We call him Chief Comrade in our small band of ‘comrades’. He’s been a darling of us cartoonists and socio-political commentators. As Chief Justice, we critiqued him and made reasonable fun of him as is demanded in our work. But he is one of the tiny handful of state officers who are open to fair censure.
Willy Mutunga is unique, a man on a mission; he craves complete positive change in social justice purveyance, good governance and the utter triumph of the foundation of the principles of law.
Cartoonists target an individual’s mien, physical attributes and one’s position in society; the key ingredients for an editorial cartoon. Willy supplies all three. We have had varying commentary on his tenure and his reaction has always been unlike that of a holder of public office in Kenya. Gado, myself and other visual satirists (Gath, Kham, Celeste, Victor, Gammz) have known Willy since his civil society days. He took notice of us back then (OK, except for those who were still in college). He respects our work and is highly interactive. So dissimilar with the ‘big man’ syndrome of Kenya. In fact, to date, Willy remains one of the two top public officials who have ever openly commented positively on a cartoonist’s work. The other one was former President Mwai Kibaki who made encouraging remarks in his days as the Democratic Party chief (we ceased to exist when he became president though). The rest, our abrasive politicians, fat-cat state corporation chiefs and (some) private sector CEOs, are aloof to good humour, regarding us as ‘pesky vermins’.
One Saturday morning, Gado had a rather stinging depiction of Willy and promptly received a call. “Look, I agree, but…” There! At least the CJ concurred with the content of the cartoon but had the right to protest a perceived overstatement. The best compliments we get from politicians and their PAs is ‘don’t joke with us…’ Most don’t even want to be seen with us! We have been told this to the face by some former associates and even colleagues who entered political office.
Anyway, let’s look at the other side of this man who shares his birth year with the Indian nation. Though subtly, he is in charge of himself and his environment. Our meetings have always been tranquil social occurrences, platforms for exchange of opinions, thought and intellectual discourse, besides pleasant, engaging banter. Humour is an awesome asset to have as a human being and he grasps it.
We have a rather intriguing small band of ‘comrades’. Each of us has their diverse input. Gado will hold his listeners, not letting go of his point. I supply plenty of anecdotes. Liz, with a firm background in finance, is an amazing connoisseur of great wines and lucid conversation. Charles hauls in expert international news analysis. Chief Comrade speaks clearly and with purpose. Away from jurisprudence, he possesses a rich history which he easily shares and that to me should form the basis of an exciting docudrama; from his time at the University of Dar es Salaam where he had a peek into the future of Uganda by watching fellow student Yoweri Museveni – who was ahead of him – moving around with bodyguards to his being whisked into police cells years later for daring to speak truth to power. He’s a good listener and not domineering. When he was CJ, folks wondered why he wasn’t flaunting his status. He treats waiters and the mighty passing by with equal reverence. His simplicity is an awesome human virtue.
In his days at the head of the judiciary, Gado and I were always cautious on how much wine we imbibed during our outings. Imagine calling the Chief Justice next day to inform him that we had been nabbed by the breathalyzer corps. Though Willy had no idea, on the way home, we at times chased his official SUV and police escort just in case we ran into the sniffers. We wanted to look like part of the squat motorcade. The dead giveaway, though, would be our ageing automobiles.
Did we receive some favours from our ‘well-perched’ friend? Laughable. One day a senior uncle of mine, retired from government service, called me. “I hear you are close to the Chief Justice…” he announced with expectant accomplishment in his tone.
“Yes,” I confirmed.
“Now, I have this pending land case…” my highly respected, elderly kinsman began.
I cut him short. “We must grow out of the past, Unco,” I informed him as respectfully as I could sound. “Knowing someone in government should not really mean that they are there to ‘assist’ us whenever we have some issue”. He backed down.
Gado and I don’t kid ourselves. Change might take a few centuries given the setup and collective attitude we have in this country. But we must start somewhere. We were not going to be part of the continuation of the old order in subversion of justice. In any case, Willy would have frowned upon our making some request to influence the release of a buddy arrested for jumping red lights.
At one of our frequent dinners, Liz, Willy, Charles, Gado and I were joined by activist Boniface Mwangi. By the fate of the gods who control the calendar, Bonny was going to lead a public protest against the establishment’s excesses the very next day.
“You know Chief Comrade won’t spring you when you are (inevitably) arrested tomorrow?” Gado gleamed at him mischievously.
“I know,” Bonny answered cheerfully and we proceeded to dig into our dinner. Next day, the human rights campaigner was yanked from the street protest by beefy anti-riot cops wrapped in layers of crustacean body armor. He spent a day or two in the can with a charge of disrupting public order or something.
As a matter of fact, the CJ’s detractors were waiting for him to ‘slip’ and make their move: See? they would have shouted in glee, he ain’t holy!
We cartoonists have worked with Willy at various times from his time at the Kenya Human Rights Commission, during aspects of his engagement in the second liberation of Kenya and when he was the Regional Representative of Ford Foundation from where he lent considerable support to culture and the arts.
Away from academics and intellectualism, our friend can do an occasional jig as well. After he retired from the judiciary, Ketebul Music wrote and recorded a song titled Ndugu Jaji Mkuu for him which he cherishes. The lyrics are by the UK based guitarist Fiston Lusambo and music producer Tabu Osusa. The lead vocals were provided by the late Congolese singer Nzaya Nzayadio.
And so, do we discuss the Supreme Court ruling of 2013? Yes. Of course, it was applauded by many and was disappointing to many others. Willy has borne the brunt of that ruling from Raila Odinga’s supporters. Hardly considered is the fact that it was a collective decision from seven judges, each of whom he had assigned a function (including himself) leading to the arrival of the unanimous decision. His forthcoming memoirs examine this in greater detail.
We disagree with the tag that Willy was an ‘activist Chief Justice’. It is just that we Kenyans had not experienced a person of his ilk in public office before. In fact, this country needs hundreds of like-minded crusaders for justice and democracy in leadership positions to prevail and instill a just culture.
Done with the heat of public office, Chief Comrade has taken up a very comfortable role in writing and public speaking besides providing awesome company to cartoonists while exuding remarkable youthful energy.