minister conceded that it was indeed ambitious and noted that it had previously taken Kenya a century (1887-1997) to have a million people connected to the national grid. He, however, affirmed the government’s commitment to the cause and assured resources through public-private partnerships. Today, the Rural Electrification Programme is a success story for which Kibaki and Murungi have a special place in history.

It was also during Murungi’s time at the helm of the Energy docket that Kenya accelerated fossil fuel exploration, leading to the discovery of coal, oil and gas for the first time in Kenya. But his tenure was not devoid of headaches. There were occasions, for example, when unprecedented fuel shortages rocked the country. Such was the case in 2011; the situation got so dire that Kibaki had to wade into the crisis and rally his Cabinet to assure the nation that the government was still on top of things.

The fuel shortage caused traffic snarl-ups as queues outside petrol stations spilt onto the roads. Meanwhile, profiteers in the local petrol industry took advantage of the crisis and horded fuel. Besides, they blatantly refused to sell more than KES 500 worth of fuel to any one motorist.

At the time, Murungi conceded that the energy sector was in a mess and convened a stakeholders’ meeting to chart a way out, as many people attributed the problems bedevilling the sector to strict government-imposed oil industry regulations and profiteering by oil companies.

The Ministry of Energy had introduced regulations prohibiting the importation of oil outside the ministry-coordinated Open Tender Supply system (OTS). Under this arrangement, all the oil imported into the country, including any that was headed for neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda, had to come into the country by one ship, imported by one player and shared by the rest according to market share.

Since private importation had been prohibited, all players had to patiently wait for supplies from the next OTS tender, even when their customers were in need of more supplies. Access to the only pipeline was regulated by a committee under the oversight of the ministry. At the time, truck loading facilities were available to only five players in Nairobi. This made the transfer of oil products from Kenya Pipeline depots to petrol stations painfully difficult and slow. These were some of the factors that caused fuel shortages during Murungi’s time at the ministry, where he served up to the end of Kibaki’s second term.

Thanks to his near-miraculous career in elective politics, the former Minister is hailed on the Mount Kenya political scene as the ‘King of Meru’, a title he inherited from Jackson Angaine who, like him, had dominated Meru politics. As a hero of the upper eastern region, Murungi had been Kibaki’s confidant since their DP days. He therefore enjoyed unrestricted access to the seat of power and the President’s ear.

At the end of Kibaki’s two-term presidency, the lives of Kibaki’s men took various turns. Some went into retirement with him. Others lost elections and consequently sank into political oblivion. Then there are others who reinvented themselves and transitioned into Uhuru Kenyatta’s regime. Murungi is among this last group.

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