Joseph Kamau Kamere – A victim of the times

To friends and foes alike, Joseph Kamau Kamere’s appointment as Kenya’s third Attorney General came as an absolute shocker. The only person who must have smiled, perhaps sardonically, for days on end at this most unlikely appointment was Charles Njonjo, independent Kenya’s pioneer AG and the man believed to have recommended Kamere to President Daniel arap Moi. In his book, The Black Bar, lawyer Paul Mwangi describes that even Kamere’s wife was aghast at the appointment and declared, “I was shocked and could not believe it.”

The hitherto unheard of attorney, by coincidence or otherwise, hailed from Kiambu District – the third in a row to come from that part of Kenya after Njonjo and James Karugu, who succeeded Njonjo. When Njonjo, arguably the most powerful AG the country has ever had, resigned from the position and entered the world of elective politics in 1979, he recommended that Karugu, his long-time assistant, take over from him. As fate would have it, Karugu would only last for slightly over one year in that office. Whereas Njonjo had been more of a political power broker and one not averse to dishing out favours and harbouring grudges to the loyal and the dissident in equal and unmitigated measure, Karugu would bring a brand of fierce professionalism to the office of the AG. After testing the waters, AG number two decided he was not about to do Njonjo’s or the government’s bidding unquestioningly, hence his hasty departure.

Hand-picked from private practice that was teeming with big names that could have made the office of the AG tick, but who were not looked upon favourably by the government of the day, Kamere’s appointment was apparently intended to scorn the crème de la crème among law practitioners, while at the same time keeping the incumbent on the shortest possible leash. It turned out that Kamere did not need to be leashed to keep pace with his masters. He is believed to have been completely compliant to Njonjo.

Unfortunately, even for a regime that wanted an AG at its beck and call, Kamere seemed not to suit their purposes. He was variously described in different quarters as “… tactless and lacking in decorum”. At one point in March 1982, fiery Member of Parliament Lawrence Sifuna accused Kamere of being among government ministers who had received unsecured loans from the Bank of Baroda when the bank was under investigation for illegal foreign exchange repatriation. A fuming Kamere threatened the MP with unspecified but dire legal action.

Responding to Sifuna’s allegations, Kamere said, “All the powers of the Attorney General are stipulated by the constitution and if the Attorney General uses those powers, it might be too bad for some people.” Kamere, who did not have an account with the bank, had allegedly received a loan of KES 3 million, a colossal amount at that time.

This indiscretion coincided with Kamere’s maiden attendance in the august House. Before the 2010 Constitution of Kenya came into force, Attorneys General in Kenya were ex-officio Members of Parliament and were therefore sworn in as such by the Speaker and allowed to make inaugural speeches.

When Kamere’s turn came up following his appointment, the AG took the opportunity in his maiden speech to thank President Moi for appointing him as AG since the appointment “… made him an honourable Member of Parliament without going through an election”.

He expressed sympathy for elected MPs who, as a result of spending their resources during the electioneering period, were “… heavily laden with debts” and could therefore not sleep properly at night. Kamere added that he, on the other hand, was free of debt and so slept like a baby as he had nothing to worry about.

These remarks, viewed as tactless and arrogant, caused an uproar in the House, with members demanding that the AG substantiate or apologise and withdraw his remarks.

Failure to this, the MPs demanded that Kamere resign altogether. Eventually and reluctantly, he withdrew his remarks. But because of this one incident, his general demeanour and other unfortunate blunders he repeatedly made, the MPs turned his appearances in the House into a nightmare.

Whenever he tried to move bills in Parliament, MPs humiliated him by cross-examining him on such trivia as grammatical mistakes and he was often sent back to correct minor errors. In any case, most of his bills were deemed defective and MPs cast doubt on them and eventually called for debate into his competence in law and the effect it had on his duties as the country’s AG.

Being a Njonjo ally and by extension a man who saw nothing good in his fellow Africans, Kamere was correspondingly hostile to the ‘black bar’ throughout his tenure as AG. In November 1981, he was invited to address members of the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) during an event organised to congratulate newly appointed judges.

In The Black Bar, Mwangi writes, “After consultation with Njonjo, Kamere demanded that the LSK furnish him with a copy of the speech that would be read by the Chairman of the Society as a condition for his attendance”. Lawyer Paul Muite, the LSK Vice Chairman at the time, was holding brief for Chairman Lee Muthoga and declined the request. Consequently, the AG did not attend the cocktail party and this, together with the speech Muite delivered, would form the basis of the sour relationship between the AG and the bar.

Muite presented what would popularly come to be known as his “colour of the goat” speech, in which he castigated Kamere for not attending the function. He likened the AG to a guest who, when invited to a goat-eating party, demanded to know the colour of the goat to be slaughtered. Kamere was not amused by this and held it against the LSK throughout his tenure.

The bar, in turn, did not make any efforts to accommodate him as exemplified by an occasion when he summoned Muthoga to his office. As LSK Chairman, Muthoga had made a speech criticising the Judiciary for its eagerness to accommodate the wishes of the Executive even when such wishes were illegal. When Muthoga arrived at the AG’s office, an indignant Kamere told him that he was awaiting instructions to institute contempt of court proceedings against the lawyer.

Muthoga mockingly speculated how and from whom an AG would be awaiting instructions to prosecute instead of going right ahead with it. The lawyer challenged the AG to charge him promptly if he had committed a crime. That was the end of the matter.

Mwangi further writes, “The government had thought Kamere would be a faithful errand boy, but had not reckoned with the requirement of intelligence. Kamere turned out to be good at carrying out instructions but terrible at managing his post. With his continuous professional blunders he became an embarrassment and liability to his masters”.

But the AG would not resign before a German businessman took him to court for improperly detaining his two luxury cars, a BMW and a Mercedes Benz. By that time Kamere had learnt that all power in that era was derived from the President and despite his high office, he in reality wielded very little power. Many civil servants subordinate to him were much more powerful because Moi decided they should be.

As the President prepared to clip the wings of his hitherto bosom buddy Njonjo and bring on board people who would pledge their loyalty directly to him and do his bidding without much prodding, he relieved Kamere of his job in January 1983. His place was taken by High Court judge Mathew Guy Muli.

Kamere started his law studies at the Adam’s College in South Africa but after two years he left and completed his studies at the London University between 1954 and 1961. Upon his return to Kenya, Kamere worked as a Resident Magistrate in Nakuru and Eldoret districts for four years before being appointed State Counsel in the AG’s Chambers. He spent three years in this position up to 1968, then opened his own law firm in 1969. His was a low-key practice and little was known of him or his firm until his appointment as AG.

Slightly younger than Njonjo, he was born on 7 July 1926 in Githunguri, Kiambu. He attended Githunguri Independent School from 1938 and Premier College Nairobi where he studied shorthand and typing between 1944 and 1946. Following this training, Kamere was employed as an interpreter and crime statistician at the East African High Court where he worked for six years up to 1952, when he left for further studies in South Africa.

His timidity notwithstanding, during his tenure as AG Kamere introduced the Statute Law (Miscellaneous Amendment Act) of 1981 that increased the number of puisne judges from 19 to 24. The move was aimed at speeding up the hearing of court cases. He also set up the Law Review Commission that came up with the Succession Law on inheritance.

During his tenure the Criminal Law Bill enacted the Criminal Procedure Code in which the Evidence Act stipulated a three-year jail term for giving false statements to the police. Kamere also introduced the Banking Act on client confidentiality with a KES 20,000 fine or a year in jail imposed for contravening it.


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